For a number of years now, I’ve umpired baseball for various levels of play; from Little League up through high school. Typically, I will umpire somewhere between 35 and 40 games in a season; including some youth softball games as well.
I’ve often said that umpiring baseball is a lot like being a city manager. Except in baseball you get to wear a facemask, chest protector, and shin guards. If you really misbehave, I can eject you from the game and as an umpire my approval ratings never go below 50 percent.
In a typical nine inning baseball game, an umpire will make 350 strike/ball decisions and 54 out/safe calls; and did you know there are 100 inconsistencies in the baseball rulebook? In government, we have a local code of ordinances (our local rulebook) that consists of 1,300 pages, there is also state and federal law. There’s bound to be inconsistencies that requires interpretation based on training, experience and judgment. A study analyzed more than 700,000 pitches thrown during the 2008 and 2009 major league season and determined that the plate umpire was wrong 14 percent of the time on a non-swinging pitch. I’m bound to get a few wrong as both an umpire and as a city manager.
I’ve often been asked — both as a city manager and as an umpire — why do you do it? It’s an excellent question given the constant criticism, making decisions in a fishbowl, and operating in situations that can get down-right difficult.
So, why do I do it?
They’re not thankless jobs
It’s nice to hear from a fan that you don’t know say you called a good game, or a compliment from a citizen that you helped out, or seeing projects that the public enjoys like the new swimming pool and the South Park.
Working with some awesome partners
Roger Fritz is one of the best umpires I’ve worked with. He knows the rules, loves the game, and if you know Roger he’s funny. We’ve worked together as a team on so many games we know how each one thinks and reacts. After each game we discuss close plays and “what if this happened.” During a game, we can call time and get each others “what did you see” so we make the right call. I’ve also worked with a number of younger umpires. We learn from each other; what an early 50 year old needs to stay on top of his game and what a mid-to-late 20 year old needs to learn to improve his game. As a city manager, I worked with some outstanding mayors, council members, city staff and volunteers whose only agenda item is to do what’s best for Story City. We ask these same questions and a few more and we talk with each other so hopefully we can make the right decision for the community.
Someone has to do it
Challenging and stressful — you bet. It can be exciting to be the person making the call when there’s a play at the plate and the players, coaches, and fans are waiting on your call. Someone has to make the decision, be it right or wrong.
But, why do it? High school sports in Iowa are dealing with an alarming shortage of officials across all sports. Baseball umpires are down 25 percent in recent years as aging officials are getting out and not enough new ones are getting in.
I’ve often been asked
Have you ever had to eject someone? Yes, four times. Two have been coaches and two have been players. I simply won’t tolerate unsportsmanlike conduct on the field; got that from Grandpa Wilmarth. I haven’t had to eject a fan yet, but it has been close. As a fan and umpire I’ve noticed an increasing level of incivility from fans.
Why don’t younger ones do it? That’s simple — parents, fans and coaches. A rookie umpire or official is somehow expected to come in with 10 years of experience. They take a great deal of heat from parents, fans, and coaches who don’t agree with a call made on a play. People shouting and yelling at you doesn’t make it any easier. Parents, fans, and coaches are becoming more outspoken and is making it very difficult for officials. Personally, I’ve witnessed it at every level of play from little league through high school; and yes it’s getting worse. Why would any person want to put up with the heckling, ridicule, chirping, and arguing? Like anything else in life, it takes time and experience to learn the skills of the game.
Before the start of each game, I tell the coaches there are two rules: 1) The umpire is always right, and 2) If the umpire is wrong see rule #1. Which those with a sense of humor chuckle. I also tell them we will make mistakes, but so will they and so will their players. But, above all have fun — it’s just a game.
As a city manager someone has to do it. Like umpiring, we have managers that are retiring and not enough “next generation” to fill the void. I do feel fortunate to be the city manager in Story City. There isn’t nearly the “heckling” I get from citizens compared to what I hear from some of my colleagues in other communities. Thank you!
Most Important Player
The catcher — someone to protect me from getting hurt too badly. You take some pretty good body shots from wild pitches and foul balls. So the bigger the better. One quick story, I was umpiring a game and the catcher was like 6’2”; big player and the batter was around 6’3” and it was a 3-2 count and the pitch was right around the letters — call could go either way. I called ball four. The catcher turns around and says, “you can call those strikes up there you know. Which I replied, “get me a step ladder and I will.” The catcher replied, “Good point.”
Most important player at the city? The City Clerk and Treasurer — I’ve had two great ones in Pat Twedt and Dena Nichols along with Amy Crabbs at City Hall — they protect me from wild pitches I may throw or foul balls that come from the community.
There is always one fan whose voice seems to cut through all the others. Doesn’t necessarily have to be the loudest or a heckler. There is just something in the voice. Typically, it’s a mother’s voice; don’t ask me why. Dr. Chuck Semler is one of those voices and one of my favorite fans. He likes to have a little fun ribbing me. But I tell him, “These glasses were prescribed by your daughter, so you need to take it up with her.” As a city manager, the voice I hear is my wife Elizabeth. After 25 years of marriage, I better be listening to her.
Again, why do I do both?
It’s really simple, “For Love of the Game.” Being a city manager like umpiring baseball takes first and foremost a love and passion for what you are doing, wanting to learn more, and serving others. There’s nothing like seeing a batter hitting one in the gap or kids going down the new yellow family slide at the pool. There is nothing like seeing a great curveball (or knuckleball) coming in over the plate for a strike or people getting healthy working out at the recreation center. There is nothing like being the base umpire for a night game when it’s dark and the lights are on or taking a run on the pedestrian/bicycle trail.
There are skills used in both: Good communication, being fair, being positive, taking in all the information when making a decision, and having a thick skin for you know some won’t agree with your decision and some calls might be wrong.
Call them as I see them
There is a 2008 movie titled, “Vantage Point.” It tells the story of a crime as seen through the eyes of eight individuals from eight different points of view, from multiple and differing perspectives, and from various (eight) vantage points.
As a citizen or fan we all tend to see things from our own, “Vantage Point,” and the decision made by an umpire or a public official may be different based upon their “Vantage Point.” I just call them as I see them.
Finally, play ball!