Pretend you went back in time to when you were 14 years old, in the 8th grade. You’ve been around sports your whole life, and have become a pretty decent two-sport athlete for your age. For the past couple years you’ve tried to figure out a way to earn some money in the summer. You’ve been cutting lawns for neighbors, and now this year you’re old enough to begin umpiring baseball games. You love baseball, so you plan to attend the training meeting for the local league’s umpires. Innocent enough, right?
This is the situation my youngest son is in as he looks ahead to the next few months. He is eager to get to work, but if I’m honest, I’ve got some reservations about him becoming an umpire. Years ago, each of my three older boys gave umpiring a try. These sons of mine are smart, reliable kids who have a solid background in sports. They were as qualified as any teenager was going to be to do the job, and yet, after a season or two each of them decided they’d had enough of parents and coaches yelling at them.
Will my fourth son’s experience be any different? Has the treatment of officials at youth games over the past four years changed for the better? I don’t think it has, not from what I’ve seen. There’s a whole lot we could say about the way officials are harassed at games played by our children. Just the other day I got an email from the National Federation for High School Athletics about a consortium that has been assembled to strategize about the national shortage of officials, as over 50,000 have quit over the past three years. I emailed the NFHS and told them there was no need for a consortium, and that the only needed solution is for schools and youth organizations to adopt a zero tolerance policy toward the berating of officials. Nothing else will fix this problem. But I’m done talking about the way we treat officials in general. That’s not the point of this letter.
The point of this letter is to help you, the parents and coaches of those young children, to realize that my 14-year old umpire is also being placed in your care. He is not an experienced umpire. He’s hardly an experienced human being! He’s going to get a few tough calls wrong because he’s human. And he’ll get some close ones right that you won’t agree with because you’re human.
Parents, imagine if I came to the game, watched your 9-year-old strike out, and began yelling at him about what a terrible job he did at the plate. A stranger with no connection to that child, and I decide that it’s OK for me to verbally let him have it. You’d be outraged, and rightly so. That behavior is objectively unacceptable. Well, it’s not that different for those parents who choose to get loud with a teenager working in his first season as an umpire.
Coaches, you have an opportunity here. When my son makes a call you disagree with, you’ll have a chance to show him how a true adult handles conflict. Please don’t put my child in a spot where he is required to stand up to you as a peer. He’s in middle school. Help him. Coach him. That’s your role. And coach the other parents. They will need a reminder of their role as well.
Maybe there are some who disagree with me, and think kids nowadays are “soft” and umpires “should have thicker skin.” This point of view is tragic. Where else in our society is it acceptable to berate another person for trying to do a job? Absolutely nowhere. And it’s absolutely unacceptable at a ballgame as well.
The 2022 baseball season is the first one my youngest son will be umpiring. Let’s remember that the people on the field are our collective responsibility—not only the players, but the umpires as well.