THE STRIKE ZONE
Sometimes Sports, Sometimes Sportsmanship
This season, former MLB outfielder Gary Sheffield contributed to a piece for The Player's Tribune under the guise of being Commissioner of MLB for a day. Some of his ideas were legit (the Wild Card playoff should be a series), while others were contentious (the DH should be in the National League). However, a few were down right stupid.
Sheffield's first point of ridiculousness surrounds the idea of throwing at batters. He believes that hitters should be allowed to charge the mound and retaliate against pitchers who purposely throw at hitters.
I'm going to stop and let that sink in for a second...
I really don't have to continue writing to prove how lost Sheffield is, but for the sake of the piece, let's keep going.
Second point: the sliding rules (bona fide slide and catchers blocking the plate) have made us soft. Sheffield actually endorses the idea of hurting a guy to break up a double play. He equates it to contesting a jump shot in basketball.
I'm no basketball genius, but I'm pretty sure trying to block a jump shot doesn't involve a high speed collision where someone could end up with a broken leg.
What else does he say that will make you bleed from your ears? Instant replay is ridiculous. The infield shifts should be banned (he actually called the sport "computer-geek ball"). And the best part? MLB is not strict enough in suspensions for testing positive for performance enhancing drugs.
Wait a minute, Gary. Aren't you a cheater? Didn't you get caught using steroids?
An article by Ryan Ocenada for theladders.com this year gave us another insight into the world of sports officials. It specifically noted five things that the common man can take from the life of the official and use in his or her own life.
Specifically, those five things were:
1. Criticism rarely goes away, so get used to it.
2. Keep your cool, no matter how bad the other guy is.
3. Control your ego and don't flip out when you're questioned.
4. Be prepared and know your job inside and out.
5. Be charming and well-presented.
So much of that makes sense in any walk of life, whether considering your profession or your personal life. How many times have we been in a bad mood around our significant other and lost our cool when we were questioned, no matter whether we were right or not? How many times have we needed to know the minute details of our job in order to persuade our boss that we are competent? How many times have we sealed a deal simply by looking good?
That's right, so much in officiating is actually controlled by looking the part. If you walk onto the field with clean and pressed clothes, speak properly, and calmly and respectfully interact with people, you could potentially not know anything about the sport, but coaches may believe you! This point has been proved time and again with the many examples in both business and pleasure, from persuading customers to purchase things they don't need to getting a date.
But consider the one point about how criticism doesn't go away. It's the unfortunate truth about how we can find people being critical of everything everywhere. The non-stop news cycle and their respective pundits are constantly doing this. Media members have to write opinionated pieces to sell their product. It makes you wonder why it has to be that way. Taking it a step further, are you a catalyst to that?
You don't have to be. Nobody does. That's not to say you're not entitled to your opinion. Sometimes criticism is necessary, even constructively. Perhaps the better plan is to simply think about what you're feeling before you express it. After all, there will always be criticism out there...you don't have to contribute to it.
And the many sports officials will thank you for considering that before yelling at them.
This year, I had the pleasure of umpiring a consolation game in high school baseball tournament. The game featured two varsity teams from nearby who were facing off after being eliminated from championship contention. I felt very honored that I would be given this opportunity after 11 years of service to high school umpiring.
During the game, there was a close play that occurred at the plate where my partner made the right call, albeit a dicey one. The coach of the team that was not pleased by the call came out to argue with my partner, who did check with me to make sure that we agreed on the call (and we did). After trying to explain to the coach why we were sticking with the original call made (which was the proper call), the coach decided to end the argument with a parting shot at my partner. "That's why you're working a consolation game!"
In the world of officiating, making personal comments towards an official is grounds for immediate ejection. People can disagree with the call without calling your ability as an official into question. Further, why is it necessary to even go there? Do people actually feel insulted when a call goes against their team? If so, there are deeper issues in play!
Regardless, a word to the wise: don't make it personal with officials. Most officials will be happy to explain their calls and certain adjudications to you. In fact, some officials enjoy the company and the conversation! After all, officials don't have any friends on the field, so chatting with someone over a call can be like having tea with a friend!
The epilogue to my story? My partner didn't eject the coach. After the game, I asked him why, thinking I would have tossed him immediately. His answer? "If I have to stay and watch a game that bad, he's going to sit there with me!"
The state of Kansas had an interesting problem this year. Due to significant inclement weather, many high school sports were forced to reschedule their games into a more condensed fashion. The problem was actually widespread; it was not just applicable to one sport or season.
But within that issue was another issue: there were not enough officials to cover all of these rescheduled assignments on a given day.
Now, in fairness, this problem was somewhat unique. When you take a schedule that is properly spread out over a decent amount of time and are forced to condense it into a smaller window, there's definitely going to be some people scrambling. It actually happened to me this year! Due to rain, I was scheduled to work a last-minute doubleheader on Mother's Day!
However, the article that discussed this issue in Kansas looked into the other causes or related factors. The results were not surprising.
The number of people who leave officiating (or who never enter it when they should) continues to grow due to three common factors: the pay, the hours, and the lack of respect.
The hours are an unfortunate conflict, and there really isn't a solution for this. High school sports are usually played immediately after school, and the average working adult doesn't leave work until 5pm. So the chances of getting out early to make a 4pm start are not always high. Not everyone has the ability to change their schedule to get to games. The perfect people for jobs as officials are teachers, the self-employed, and the retired...or professional musicians.
The pay is an interesting discussion. In New Jersey high school baseball, varsity officials make $81 per game. Sub-varsity officials (JV through middle school) make $60 per game (unless you're working by yourself, in which case you make a varsity fee). And in Mercer County, we are fortunate enough to negotiate for some travel fees for schools that fall outside our county-contracted schools. It's not a terrible rate (especially for varsity); whether you do the math based on the time you spend actually on the field, or if you factor in travel and prep time, it actually seems somewhat fair for what amounts to a part-time job.
The issue with pay actually lends itself into the argument regarding the lack of respect. For the amount of abuse that officials take, the pay simply doesn't seem like it's enough. In fact, an interesting argument within baseball officials is whether or not fewer arguments would occur if the standard for officiating was to use three officials instead of two. Of course, though, adding a third official would require more money from the schools. And if pay is already where it is, it's doubtful schools will have the budget for that.
Outside of the pay, though, the lack of respect can take on a life of its own. Many officials deal with so much abuse that they determine officiating is not for them and quit. One wonders how those abusers would feel if they knew that their antics actually caused a human being to quit his or her profession of officiating.
Regardless of how it is dissected, though, the fact that the number of officials continues to decline while the average age of the officials increases is one that points to an obvious truth: we need officials, especially if we are going to keep youth sports going.
Baseball player, umpire, coach, fan; professional musician; founder, President & CEO of The OSIP Foundation, Inc.