Open-Mic: What Most Sports Fans Are Afraid of in Umpires and Referees

Uncle Rico Touchdown MountainCorrespondent IMay 21, 2008


Most fans are quick to complain about officials. Few are willing to don the uniform.  

I umpired my first game when I was 11 years old. I umpired Little League games in which I was not playing, and earned $7 a game in those days for two games every Saturday. I even received a free soda and a dog at the concession stand.

I felt pretty good about that.

Not that I couldn't afford them myself—drinks were a dime and hot dogs were a quarter.  No relish or onions for me though.  Just ketchup and mustard.

When I went to college, I was driving a pizza car for a new place called Dominoes. We were the second town in the country to have them. I had hung up my hopes and dreams on playing baseball. I wasn't going to get any money on scholarship after realizing in JC ball that I couldn't hit the curve. I loved the game though.

A buddy of mine had returned from umpire school. He would come home and tell me about the games he just had, but I was more congenial than I was interested.

Then, he got my attention.

"George needs you to work a game for him.  You'll make $17". George was an old guy who gave out assignments, and $17 was more than I would make in a night driving pizzas. I was interested!

My friend went through the proper positioning with me so I was ready for game time. My very first game was the state tournament.

It was a blast—I loved the game and I was getting paid again to participate in it.

It ended 3-2. Two close plays. Both teams came up to me and told me that I had a good game and they liked that I hustled. I smiled inside, wondering what they might think if I just blurted out that it was my first game.

It really wasn't—I had two years of experience underneath the big old pillow of a chest protector prior to "retiring" at thirteen. 

Before I knew it, I was doing games every day if I could. I even had the dish. I would borrow equipment that my partners had. You always were assigned to a partner.  

One of my best friends was drafted out of high school and I recognized the scout that signed him at one of the games. I went up and introduced myself. He was the grandfatherly type that immediately asked me how my studies were.

He invited me out to dinner.

At dinner he asked if I'd to mention players to him, because he couldn't get to every game. He then gave me his phone number and told me to call and get the number from his wife, to the hotel at which he was staying. Back in those days, there were no such things as cell phones.

I would see him perhaps once or twice a month that summer. He would always take me out for a bite to eat if we had time. He always picked up the tab. One night he told me, "I want you to call Bud Middaugh at Michigan and volunteer to do his spring game for him."

I did.

I then had referrals to the Big 10 non-conference games and MAC non-conference (I was going to school at a MAC school at that time.)

It was great.

I was making as much as $70/game for a couple hours of work while in college. I was out on the diamond at different colleges while the girls sat on the hillside or in the bleachers in their sun dresses. I was getting paid for this!

Often, I would work a double header and make more in a day than I would in a week driving pizzas, and considerably more than my friends would by flipping burgers full time.

I did go to umpire school a couple of times, but those are other stories for other articles. I never made the pros.

What I did learn from the experience, though, was how to deal with people. I learned to be on time. I learned how to concentrate.

I also learned the rules.

Learning the rules was amazing in itself. I always thought I knew them. I then found out that most people always thought they knew them and they really don't, especially the announcers.

Perhaps the worst offenders are those who were managers and Hall of Fame players. (This is true in every sport.)

If you want to learn about the rules, don't pay attention to the announcers. Pick up a rule book. In fact, the announcers and managers should be required to go to umpire school. They'd learn about the game that they think they know.

I'd also imagine that they'd lay off the folks who get it right about 99.9 percent more than they get it wrong. I doubt that will ever happen. For some reason, people are afraid to get involved. They think some scary monster is going to get them. They are afraid to do what they criticize so much of—the officials.

In future columns, I'll see what I can pen together on some of the other sports I've worked, and perhaps my experiences at umpire school. Maybe even a few stories about some of the players I've called games for who played in the big leagues. I'll know by your comments and suggestions if I should.

The one thing I would like you to do is share this with a high school or college student. All sports need more young officials and not only will the young up-and-comers earn some good money over the summer and while back at school next year, they'll learn invaluable skills that they'll use for the rest of their life.

There is nothing to fear.