What does it take to go from sitting in the stands watching a game to on the field as part of the game? A lot of time and energy. Working a game as an umpire means spending hours studying the rules and mechanics, getting physically fit to meet the demands of calling a game, and suiting up with all the proper safety equipment before stepping on the field.
What does it take to go from umpiring a game to sitting in the stands? One pitch. I received this painful reminder Saturday afternoon. I was the home plate umpire for a 17U game. In the top of the 5th inning, the pitcher threw a fastball chest high, the left handed batter swung and fouled the pitch back. This minor redirection meant the baseball slammed into the right side of my throat. I do not know if I was slightly out of position in my stance, if my chest protector had slid down, or how the ball missed my mask, I wear the hockey style mask, and throat guard. All I know is I never want to experience that pain again.
Derek working behind the plate before getting hit in the throat later in the game. (The Winning Run/ SCL)
As luck would have it my parents and wife were watching my call the game, they were sitting 20 feet away. They said I dropped like I had been shot. I remember getting hit and I remember landing on the ground, I do not remember falling. After what seemed like forever, but was probably only a few seconds I was moving around collecting myself. I was trying to determine if I was hurt or injured. I sat up and started to move around. A coach waiting to play the next game came on the field to examine me. He is an ICU doctor. He said I was ok, but if my head started to hurt or if my neck swelled I needed to go to the Emergency Room immediately. I felt well enough to continue, so after reassuring my wife and parents and we continued the game.
At the end of the half inning my head started hurting and I was having difficulty turning my head. Clearly I had no business on a baseball field. The coach/ doctor checked me out again and said I needed to head directly to the Emergency Room. After several hours at the Emergency Room, the doctor said I am fine beyond some swelling and bruising. Relieved I avoided serious injury, I thought about how easily it could have turned out very differently.
The best I can describe getting hit in the throat with a fouled off fastball is imagine you are in a serious car crash but only to your throat. My entire right right is still sore from the impact. My throat is swollen, I still cannot full turn my head side to side. It is difficult to find a comfortable position to sit or lay down. I sound like I have been a heavy smoker for the last 50 years.
Jesse working behind the plate at Georgia Gwinnett College. (The Winning Run/ DJ)
I asked my wife and parents individually if I turned my head at all before the ball hit me. They all said I did not move. Flinching is dangerous when you are umpiring behind the plate. If you are moving around you are opening yourself up to pain and injury. Even in some magical world where I knew the pitch was coming for my throat after it touched the bat, there is not enough time for me to move.
Even when you do everything correctly, there is no guarantee you will leave the field uninjured. It may be a baseball or a bat or a non-contact injury that ends your career. No one stays on the field forever. One pitch can hasten your leaving the field for the last time only return as a spectator. Cherish every moment, good and bad, you are on the field. You never know when you step off the field for the last time.
The romanticized version of baseball has the players as the boys of summer. Playing a children’s game on an immaculate diamond in perfect weather. In reality, those boys of summer are sweating under the hot midday sun. The umpires are feeling the heat even more than the players, literally and figuratively. Amateur baseball is almost never played in a stadium, usually it is just a diamond, some fencing, and not much else. Once summer hits in earnest, the sun begins to cook the diamond and those on it.
Umpiring during the summer can be exhausting. The games begin to blur together, especially if you work a weekend tournament. Three, four, five, or even six games in a day takes a mental tole on you in the best conditions. Switching out with a partner to break up working games behind the plate or in the field does help maintain your mental focus, but regardless of position the time on the field wears on you. Adding to the stress and strain are parents and coaches who sometimes forget baseball is just a game. One of the first things you learn when you begin umpiring is if you take everything people say about a call you made to heart you will not make it as an umpire. Studying the rule book, proper mechanics, proper angles, and hustle are an umpires best friend. Taking all of these challenges then adding 100 degree heat can make the best umpires question themselves.
On almost every close call umpires are making at least half the people ate a game unhappy. (Alan Mothner /Associated Press)
It is a hot summer day, then put on plate shoes, pants, ball bags, a chest protector, and a mask. This is a recipe to make it look like you went swimming. Personally I wear the hockey mask which gives me better protection around my entire head, but what I gain in protection I lose in air flow. The hockey masks breathes fairly well, but at a certain point sweat begins to pour down your face. My chest protector has a band across the chest, which pushes it away from my body slightly. This allows better airflow, and keeps me cooler. While the band helps prevent heat rash, it does not mean I am cool, only I am cooking not being broiled. My shin guards and plate shoes fit snugly against my legs and feet. As you would imagine what I gain in protection I lose in coolness. I also wear a cup, I will never step on a baseball field without on. Getting hit in the cup is painful enough, I have no desire to experience what it is like getting hit there without a cup. Every piece of equipment is necessary to protect me. I would never work behind the plate without all of it on. A single missed pitch by the catcher or foul ball are not worth the extra coolness.
Umpires move on every pitch. This constant motion, especially in the heat, wears you down. Squatting behind the plate and in the field to watch the pitch. Moving from behind the plate, down the first base line to watch for a pulled foot at first, or moving out to gain a better angle on a fly ball to the outfield. Running with the runner around the bases to ensure they touch each base and to be in a good position to make an accurate call regardless of the base. Umpires are constantly moving and they do not retreat to a dugout between innings. Finding any amount of shade, no matter how small is an oasis on a desert diamond. The fight to stay hydrated and eat enough to maintain your physical health is vital if an umpire is going to survive a long hot weekend.
Night games can be a saving grace. Jesse might still be hot, but at least the sun is no longer beating down on him. (The Winning Run/ DJ)
Umpiring in the heat is no joke. If you do not take care of yourself before and during the games, you can quickly find yourself in big trouble. Dehydration and sunburn are painful reminders that you were not prepared for the conditions. Any endeavor which requires long stretches of focus and physical exertion quickly teach you to take care of yourself. You did not get enough sleep last night? Great, you will be missing pitches and hearing about it from coaches and fans. You have been eating a garbage diet? You probably will not withstand the physical toll multiple games in a day takes on you. You were not hydrated to start the day and/or you have not continued to hydrate in the heat? Your muscles will cry for mercy, your mental focus will escape you, and once you have dug yourself a hole it is nearly impossible to get out while on the field.
Few people begin umpiring for the money. It is a nice side job, but doing it for the money will quickly show, as money is not always the best motivator to improve. Every baseball game has three teams; the home team, the visiting team, and the umpires. I do not mean the umpires are trying to win or make calls against a team. Each team has a job to do; the home and visiting team are trying to score the most runs before the end of the game, the umpires are working to ensure the game is played according to the rules of baseball. When an umpire does not properly prepare for a game they are letting their partner down. Yes, the heat can get to anyone, no matter how well prepared they are. This does happen. However, everyone should do their best to be ready for what awaits them on the diamond. The pressure cooker that is umpiring only gets more intense as the temperature rises.
As the beginning of the 2018 season is upon us, it is a good time to take stock of the lessons learned during the 2017 season. My first season of umpiring baseball gave me a million lessons about what to do and what not to do. Continuing to learn from the rule book and training to withstand the physical toll of umpiring have been constant throughout the winter.
I umpired 154 games last season. This is not something I am bragging about it is just a fact, I firmly believe in quality over quantity. As the summer began to fade into fall, I could feel my body getting tired. Entering my second season I have a better understanding on how to prepare for the physical demands of umpiring by the painful lessons of last season.
Umpiring demands focus on three areas of fitness. The most obvious is the legs. You are constantly squatting and running throughout the game. If your legs are not in shape then you will not last through multiple games in a day. You back and neck have to be strong due to the hits your take from foul balls. There is rarely time to react to a foul ball straight back, so having a strong back and neck keeps you safe from the impact of the ball, and prevents you from getting knocked down. Finally, to make it through an entire season of umpiring you need to be flexible. The literal twists and turns of the season demands a lot from your body and if your body cannot move the way it needs to, sooner or later you will pull a muscle.
Best and only picture of me umpiring my first season of baseball. I worked a tournament at UC Health Stadium, home of the Florence Freedom. My wife took the photo before moving to the other side of the stands to get away from fans who were unhappy with my calls. (The Winning Run/ SCL)
Beyond the physical aches and pains from umpiring, here is a brief rundown of where I was hit by foul balls last season. I would break down the types of hits I took into three types: protected by my equipment, the ball found me, and BOOM. I took countless hits in my shins, feet, chest, and helmet throughout the year. Yes you still feel the force when you get hit. However, my equipment did its job and the only delay in the game was putting the ball back into play. If I have to get hit, sign me up for these type of hits. The second type, I would describe as the ball finding me. Oh you do not have your elbow tucked or your forearm hidden properly. Wham. Much like the hits that bounce off my equipment these hits are usually just part of the game and they just happen to find you where you do not have protection. Getting hit in the arms, thighs, hips, and stomach never feels good. Usually my arms would tingle and aches and I would wake up the next morning with a nice bruise in the shape of a baseball. No one likes taking these hits, however positioning yourself properly reduces, but does not eliminate this punishment. The BOOM type hits are the hits that cause you to delay the game while you collect yourself. I got hit twice in the neck from foul balls, way too many times in the cup (always get the best equipment you can for your cup and mask), and directly off the face mask. Getting hit in the neck was both bad luck and a mistake in my positioning, which has since been corrected. The hits to the cup and mask are parts of umpiring that no one wants. Usually it only takes a few seconds before you are ready to go again, however after getting hit in the neck and cup I needed a few minutes before I was ready for the game to continue. You have to be confident, and a little loony, to get back behind the plate again so soon after getting hit, but you do what the game requires.
Baseball is a tough game played by tough people. I learned a very important and painful lesson in 2017 that the same goes for the umpires. I cannot wait to get back on the field in the spring and go through the pain, heat, misery, and joy for the game I love.