Getting more to say, `Play ball'

Baseball: Two county baseball organizations are raising standards for umpires at youth games while making the traditionally thankless job more desirable.

Howard At Play

April 01, 2001|By M.K. Livengood | M.K. Livengood,SUN STAFF

It's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it.

So, two county baseball organizations - the Columbia Youth Baseball Association and the Howard County Youth Program - are working to improve quality and quantity of umpires, adding thanks - and respect - to a usually thankless task.

CYBA President Mike Swartz, who runs his own public relations company, saw a business situation. The professional umpiring association that sent umpires to CYBA games simply did not have the supply to meet the demand. Umpires assigned to CYBA games had a 40 percent no-show rate, he estimated.

Out of that frustration was born CYBA's parent-umpire program, now beginning its third season. Prospective umpires attend a mandatory training session, conducted by Swartz, which is a primer on the game's rules. Parent-umpires, used for players younger than 13, are paid per game by vouchers ($10 for working home plate, $5 for bases) that can be used toward their child's registration fee the next year.

The program was a bit of a tough sell, even for a public relations guy.

"No one trusted a parent," said Swartz. "What we have found is quite the opposite. Impartiality has worked in reverse - parents are extra hard on their own team."

Two strategies reduce concerns of bias: Each team provides one of the game's umpires, and regular-season standings do not determine seedings for the playoffs.

A recent survey of managers and coaches gave Swartz a nice surprise: 75 percent of respondents said the program should continue, and 85 percent said the umpiring was adequate or better. About 40 parents participated last season; 60 or so are expected this spring.

Charles I. Ecker, a former Howard County executive who is interim superintendent of Carroll County schools, is a program participant. He once called games managed by his son, Donald, and played in by a grandson, Michael.

Ecker had the benefit of being a more experienced umpire, having coached, managed and umpired previously, so he wasn't intimidated as some parents are.

His advice? "Try to be objective and fair to everyone. Relax, and remember the kids are there to have fun."

Howard County Youth Program traditionally has used teen-agers to officiate younger players' games. That practice has taken on a new dimension under the guidance of John Hein, who first umpired games as a volunteer at age 13.

"He's raised the caliber of our teen-age umpiring crew dramatically over the past three years," said the new baseball commissioner, David Cooke. "He played in HCYP as a boy and is a true poster boy for the program, if there ever was one."

Pulling someone out of the stands when an ump doesn't show is a thing of the past for HCYP. Candidates must pass a written test, in addition to classroom and on-field training sessions administered by Hein. Regular paychecks, with standard tax deductions, are issued (per-game payment ranges from $15 to $27). And, there are uniforms.

About 80 teens have participated in the past two seasons under Hein. This year, 60 are returning, meaning there is room for only 20 newcomers. So, team-like cuts might have to be made.

Dan Hanson, a River Hill senior who started umpiring when he was in eighth grade, will be HCYP's crew chief this season.

"It was a good job, and it was better than flipping hamburgers over the summer," said Hanson, who hasn't played since hurting an arm as a sophomore. "I liked it so much that I stuck with it, but now I'm doing it because I like ... teaching the kids baseball. Its a fun atmosphere to get into. "

Well, not always fun.

"The hardest part is when parents start yelling at you. But, that's one of the things you've got to deal with," said Hanson. It's more of a chore "when parents forget that it's a game. It's not the kids I have a problem with - it's the parents and the coaches."

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