While college baseball rapidly evolves, some coaches question whether the men behind the plate are keeping up.
By Guillermo Metz
Guillermo Metz is an Assistant Editor at Coaching Management.
College baseball isn't what it used to be. By most accounts, it's better. For one thing, the level of play has been increasing as talented young players choose a college education over a direct route to the pros. In addition, television exposure has brought in some much-needed money, making it possible for the game to be upgraded in several ways.
Through all this, however, many coaches are wondering if the non-players on the field--the umpires--are keeping up. In the last few years, the level of professionalism among umpires has certainly increased, and the NCAA has made a concerted effort towards improving their status on and off the field. But many people are still asking why umpires don't have a standard national training program, why they are still making as little as $60 per game, and why, in some conferences, coaches are still allowed to handpick who officiates their games. In short, many coaches and umpires maintain that the profession of umpiring has not quite kept pace with the changing game.
"We have to step it up, because the game is getting better every year," says Dave Yeast, Coordinator of the NCAA's National Umpire Program. "College baseball has progressed so much in the last 10 to 15 years, but officiating has not kept up."
The process for upgrading officials has certainly been started. "Umpires are much better trained these days and in much better shape," says John Magnusson, President of Florida Collegiate Umpires, Inc., one of the many amateur umpires' associations in the country, comparing his profession now to when he began working in college baseball 25 years ago. "Coaches know that we take the job very seriously and there's a lot of mutual respect. Twenty years ago, everybody knew each other, it was more casual and like a fraternity, and there wasn't as much pressure if someone won or lost a game."
Bob Warn, Head Coach at Indiana State University, started coaching a few years before Magnusson became an umpire, and he agrees with that assessment. "Everybody looks upon it more as a profession and they take it more seriously," he says.
First of all, the umpires' knowledge of the rules and their interpretations, along with the mechanics of officiating, have improved. The reason this has happened, says Yeast, is because the umpire associations are working harder to hold more clinics and show more videos to help train their members. In addition to mastering the rules, umpires are also stressing their personal appearance on and off the field, which has contributed a great deal to the increased level of respect the profession has attained.
"We have a four-hour meeting of all the umpires (in Florida Collegiate Umpires, Inc.) coming up," says Magnusson, "and in it, we'll spend three hours on professionalism, getting the job done."
A lot of the changes have originated with the NCAA's National Umpire Program, which has gone through some restructuring in the last year and a half. Since its inception in 1990, the National Umpire Program has been primarily involved in two areas: training umpires through clinics and producing videos detailing new rules and their interpretations; and assigning umpires for Division I regionals and the College World Series. Under Yeast, who took over the Coordinator position from Jon Bible last year, these areas have been strengthened, and he is working on implementing even more new ideas.
"When Jon resigned, it prompted the NCAA to take a look at how to update the Program and restructure it to address some of the latest concerns," says Yeast.
The first step of the restructuring involved the creation of the National Umpire Committee, whose main purpose was to empower the NCAA with "more people out identifying potential umpires for regionals and the College World Series," Yeast explains. Overseen by Yeast, the Committee is composed of four national umpire evaluators, each one handling a geographical area of the country, and each having close ties to the major umpires' associations in their area. The new system also employs 33 advisory board members who evaluate umpires--one for each of the 29 conferences who have automatic bids to the post-season tournament plus a few extra to work with the larger conferences--and turn their evaluations over to the Committee. Yeast says this system has drastically increased the number of umpires who can be evaluated and considered for the 48 slots available each year for the championships.
Dan O'Connell, President of the Midwest Umpires Association, praises the NCAA's efforts. "You've always had guys working at the upper level of the NCAA games who are excellent, but there are now more of their numbers throughout the ranks," he says. "(With the latest changes), the NCAA has added depth and reached out to quite a few more quality umpires."
Bill Rowe, Jr., Athletic Director at Southwest Missouri State University, and Chair of the NCAA Baseball Rules Committee, agrees, saying, "I think it's the best system we've had."
Other changes that have taken place since restructuring of the National Umpire Program include instituting a national rules test, which was begun in 1996 and which is required of anyone wanting to officiate at the Division I level. (Virtually all umpires covering college games have come up through the high school ranks, which has a certification program, but the NCAA test provides an added level of credibility.) Yeast adds that the NCAA will also be administering a mechanics test starting in 1998.
Room for Improvement
Ron Wellman, Athletic Director at Wake Forest University and head of the NCAA Division I Baseball Committee, is quick to praise the strides that have been made, but, like many coaches, athletic directors, and the umpires themselves, he'd like to see more. "I think umpiring has come a long way and the level of professionalism is way up, but there's still room for improvement," he says.
One thing he'd like to see addressed is that "there's no well-established training across the country," he says. "Standard training nationwide would improve things because of subtle differences in the way calls are made on the east coast as compared to the west coast."
"What's being done is excellent. It's not enough, but it's a start," agrees Magnusson. Addressing a similar concern as Wellman, he'd like to see more of the intensive training videos the NCAA produces. "Those videos do work," he says. He would also like for them to be more widely distributed, noting that, "not everyone has the opportunity to go to the clinics," where the videos are shown.
Dale Williams, commissioner of the Southern California Collegiate Umpire's Association, agrees that these are recurring problems. He got his start in collegiate baseball in 1963, and has worked at eight College World Series and 20 regionals. He says that things are much better today than when he started, but still believes that the communication from the top could be better.
"For example, Bill Thurston makes the rules interpretations for the NCAA," he says. "He does a good job, but that's one guy, and the information doesn't always get transmitted to everyone. Not every association can afford to send somebody to the national clinics."
To address these problems, Yeast is considering forming a National Amateur Baseball Umpire's Association to help the roughly 75 local associations that primarily work with colleges.
"It's just getting off the ground, but it may be a factor in 1999," he says. "The national association would coordinate with local organizations and be involved with a certification process. Most of the local associations have a certification process, but it's not standard nationally.
"It would also coordinate more clinics and camps to provide training and review the rules interpretations," he explains. Because the NCAA doesn't have the resources for such a program, it would be separate from the NCAA, as he envisions it, supported financially by local associations, but it would serve as a valuable uniting body as well as a clearinghouse for materials from the NCAA and other groups.
O'Connell is enthusiastic about the formation of such an association, saying that a "national association puts everybody on the same page, with the same agenda. It would also help bolster our image and our strength."
Another area that a national association of umpires could help with is the fight against the practice of red-lining. There are still a few conferences where the coaches hire the umpires, which, beyond creating a credibility problem, according to Yeast, has kept some umpires from making controversial calls or from suspending players for fear of not being rehired.
"It's the biggest problem we face," Yeast proclaims. "It's certainly gotten better, but red-lining, black-balling, black-listing, whatever you want to call it, is still going on."
Wellman agrees that, "there are coaches who are involved in this. I don't think it does the game any good. It's a very serious problem."
Fortunately, it has gotten better. "The old practice of red-lining someone because a coach didn't like their personality doesn't really happen any more," Magnusson says. "Coaches don't have the big say-so they used to have."
Still, in some conferences coaches continue to have a lot of say about who officiates their games. Understandably, umpires argue that whether or not they work certain games should not come down to their performance at one or two games, or, worse, because they previously reprimanded a player or a coach or dealt them some tough calls.
Since, at this point, all conference games are assigned umpires by the conferences, the red-lining problem occurs mainly during non-conference games. Some of these games are conference-assigned, but in others, coaches are given much of the power of who officiates their own games.
Southern California, where Williams works, leans heavily towards the latter. "I assign umpires for 18 colleges in Southern California," he says. "At the beginning of the season, the coaches submit the names of the ones they want and the ones they don't want. They can red-line up to 20 percent, but, basically, they can keep anyone they want off."
Part of the problem is that no conference has the money to send evaluators to all games, and unlike basketball and football, very few games are televised or videotaped, leaving most conferences to rely on coaches' evaluations.
"I've dealt with coaches for years around the country," says Williams, "and I've really found that most coaches, generally speaking, are fair in their evaluations. But sometimes they are more emotional than they are objective.
"The Big West and PAC-10 used to have a conference-assigned paid observer who sat in the stands and evaluated the umpires' performance," he continues. "The Big West started that around 1990, but dropped it last year, to save money. The PAC-10 had it for about two years only. Also, there was a time when they put the umpire on probation, and they were told to improve certain things, which I find acceptable. But now, they don't get warned, they just drop them."
To help address this problem, Yeast has proposed a mandate that "Division I conferences all have a Supervisor of Officials who assigns umpires for all games, not just conference games, (which is what a few conferences now have in effect). The Supervisor of Officials is an official, active or not, who is selected by the conference to assign umpires to each of their games, and who also conducts rules meetings and administers tests."
According to Magnusson, one of the main problems has to do with the nature of the game itself. "Because of daytime games, rainouts, the huge number of games, and not enough resources, you can't preassign umpires to all games, like you can in basketball or football," he says. However, even if it's not possible to preassign umpires for every game at the start of the season, many feel it's important that the power of making the assignments be put in the hands of the umpires.
"Nobody knows umpires as well as umpires," says Williams. "Besides, when you get to the Division I level, the cream has risen to the top, you get the best umpires there."
One proposal that meets conferences and umpires halfway is that the conference hire one of the local umpires' associations to decide who will officiate all their games (as is done in Southern California) but without the luxury of red-lining anyone.
Magnusson works in such a system. "In South Florida, we assign umpires for all non-conference games," he says. "We've been hired by the local conferences to decide who officiates at their games. They have some say in that they can make complaints about specific umpires, and we'll address those, but they don't decide specifically who works their games. And we won't stop using someone because of one complaint."
A Matter of Respect
Another area of concern for umpires is that they're not paid particularly well. Despite the fact that umpires at the collegiate level are making huge strides to improve all they do, they still "make between $60 and $150 per game in Division I," according to Yeast.
"Sooner or later we have to address the issue of money," Magnusson proclaims. "People who do it say they do it for the love of the sport, which is true. But money's part of the respect."
"The number one thing I'd like to see is an increase in the fees umpires are paid," adds another veteran umpire who requested anonymity. "What's fair is fair."
Baseball is among the lowest paid collegiate sports for officials to work in. According to Yeast, by comparison, "football and basketball (officials) make between $450 and $600 per game, plus unlimited travel and other perks." In addition, officials in softball, soccer, and volleyball are also often paid more.
Rowe points out that there is also the issue of the number of games played in a baseball season. "You'll have 56 games in collegiate baseball," he says. "You can't afford to pay them as much as in football, where you may only have six home games."
But umpires counter that it is more important to consider that a baseball game lasts much longer than a football or basketball game, so they're working many more hours. Add to that the disparity in equipment costs, with a baseball umpires' gear running upwards of $400, compared with well under $100 for football or basketball officials, and it is easy to see why umpires are fired up over their salaries.
It is also, they argue, a large reason that the profession has far fewer people in its ranks than some other sports have. And while some areas of the country are better off than others, far fewer young people are looking to become baseball umpires than officials of football or basketball.
"I've been on boards for all three sports, basketball, football, and baseball," Williams says, "and baseball always comes up lowest in terms of new members. Each year we may get 5 to 10 for baseball, while football may have 12 to 15, and there will be easily 20 to 25 for basketball." There are other factors, including that many baseball games are played in the afternoon, forcing officials to take time off from work, but, the main reason people are dissuaded from the profession "has to do with money," he says.
Magnusson agrees that, "Unless a lot of these groups open their pocketbooks, the younger guys won't be attracted to it. There needs to be higher pay all the way down the line, from pros to youth leagues."
Otherwise, says Williams, it contributes to the feeling many umpires have that "after money is put aside for the coach, equipment, the field, travel, and everything else, then the last consideration is, well, we also have to have an umpire, so let's get one, but we can't afford to pay much."
And considering the strides they've made to catch up to the fast-changing game of college baseball, umpires now feel it's time they started getting more of the respect they deserve.