Umpire shortage plagues spring ball games
A pool of 500 officials for high school sports may sound like a large number, but it's not enough to cover all the bases.
Increasingly, finding officials to officiate high school baseball and softball in the Kaw Valley League has become a problem.
"There is a great need for more umpires," said Jay Pratt, umpire and president of the Douglas County Umpires Association. "It is not necessarily that we need more, but more with quality."
Tonganoxie High School experienced this problem first-hand a few weeks ago when Athletic Director John Lee was forced to officiate a junior varsity baseball game.
"I was told too late that we wouldn't have an umpire," Lee said. "I had to umpire. I try not to have to do it because people think I would be biased since I am the athletic director. It just creates a bad situation out there."
In that case, Frank Smysor, Kaw Valley League commissioner, and Lee were unable to find someone to fill in. Since Lee has had 18 years of umpiring experience, there wasn't much choice.
The shortage of baseball and softball officials is not a new problem, but it grows each year.
Lee is frustrated after facing similar scenarios three times now.
"Last season if there were problems, they were always blamed on rainouts," Lee said. "This year there is no excuse. He (Smysor) has had the schedule for a year.
"There is no reason they cannot be assigned now."
Smysor said he does try to get a jump-start. But it still doesn't ensure that there will not be last-minute complications.
Smysor said it just happened that Tonganoxie fell victim to scheduling complications more than once. The day that Lee ended up filling in as umpire during a game, Smysor spent hours on the phone trying to find a replacement, once the scheduled umpire had cancelled.
"Sometimes we just have a limited number of officials available during the afternoons," Smysor said. "We are discussing right now certain ways to alleviate these problems."
Only two main options have been talked about, according to Smysor. The first would be to start games at 6 p.m., but athletes would not have time for doubleheaders.
"It's a Catch-22 situation," Smysor said. "We want them to play as many games as allowed."
The second option is to have resources within the community and to use them for sub-varsity games.
Lee said another option would be for the commissioner to be in charge of finding varsity officials, and the various schools could be in charge of finding the sub-varsity officials.
And next year DeSoto's Mill Valley High School will join Kaw Valley League, which comprises Tonganoxie, Basehor-Linwood, DeSoto, Immaculata, Perry-Lecompton, Piper, Lansing and Santa Fe Trail. Mill Valley. That will exacerbate the problem.
It's sometimes difficult to attract umpires because the job is a pivot point for controversy.
"There is not a lot of money, and we are expected to take a lot of abuse," said Pratt, who has been a state registered umpire for eight or nine years. "In baseball, everyone thinks it is part of the game to abuse the umpire. The fans, crowd and everyone thinks it is part of the day's entertainment."
Umpires work under a gag order and are not allowed to defend themselves when fans harass them about calls. The best way to control the crowd is through the coaches, officials said.
"The way I look at it is the fence around the field acts as a sound-proof barrier," Pratt said.
Only about 75 umpires are available for spring sports. But more than 250 basketball officials are available, and about 180 for football.
"It's just a simple case of supply and demand," Smysor said. "We have a far greater demand than we do supply."
Every time a school is added in another Kansas City metropolitan area district, it puts more strain on availability.
By creating the Douglas County Umpires Association three years ago, Pratt and several others thought they devised a way to bring in more and higher quality officials.
However, it does not eliminate possible scheduling conflicts.
"Trying to keep track of each other with eight ADs (athletic directors) can be difficult sometimes," Smysor said.
Pratt also said that increasing the pay might help retain umpires. According to a report in the Kansas State High School Activities Association Journal, Pratt said that football and basketball officials are paid within a dollar or so of the national average in Kansas. However, baseball is considerably lagging behind. Baseball games in Kansas pay about half the national average is.
Varsity football and basketball officials make $50 a game in the league. A softball doubleheader pays $60, and a baseball doubleheader $70. Soccer games range from $60 to $70, volleyball quads are $60 and a wrestling double dual is $100 for varsity.
Smysor and the league's athletic directors will meet this month to discuss the umpire shortage.
"We need to understand the importance of what we are doing," Smysor said. "If we lost track that we are doing this for the kids, we're in trouble. We have a long history of having really good officials. We are just need to have more that can do baseball and softball."
Lee sees it from a slightly different perspective.
"The officials work for us," he said. "We don't work for the officials."