Sports

Here’s why a shortage of Little League umpires has become a growing concern in Centre County

State College’s Vincent LaFrazza-Schwartz steals home to score against Indiana on Saturday in the opening game of the Section 4 Majors Little League All-Star tournament in Mechanicsburg. Last week, the State College-Bellefonte all-star game was postponed because of an umpire shortage.
State College’s Vincent LaFrazza-Schwartz steals home to score against Indiana on Saturday in the opening game of the Section 4 Majors Little League All-Star tournament in Mechanicsburg. Last week, the State College-Bellefonte all-star game was postponed because of an umpire shortage. Photo provided

The umpire shortage for area Little League games has become an increasing concern this season — one which finally came to a head last week.

For the first time in at least 25 years, maybe ever, an all-star game in Centre County had to be postponed when two umpires called off five hours before gametime and no last-minute replacements could be found. The State College-Bellefonte game, the 9-10 Minor District 5 Finals, was put off until the next day instead.

And, if the local Little Leagues can’t find more umpires, there’s a growing concern last Sunday’s postponement won’t be the last one.

“Ten years ago, we probably had a pool of about 20-25 umpires in this end of the district,” District 5 Little League administrator Frank Germino said. “This season? Oh man, I’d say there’s about 10 I can rely on.”

The shortage isn’t just isolated to District 5, nor just to Little League. All across the country, youth sports leagues are finding it harder and harder to recruit teens and adults willing to work such a taxing job for little to no pay.

The culprit? Several local Little League officials pointed to the lack of sportsmanship today and the abuse an umpire must now endure as a key cause. (Others included the fact there’s more to do today and the prevalence of social media magnifying the sportsmanship issue.)

“I don’t want to blast the parents too much, but the parents get too involved — and I’m not talking about the coaches; I’m talking about the parents on the sidelines — and they go ballistic sometimes,” said longtime umpire Jerry Fisher, who worked local games for 23-plus years before moving to Arizona a few months ago. “Sometimes, that scares some young umpires away.”

That concern was echoed by a national survey conducted two years ago by the National Association of Sports Officials, which polled more than 17,000 such officials. The poll pointed to sportsmanship as the big issue — with more respondents pointing the finger at parents (40 percent), rather than coaches (30 percent) or players (10 percent).

Of course, that’s not to say all parents are an issue, or even a majority. Most in Centre County, and around the nation, simply enjoy watching their kids smile, have fun and run around the bases. But sometimes, if an umpire’s strike zone is a little wide or if a call goes the other team’s way, one vocal parent can spoil the relaxing atmosphere for everyone.

During one game a few years ago, Fisher still remembers one father constantly badgering him about his strike zone. Finally, between innings, Fisher walked behind the backstop, sat beside him in the bleachers and — when asked what he was doing there — Fisher quipped that he thought there must be a better view of the zone from up there.

His confidence and humor helped defuse the situation. But for younger umpires — teens as young as 13 can volunteer and be paired with an adult — and less-confident ones, situations like that just aren’t worth the trouble.

“It’s a hard job, even when everyone is behaving the way they’re supposed to behave,” said Gina LaFrazza, a Little League parent who’s also a Majors manager and the State College league’s vice president. “We see parents and coaches and spectators becoming more and more invested in youth sports.”

For District 5, the mission now is to reverse that worrying trend of decreasing umpires. And, to do so, they’re taking a multiple-pronged approach.

First of all, it’s important to increase sportsmanship. For managers like LaFrazza, that means making sure every one of her players shakes the umpires’ hands and respects them. For newer fields, it means designing them in a way where parents are more likely to sit by the outfield fence — away from the umpires. For other venues, it means posting up signs — such as “No Division I scholarships handed out here” — and not hesitating if a spectator does cross the line.

“We’ve had a couple spectators thrown out this year because of criticizing umpires,” Germino added.

Secondly, the league has attempted to hold more officiating clinics for the youth and has tried to get more area teens involved. The reasoning is if a kid becomes familiar with umpiring now and enjoys it, he’s more likely to follow in the footsteps of a longtime ump such as Fisher. It’s a long-term solution to a long-term problem.

“Young kids are critical as far as umpiring goes,” Fisher added.

Now that the season for the Little League All-Stars has progressed on to sectionals, where there are fewer games, umpire shortages shouldn’t be an issue again until next summer. But Little League officials know they’ll have to be proactive this offseason to ensure postponements don’t become a new trend.

Germino recommended any interested teens or adults contact their respective Little League president if they’re thinking about becoming an umpire. Officials are hoping awareness of the issue might motivate a few to volunteer.

If it doesn’t? On this trajectory, there’s no telling where the umpire shortage might take area Little Leagues in a few years. Over the past 10 years, locally, the number of umps has decreased by about 50 percent.

Still, involved parents like LaFrazza have faith that hosting clinics, having players shake the umps’ hands and similar actions like that could still lead to a bright future.

“If we continue doing those little things, people who love baseball and love to volunteer and be around the kids will continue to do so,” she said.

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