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Steve Christilaw: Umpiring is thankless job

On the list of thankless jobs, being an umpire ranks pretty high.

The men and women who take the job have to be secure in who they are because it’s guaranteed that someone is going to disagree with most every call they make.

But it’s not just that.

At one point or another, someone will:

Question their sanity (“Are you crazy?”);

Question their eyesight (“Are you blind?”);

Question their integrity (“Who’s paying you to make that call?”);

And declare them mentally unfit (“You’re an idiot!”).

It’s one of those jobs where everyone around you is an expert, and while they may not have the unobstructed view you do, they still will believe they know better than you do what just happened.

David Sutton understood all of this when he signed on to be a baseball and softball umpire some 35 years ago.

“My wife says you either have to have a passion for the game, or you have to be crazy to do it all these years,” he joked. “I’d say my wife has been to maybe three games that I’ve worked. She says she doesn’t want to sit in the stands and listen to so many people talk about what a lousy guy I am.”

Sutton said you have to develop a thick skin to handle the job.

“You have to be able to tune it all out,” he said. “You can’t have what we like to call ‘rabbit ears.’ I actually think that’s why we have trouble bringing in younger people to become umpires.

“Everywhere I’ve gone to umpire – in every umpire’s association I’ve ever worked with – has had a sign up saying ‘Umpires Wanted.’ ”

It’s getting to the point where they’re not just wanted; they’re desperately needed.

The games do not lack for enthusiastic players at every level, from T-ball through Little League and all the way to American Legion for baseball, and slow-pitch, modified fastpitch and fastpitch softball.

And the games keep expanding to new age groups. Kids start as soon as they can pick up a bat and throw a ball and can continue to play for a lifetime. New leagues keep popping up for players over 40, over 50 and over 60 – for softball and baseball.

If you can develop the skill set necessary to umpire, it can be a pretty good side gig, Sutton said. An umpire can pick up 100 games easily over the course of a summer. More if, like David Sutton and his brother, Thom, you’re retired and like working ballgames.

Just be willing to put in the work necessary to do the job properly.

Good umpires have a deep sense of pride in their work. They keep themselves in shape so that they can get themselves into the proper position to make every call in every play. They hustle to get themselves into the right place at the right time.

“The one thing you hate to see in a game is having two umpires both get in position to make the same call and one says ‘You’re out!’ and the other says ‘You’re safe!’ ” Sutton said. “Everybody looks bad on that one.”

The Sutton brothers are typical of the kind of dedicated folks needed to umpire ballgames.

In their mid-60s, the brothers went to professional umpires school, looking to add a layer of polish to the skills they’d already developed over their long careers – 35 years for David Sutton, 40 for Thom.

In their case, the lessons paid a dividend in the form of an invitation to umpire at the USSSA International World Series tournament, Big League Dreams, last month in Riverside, California.

I admit that, in my playing days, I would occasionally have disagreements with umpires. That happens when a passion for playing collides with an umpire’s passion for making the right call.

And I can safely say that I never got into an argument with an umpire who hustled and got in proper position to make a call. I may have disagreed, but I believe the vast majority of players will respect someone who cares enough to do the job right.

The game desperately needs more umpires who care enough to do the job the right way.

If you’re interested, just ask an umpire.

Columnist Steve Christilaw can be reached at steve.

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