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Spring officials trying to stay ready amid hiatus

By Ted Radick

Sports Writer

Spring sports athletes, coaches and fans are sitting in place right now, waiting for the potential of an all-clear and resumption, of sorts, of life as normal.

Another group is waiting out the coronavirus suspension of spring sports, as well: the umpires and officials who work high school and middle school events.

“We’re doing the right thing as far as keeping everybody away from groups, but it just stinks,” said baseball umpire Chad Snyder of Findlay, a veteran with more than 20 years of OHSAA certification.

“We were a week away from scrimmages; we were ready to go,” said Snyder, who is the secretary of the Findlay Umpires Association. “I ran into a high school baseball coach today at the grocery store, and we laughed about running into each other at the store instead of on the baseball field.”

Everyone is pretty much in the same boat. It’s a challenge for baseball and softball umpires, and track and field officials as well, to stay focused and sharp if the spring season eventually begins.

“The only thing they can really do is study the rules,” said softball umpire John Meyers, an umpire assigner who lives in Oregon and is president of the Toledo Metro Umpires Association. “There’s no simulators, there’s no place you can go. There might be a couple of girls throwing a ball in a backyard someplace, but anything organized is a no-go right now.

“Guys can do things in front of a mirror at home. Rule study is really all they can do.”

Meyers isn’t alone in emphasizing rule book study.

“Each year, the national federation of high school officials sends out a rules book and a case book for officials,”said Mark Froelich of Defiance, an umpire assigner for the Putnam County League. “They also send out a booklet that includes the points of emphasis, and any new rules for a particular sport.

“We might not have the meetings, but we still have that responsibility to be prepared by reading the rule book, by reading the case book, through reading the booklet on new rules.

“Officials have the responsibility to stay abreast of everything.”

The meetings Froelich mentioned are part of the yearly certification process umpires and track officials — as well as every official who works an OHSAA game in any particular sport — go through to stay current.

A statewide meeting, in person or online, is followed by local rules interpretation meetings. An official must attend four of those, and local officials groups have multiple dates to choose from to attend those four.

“The Findlay association had seven scheduled meetings, and we were able to get six of those in before the order came down to close the schools and avoid group settings,” Snyder said.

It’s the same for track and field officials.

“We had eight meetings scheduled,” said Rick Haddix of Fostoria, who is in his 37th year as a track and field official. “We had to cancel our last meeting, on April 16, because of the circumstances.

“I think we’re all just waiting to see what’s going to happen. I’m a past president of the state track officials association, and right now I’m on the executive council. We were going to have a meeting this next weekend, and we have canceled that.”

Just for this year, the OHSAA has suspended the four-meeting rule bearing in mind that not all local associations were able to hold their scheduled rule interpretation meetings.

So, the officials are studying their rules and going through their case books, a study of real-life plays that allow an official to test their knowledge of their sport’s rules.

And for softball and baseball umpires especially, working in front of a mirror helps keep their mechanics sharp. Ball/strike calls, safe/out calls, fair/foul calls, those all need to be made clearly and concisely.

“Not just baseball and softball, but any time you’re not on the field, on the basketball court, on the volleyball court, the time you’re not on there is the time you go back to the mirror,” Froelich said. “You stand in front of the mirror and practice your mechanics. That way, you stay sharp.

“You don’t have any in-game scenarios, so you stay focused on keeping your mechanics sharp.”

As umpire assigners, Meyers and Froelich work independently of any local umpires association. Individual officials who work OHSAA events all work through the arbiter.com website.

Officials can use the site to check off the days they’re available, whether that’s every day or just a day or two per week. Assigners then match a pair of umpires to a particular game.

Meyers, for example, has contracts with 37 high schools to assign umpires for baseball and softball. Included in that number are Liberty-Benton, Elmwood and Fostoria high schools. He said he has a pool of roughly 230 umpires in northwest Ohio to draw from.

“During a normal year, the average varsity umpire is getting 15 to 20 assignments in a season,” Meyers said. “For those who are willing to do junior varsity games, they could get 30 to 35 assignments in a spring.

“Junior varsity umpires don’t get paid as much, but it’s only about $10 less per game and they have the opportunity to work more games.”

Officials, this spring, are looking at losing a pretty good chunk of income, no matter if it’s a side job or more of a full-time retirement income.

“I have several people who work for me that are basically professional, amateur-level officials,” said Meyers, who said the pay rate for a varsity baseball game ranges from $65 to $75 per game. “They do multiple sports, and they’re working year-round. That’s their main source of income. They do volleyball, they do football, they do basketball. They do it all.”

“For myself, I don’t do it for the money. I do it for the love of the game,” Snyder said. “Now, my wife sitting here next to me would say the money is nice, because we use it to go on vacation.

“It is, for some people, a fairly large sum of money they’ll be losing out on. At $65 per game, roughly, if someone’s working three games a week that’s close to 200 bucks. You’re not going to catch it up. Summer stuff may be a little busier this year, but maybe not.”

Froelich, also a basketball official for 22 years in addition to his spring work, agrees.

“They’re not getting rich by any means,” he said. “Officials, in my experience, do this either because they want to give something back to the game or we just enjoy it. I tell people this: I could have the worst day in the world, at work or whatever, and once I step on that basketball floor it all goes away.

“For the majority of officials, they feel the same way whether it’s volleyball or basketball or whatever sport they’re doing.

“You do lose that money this spring, there’s no doubt about it. Some guys use that for family vacations, some use it to prepare for retirement.”

Haddix said the pay rate in track varies on the type of meet and the number of teams involved. An ordinary, weekday meet involving two to four teams might pay $45 to $65, he said.

“For working an invitational on a weekend, it might go to $130,” he said. “Pay depends on the school, the league and what level of meets you’re working. It also depends on how many teams you have involved.”

Officials worry about what they’re missing on the field, Froelich and Snyder said, more so than their bank accounts.

“We don’t know when we’re going to be back out there, and frankly those first few games we’re all going to be out there for the love of the game, trying to get ourselves ready to go,” said Snyder, noting that there will be scrimmage games to ramp back up into game shape if the spring season does resume.

“I think it’s going to be a common understanding with the umpires and coaches that maybe quality, right away, isn’t going to be what is expected,” Snyder added.

“I feel badly for the athletes, I feel badly for the coaches and I feel badly for the officials,” Froelich said.

“I know of a couple of basketball officials who were selected for their first state tournament games. They weren’t able to do that, and I feel terribly for them. Will they ever get that chance again?

“The same way with the coaches and athletes — you feel for them. We’re really fortunate, in my opinion, with the OHSAA leadership. They’re doing a great job with the communication.

“The OHSAA didn’t ask for this. Nobody asked for this. What do you do? It’s safety first.”

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