Blue knows Best: Umpires admit agony of antagonism

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Blue. It’s not just a color. It’s a name that describes one of the toughest jobs in baseball – being an umpire. But for many, it’s not even a job at all, at least not one that pays the bills.

At the games lowest level, they are little more than volunteers who are paid a mere $20 per game. And they earn every single penny.

Demopolis umpire Paul Willingham has been calling the shots from behind the plate for over 20 years now, and he’s seen it all.

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“I’ve seen 50-year old women climb half way up a fence calling me a blind SOB,” Willingham said. “You have to be a little thick-skinned to handle it all.”

Willingham has seen his share of hits and fits in baseball, but he knows it’s all a part of the game.

“As an umpire, you know you’re going to have to take some flack.” Willingham said. “It’s part of the game.”

But where is the line? What separates flack from a smack?

“About six or seven years ago, I was working an American Legion game at the SportsPlex with Darryl Braswell. Braswell was a good umpire, but didn’t have one of the best reputations. During the game, Braswell made a call and one of the coaches came out of the dugout to give him a piece of his mind. Before it was all over with, the coach, who was a real big ole fellow, picked Braswell up off the ground by his throat and begun to shake him,” Willingham said. “But the worst part of that experience were the fans cheering for the coach who was literally strangling the umpire.”

Obviously, there is a thin line between what is considered a part of the game, and what is considered a violent situation. Arguing a call is one thing; becoming so emotionally involved that you want to pick up a bat and go after the umpire is another.

“Some of the biggest problems that we encounter arise from parents who think they know more about the game than the umpires,” Demopolis Park and Recreation Director Mark Pettus said. “Maybe they do – maybe the umpire is wrong – but the fact remains that this is still just a game that kids play for fun.”

In Demopolis, it’s the job of Umpire Association Director Luke Hallmark to find enough umpires to officiate the 45 Demopolis Dixie Youth Baseball and Dixie Girls softball teams – a job that has become increasingly harder over the years.

“It’s a logistics nightmare if you ask me,” Pettus said of Hallmark. “On any given night you have as many as 16 games scheduled at various locations.”

But Hallmark says scheduling and finding the umpires has never been a problem for him. Finding good umpires that people respect? That’s another matter.

“We once had some really great umpires, guys like Buddy Pickle, Mickey Sanford and Gus Agee. They knew the game and they loved the game,” Hallmark said. “But over the years, they got tired of dealing with the harassment of parents and coaches and finally just quit.”

With only a few of the so-called good ones left, the Demopolis Umpire Association has taken on a new look, that of a younger “Blue”. And many feel that it is this younger umpire that has caused a stir in the waters of the Demopolis baseball and softball programs.

“It’s hard to find good umpires anymore,” Pettus said. “Most of the one’s we have today are not umpires, they’re just warm bodies. They don’t do it for the love of the game, but rather for that $20 check.”

Today’s Demopolis Umpire Association is made up of 14 certified umpires and about 14 uncertified umpires, most of whom are either high school or college aged kids.

“Many of the umpires that are out there today are very young,” Willingham said.

And it is that young and somewhat inexperienced look that may be causing some of the problems today. According to Willingham, an umpire’s appearance alone can lead to problems with fans.

“From my experience, if you go out there with a good attitude, looking the way an umpire should look and know the rules, then you shouldn’t have many problems. But if you look like you don’t know what you’re doing out there – wearing khaki pants with your shirt hanging out – then you might be in for a pretty rough experience.”

While having a more professional looking umpire on the field might be an answer for some, there is still a far greater danger lurking in the shadows.

While parents long to see their children succeed on the field, there are some who become so emotionally involved that reality takes a back seat to the violent, outraged parent at the wheel.

“For some reason, this game has become all about the scoreboard,” Pettus said. “If I could shut every one of the scoreboards at the SportsPlex down I would if it would solve the problem.”

Parents, Willingham believes, seem to get worse as their children get better. As all-star baseball season rolls around, those parents are hard to miss.

“The all-star games are usually the worst,” Willingham said. “Fans seem to get more rowdy when there is more at stake. Those games have a tendency for getting out of control.

That lack of control represented the worst of the game for umpire Mickey Sanford, and was one reason he finally gave it up.

“You got parents out there who are trying to play through their kids,” Sanford said. “And you hate to see that because it’s not good for anyone.”

Sanford says he’s always enjoyed watching young kids grow into athletes.

“The best part of being an umpire for me was watching kids mature and feeling like I had something to do with that,” he said.

The satisfaction, however, didn’t nullify the agony of boisterous fans.

“The worst part of it all was the irate fans who forgot they were watching a game.”

Sanford even recalls keeping a tally of the number of calls he made during one game.

“I remember this one game were I made 128 calls. And out of 128, I got one wrong. But no one cared about the 128 I got right, they were only concerned with the one I got wrong. Sanford said. “One-for-128, that’s not a bad ratio.

“Officiating a game is hard enough these days without the added duty of dealing with parents who become inflamed with an almost uncontrolled competitiveness.

“Umpires are there to enforce the rules of the game, much like a parent that enforces the rules of life to their kids,” Hallmark said. “And you know adults can be just like children.”