BY MIKE SCHNEIDER | Ah, that wonderful age of 13. In Greenwich Village that means to many, a time to become a bar or bat mitzvah. For others, simply knowing they are now a teenager is reason enough to celebrate. But for a select few, it means finally getting to train to become an umpire in Greenwich Village Little League.
And lest you think this a minor undertaking, let me assure you, it is not.
For starters, there’s the second-guessing and criticism. On any baseball diamond, you’ll find boys and girls complaining about the strike zone or that “out” call, when he or she knew deep down they were safe. At the end of the game, in a losing effort, it’s common to hear, “That umpire was terrible. He cost us the game.”
But now the players have a chance to join the enemy camp. Why do it? For starters, umpires are paid by the league — even as they train. One young man told me he earned $7 in six hours working a concession stand for tips, and if we paid $20 to umpire a game he would crawl for that opportunity.
The other reason might be, well, for the power trip. After all, that kid on the other team that was always annoying but too large to confront, is now in your hands. Surprisingly, we haven’t seen one young umpire abuse his or her power — not one.
In the case of my son Cameron, it was a combination of both. Kids are used to having parents and coaches tell them what to do and how to do it. That’s a part of the process they have grown accustomed to. But being in a position of telling coaches who are parents what to do, or at least what not to say, is far from youths’ daily norm. In fact, the nicer the kid, the tougher it is to be a solid ump right out of the box. Politeness is required — becoming confident enough to talk to parents on an even footing is developed over time.
Greenwich Village Little League recognizes these challenges, and for that reason, has developed a training session for these young men and women, which allows them to umpire the games themselves, but in a manner that takes some of the pressure off.
To begin with, they are always paired with an experienced “adult” umpire, who advises them and handles any dealings with managers and coaches who require explanations about calls.
Cameron and his older brother, Max, are both umpires in G.V.L.L. Max is 16 and a veteran of more than three years as an umpire and Cameron is a trainee at age 13. I asked Max what he found most difficult as a beginner, and his reply was: “Being confident enough to call balls and strikes in a loud enough voice to be heard.”
Today, three years later, his voice, while still not booming, is clear and confident. Cameron, on the other hand, has never had a problem with a loud voice. But he finds umpiring in the field to be more confusing because, with only two umpires per game, positioning is all important in making accurate calls.
As the person charged with training these kids, Henry Guiden has to make sure that each of them is reliable — something easier said than done. The young ump hopefuls have to show up — and show up on time. Once there, they have to be open on how to stand and how to position themselves when there is a play going on, and they don’t have time to think. They have to understand the basic rules of baseball, of which there are many, and to interpret those rules as they pertain to Little League. And they have to do it all with only two of them instead of four, as is done in Major League Baseball.
By and large, G.V.L.L. has been quite successful with this program. We have 12 to 14 kids who can handle this thankless task, coupled with an equal amount of adult umpires. And this would be much tougher if the parents weren’t so understanding where these kids are concerned. Parent coaches can be quite obsessed with winning, but they have shown remarkable restraint when it comes to criticizing these kids.
I constantly hear complaints about the umpires. That goes with the territory. But I haven’t heard any of those complaints directed at the young ones.
Seems like a win-win situation all around. Let’s play ball.
Mike Schneider is Greenwich Village Little League’s executive vice president in charge of baseball operations, the league board’s umpire liaison, and chairperson of the Rules Committee, as well as a coach. He managed the G.V.L.L. Senior Division team that captured the district championship in July.