Years ago, finding umpires and referees to officiate high school games was as simple as finding pretty girls at the beach.
At the conclusion of the football season, football coaches would slip into zebra-striped shirts and run up and down high school gyms whistling fouls and keeping court order.
In the spring they’d strap on shin guards, move behind an inflated chest protector and call balls and strikes or patrol the base paths.
Basketball coaches would join colleagues on the gridiron refereeing before their season began and move over to diamonds almost as soon as the last jumper had been shot.
Baseball coaches also pulled double duty, working football fields in the fall and basketball courts in the winter.
It was a convenient arrangement and worked well. There were few complaints because the officials were a close-knit fraternity of full-time teachers and coaches who cared not only about the sports they coached but also with helping other sports run smoothly. Officiating was just part of a full-time teaching job.
But things have changed dramatically, particularly in baseball. CIF Southern Section baseball administrator Bill Clark wrote in a March bulletin, “In most areas there is a strong possibility we will not have enough officials to cover scheduled games.”
The bulletin proved on target. Wednesday a Southern Section game between St. Bernard and Alemany in the St. Paul Tournament was canceled because the umpires did not show up. The same thing happened last week in an L.A. City Section league game between San Fernando and Cleveland. Coaches fear the problem will be repeated many times before the last pitch is thrown this season.
“I’m not too happy about it,” said St. Bernard Coach Bob Yarnall, whose team played a scrimmage with visiting Alemany after the umpires failed to show. “But there’s nothing I can do about it. I was told the umpires were assigned. They just didn’t show up.
“The problem is that you have two teams ready to play baseball. Alemany drove all the way from the valley. We wanted to get something in, so we scrimmaged. If this was a league game, I would really be upset.”
What is causing the problem?
Numerous explanations are given. Some cite low pay, length of games, overlapping sports schedules and the attitudes of players. But the reason given most frequently is the growing dependence on walk-on coaches--people whose lone tie to the school is the sport they coach.
In his 30 years as head baseball coach at El Segundo High, John Stevenson has seen umpires come and go. But lately he’s seen them leave and not return.
“When I started coaching, at least 50% of the umpires were off-season coaches,” Stevenson said. “But that’s not really the way it is anymore. Most of those old-timers retired and were replaced by walk-on coaches.
“That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with walk-on coaches, but full-time teachers were educators first and they brought a certain professionalism to their work. Now you get a different kind of person. There’s more transiency there. They’re not really there for the long haul.”
In other words, the walk-on coaches seldom involve themselves with a sport other than their own.
Additionally, umpiring is a demanding task with no glory and plenty of abuse.
Most high school games start at 3 in the afternoon, requiring the umpire to either have flexible work hours, a very understanding boss, a night job or be unemployed.
“Years ago the officials were mostly off-season coaches,” said Hal Harkness, City Section director of interscholastic athletics. “Now you get . . . mostly people with full-time jobs that interfere with their ability to get to these games on time.”
The pay is not that attractive, either, especially when games go beyond three hours. Southern Section home-plate umpires receive $37 per game, base umps $35. They receive $3 more for night games.
Football and basketball officials receive roughly the same amount, but those games are governed by a clock and don’t take as long as a baseball game.
Why such lengthy games?
Walk-on coaches seem more pressed to prove to principals and administrators that the decision to hire them was correct, and therefore, they tend to overcoach, according to Jim Pacheco, a South Bay college and high school umpire who is also secretary of the South Bay Baseball Officials Assn. Overcoaching in Pacheco’s view means more batters stepping out of the box, more pitchers working to hold runners on by throwing to the base and more meetings on the mound.
Another problem turning would-be umpires off is the abuse.
According to Stevenson, as teachers, full-time coaches are obliged to teach their players some measure of decorum. They are representatives of their schools and they don’t want them seen in a negative light.
“Full-time teachers take a professional approach to the game because their professional reputations are at stake,” Stevenson said. “If they lose a game, it’s not the end of the world. Some walk-on coaches don’t have that same dedication to their schools and the game and bring that attitude with them, and their players express that attitude.”
“Being an umpire used to be a prestigious job, but it’s not that prestigious anymore,” Pacheco said. “Now you’ve got coaches and young players yelling at you, it’s hot and every one of the 16 people in the stands is yelling at you. Sometimes it’s not worth it.”
It shouldn’t be that way, says San Pedro Coach Jerry Lovarov, in his 28th year with the Pirates.
“The team is always a reflection of the coach,” he said. “I always told my kids that if we don’t have an umpire, we don’t play. If the coach gets on the ump, then I think the kids are going to get on him, too.”
Another longtime coach, Palos Verdes’ Gil Eberhard, said he doesn’t see much difference between the players of today and the ones he knew when he started coaching 24 years ago.
“Overall, I don’t see much difference,” he said. “But . . . I’m not going to get out there and umpire because I know it takes a certain kind of person to do that.”
How severe is the decline in the umpiring pool?
Five years ago the Long Beach Officials Assn. boasted 100 members. Today there are 60. Five years ago the South Bay section had 90 members. Today there are 50.
Pacheco said each year he figured his association was ahead of the game if it recruited 10 to 15 new umpires. Each year 20% of the older members would retire, but there were still enough officials to go around.
Now, however, he said he’s lucky to see five to seven new members because good umpires find they don’t have to put up with guff from high school players. Also, the association is losing more and more umpires to softball.
Softball umpires make only $3 less per game, generally work an hour less and are subjected to less abuse. Many umpires have moved to softball and work those games exclusively.
“I know from experience, working a baseball game and seeing a softball game starting at the same time on an adjoining field,” Pacheco said. “In baseball, it might be 8-5 in the fourth inning and you turn around and see the softball umpires walking away at least an hour before the baseball game’s over. You can’t blame some of them for wanting to go to softball.”
There is talk of switching softball and volleyball seasons to stem the tide of umpires moving to softball. However, the logistics involved in such a change mean that move is years away.
Two years ago, the Southern Section employed “assigners,” who scheduled umpires for baseball games. A pilot program was started, however, giving the various local units the responsibility of assigning umpires. Now, for all practical purposes, the umpires have the status of independent contractors.
That is not so bad by itself, but the units charge each umpire $1 per assignment, while the Southern Section continues to set the pay scale. Essentially, Southern Section umpires pay for the right to work. And, even though they are independent contractors, they do not negotiate their wages.
As independent contractors, umpires must provide their own insurance yet are still liable in injury and damage suits against the Southern Section.
Also, the recently approved sliding $3-2-1 pay raise starting this year and continuing through 1991 takes on new meaning as long as umpires are obliged to continue paying $1 assigner fees to work. The raise now becomes $2-1-0 over three years.
This, of course, has rankled the rank and file.
“If we do not straighten this out very soon, there’s a real danger that we will walk out next year,” Pacheco said.
A number of solutions to alleviate the problem have been offered by Pacheco, the local units, the Southern Section and the various schools. But so far none have proved workable because the schools, strapped financially, would have to pick up the extra cost.
Some have advocated raising an umpire’s pay, other have suggested limiting the number of innings. Still others suggest instituting a 2 1/2-hour rule, meaning that no inning could start after the game was more than 2 1/2 hours old.
Paying umpires more seems the plan least likely to succeed because they are paid with funds raised through various student activities and fund-raisers. Any raise in umpire pay would tax those coffers.
“The money that we pay officials comes right out of ASB funds, which means it comes right out of the kids’ pockets,” Stevenson said. “For some smaller schools that could really be a burden. Besides, baseball runs comparably as long as other sports and you can’t make one sport’s pay significantly more than another.”
Said Eberhard: “The pay today makes it hard to get quality people, and being an educator I’d like to see more teachers than more umpires. But you’re not going to get either unless you raise the pay a bit.”
There is also opposition to other concepts: cutting the games to five innings, stopping the game after a team is up 10 runs or more or limiting it to a set time length.
Stevenson said El Segundo spends $200 for a bus on road trips and believes that would be a waste of money if the game was limited by time. And blowout games have a positive side: They let coaches give reserves playing time.
Another possible solution to the umpire shortage would be to stagger league schedules. Right now most leagues prefer playing Tuesdays, Wednesday and Fridays. Scheduling some league game on Monday and Saturday would be helpful, according to school officials.
The City Section experimented with the format last year by playing some games on Mondays and Thursdays.
But most feel that the answer is to hire and retain qualified umpires.
“It’s always been a problem and it seems to be getting worse all the time,” Harkness said. “There’s just more contests than umpires. Schools have stopped closing and there’s so many schools in the L.A. area that it’s mind-boggling when they all have to get together and play.
“There’s really nothing sinister about it. It’s just a matter of supply and demand.”
Pacheco said he realizes the special needs of baseball and is willing to compromise. But, because he is also vice president on the council of the Southern California Baseball Officials Assn., he is responsible for the welfare of the other members.
For that reason, he said, his unit is prepared to walk out if changes and improvements are not made by the start of the 1990 season.
Still, he would hate to have to call a strike on a pitch that wasn’t thrown on the diamond.
“I think umpires have made an attempt to give something to baseball, but baseball hasn’t given anything back,” he said. “Now it’s a thankless job and I think it’s going to get worse before it gets any better. Someone is going to have to step in and see that baseball is unique and needs to be treated a little differently than other sports.
“Otherwise, I think umpires are an endangered species.”