(Photo Credit: Dale Garvey)

One of the hallmarks of Referee is the willingness to publish articles offering advice on how officials can advance in their particular sports. In my almost three years on the job, the pages of this magazine have featured numerous tales about what assigners and coordinators are looking for when they show up at camps and clinics, and these pieces have traditionally been written from those decision-makers’ perspective.

With this article, we’re going to go a little different route and offer a little inside baseball — pun intended.

For several years, I have been one of those umpires soaking up every bit of advancement advice available, it having paid off with my first junior college and NCAA assignments in 2019. I was fortunate to be assigned to my first NCAA Division II series last spring, only to see it disappear once COVID-19 began wreaking havoc on college baseball schedules.

Fortunately, while the pandemic prevented many ballgames from being played in 2020, it had a much less adverse effect on the offseason camp schedule for umpires. As such, I was able to attend three different evaluation camps between July and October. At each, I was able to come away with advice and suggestions for my own umpiring career, as well as a plethora of story ideas to share with readers of this magazine.

This article, however, will attempt to serve as a companion piece to the many “assigner advice” pieces we publish. Think of it as a sort of “camp confidential” from one who is currently in your shoes and trying to move up the ladder.

Every camp is a job interview, from soup to nuts.

We say all the time that officiating is an avocation, not a vocation. That said, if you are attending a camp or clinic, you are doing so for one of two reasons: to receive additional training and education, or to get noticed for possible future assignments. If the latter, you better believe that camp is every bit a job interview as if you walked into a Wall Street high rise seeking work as an investment banker.

I learned as much the hard way on the first day of my first camp this summer. I arrived freshly shaven, uniforms pressed, shoes shined. I put forth what I believed to be a strong effort in my first game of the day, working the bases on a two-umpire crew with a partner to whom I would be tethered for the next four days.

A few hours later, I went behind the plate. It was a hot, humid, Midwestern summer day, and in the seventh inning, one of my legs started cramping. It didn’t prevent me from finishing that final inning, but as we came off the field and met up with our game evaluator, it was one of the first things he mentioned, as he noticed I was moving gingerly.

I was also using a new mask that I had worn only a couple of times and had not finished altering to my personal needs and specifications. I had not yet cut off or taped down the straps. That was likewise addressed and included in my evaluation.

Come the end of the four-day, eight-game camp, these would prove to be minor, momentary blips on what I believe was an otherwise solid showing. But they were blips nonetheless that could have been avoided had I taken care of business before stepping on the field. Assigners notice everything. Those of us looking to advance and work games for them need to give them 100 reasons to hire us, not one to cross us off their list.

Take advantage of whatever breaks come your way.

My second camp this offseason focused on three-person mechanics, with which I have limited experience. On day one of the three-day session, my inexperience showed. While working on the bases, I felt as if I was always a step or two slow, spending too much time thinking about my mechanics instead of just naturally reacting in a way that comes with hundreds of repetitions. The assigners and evaluators on hand stressed that such a learning curve is normal and to not let it beat us down. After all, one of the reasons for us to be at the camp was to learn this stuff — we were not expected to be experts.

That said, there was one umpire in our midst who had worked several D-I games over the past few years. And on the final two days, as luck would have it, we were on the same crew. I’m not ashamed to say I attached myself to his hip. When he rotated in to work third base, I jumped in at first. When he went to first, I jumped in at third. I watched everything he did. I listened to everything he said. His pre-pitch communication skills were excellent and helped put me in the proper positions for success.

By the time I walked off the field Sunday afternoon following my last game, my comfort level with three-person mechanics was at a completely different level than 48 hours earlier, all because of a fortunate crew assignment. Don’t let such opportunities go to waste.

Communication skills matter.

I’m not talking about onfield communication between umpires — which we all know is extremely important.

If you want to move up the umpiring food chain, you need to know how to effectively communicate off the field at camps and clinics as well, and in the days immediately preceding and following them. Such communication manifests itself in many different ways:

Anyone who has attended a camp knows that crew changes and field changes often occur. Are you a good enough listener to get to the right place at the right time with the right people?

Are you able to effectively communicate with on-site assigners and evaluators about your officiating goals?
Are you willing and able to make effective use of social gatherings associated with the camp to network with your fellow umpires and instructors?

And finally, do you take care of business once the camp is over? Do you send grammatically correct, professional emails to those who took the time to come evaluate you and thank them for doing so? Do you strike the proper balance between showing such appreciation and being an annoying pest? Do you keep your online availability up to date so that if and when an assigner decides to give you a shot, he isn’t met with a “decline” message?
All of these skills are every bit as important as the ability to get calls right.

Are you where you need to be?

The willingness to plop down hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of hard-earned dollars to improve your craft as an umpire is commendable. However, it also needs to be wise.

If you are an inexperienced umpire, jumping straight into an advanced three-person mechanics camp isn’t a smart investment. Umpires need to recognize the skills they have as well as the ones they want and need to immediately obtain and sharpen. Umpires who get in over their heads are not only failing to do themselves any favors, they also aren’t helping their fellow campers, either.

If your primary reason for attending a camp is to be seen by assigners, are you picking camps that make geographical sense for you and your umpiring career? It might not make the most sense to fly from one coast to another to attend a camp and receive evaluations from assigners who cannot use you because it would be cost-prohibitive.

Pick the camps or clinics that are right for you so you can get the most out of the experience and give yourself the best shot at success moving forward.

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