When I was eight years old, my cousin and I always looked forward to the circus coming to town. The troupe would have a parade from the railroad spur to where they were performing. I loved seeing the elephants and we would chase after them all the way to the arena. Chasing after those elephants was pursuing something that I loved but I could never get close enough.
My softball career was in many ways the same.
My association often asks me to evaluate and umpire with up-and-coming umpires as they work their way through the ranks. It has been a great ride for me, so giving back is something I enjoy.
One week, I was asked to work with a new umpire who was working his first year in a community college conference. That umpire worked hard during the game, asked many questions afterward and was enjoyable to work with. In many ways, he was a lot like me when I started umpiring.
I started umpiring at 45 and started working college ball at 54. It was the lure of working higher level games and the challenges that come with it that made it so attractive. It was then that I decided to start chasing the elephant — the higher reaches of the sport.
The game was so much more competitive than I had experienced in the past and the expectations much higher. Doubt, success, failure, redemption all became a part my softball career. I cannot say my wife shared my enthusiasm, but she gave me my time and I was thankful for her support. There was no offseason. With year-round training, online testing every month, softball camps, roundtables, fall ball, never turning down games and striving to be a better umpire, softball was taking a major part of my life.
I knew that my age was a factor. I looked around at the Division I umpires and understood they all started umpiring at a younger age. If I had any dreams of working Division I games, I was at a disadvantage. I was a fair umpire who hustled and worked very hard. I never worried about keeping up with the successes of others. After every game, I always expected a phone call, but my services were not needed.
Each successful step up the ladder came with the help of others. Observations that were critical gave me a list of mechanics to work on. After one of my games, I asked one of my observers about working at the next level. I appreciated his frankness and unwillingness to tell me the big lie that I could do it. That was reality time, full in your face but with a gracious hand from someone that I looked up to. “You are too old to work at that level,” he said. I knew it and I had no problem with his answer.
Getting back to that umpire with whom I worked that community college game. How could I explain the amount of work and sacrifice ahead of him? I decided to be open with him. He was 62 and just starting to chase his elephant.
I did not envy his situation. We talked more about finding personal satisfaction from the game, no matter what level we worked. I reminisced about my dad and fishing. Dad had said a boy starts out fishing from a pier. As he gets he older buys a bigger and bigger boat. As time passes, the boats get smaller and he eventually is back fishing off the pier. You are still fishing, so find peace with that. To me, the same applies to umpiring.
My partner understood. We discussed how very few umpires have the opportunity to work higher levels. Fate, timing, other commitments and life in general keep many umpires from reaching their full potential. That game was in early spring and we were thankful to be on the field on a sunny, warm day doing what we loved. That was also the day that I decided it would be my last year working college ball.
There are more chapters to our lives and we must not be afraid to turn the page and explore them. Walking away from the field does not mean there will not be new challenges ahead. I will still keep the passion for softball and want to share that experience with our next generation of umpires.
Umpiring created a tight bond with friends that I will cherish. It would be hard to find another set of professionals that have a greater passion for what they do. They do not do it for the money. But if camaraderie was money, those would be the richest people in the world.
P.S. I worked a rec ball game one day. Still had fun even if there were no elephants around.
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