Photo Credit: Bob Messina

Many new umpires want to advance to the major college ranks. Some will, most won’t. Some who fall by the wayside will be perfectly capable, perhaps even better than some who make it. What may keep them from reaching their goal are factors over which they have no control — and of which they may not even be aware.

First, I believe that many young umpires are in too much of a hurry to move up. Assigners have told me that it seems that newcomers expect to work varsity high school ball their second year, college ball in their third, and the College World Series soon after that; otherwise they quit. But no matter how vast an umpire’s potential, there is no way that someone with only a handful of years of umpiring experience can be ready for college ball. There is too much that can happen that he or she will be unprepared to deal with.

It takes about five years at any level to master the strike zone and other intricacies that may be encountered. So as much as I can see this generating some eye-rolling, I think umpires need to do what we did when I began: not even think about major college ball for at least 10 years, after several years at, respectively, the kid ball, high school and small-college levels. Keep in mind that anyone lucky enough to get the chance to work in a college conference, at any level, very likely will get only that chance. If he or she blows it because something weird happens, he or she screws up a rule, his or her strike zone is erratic and/or not the “accepted” college zone, he or she falls apart in tough situations, or he or she just doesn’t seem ready for prime time, it’s a good bet that umpire won’t get another bite at the apple.

One factor that can affect your chances of working major college ball is geography. Travel expenses being what they are, some conferences don’t choose officials from outside their footprint — the states in which their schools are located. If exceptions are made in one sport, the other sports will clamor for the same exceptions, so it’s easier not to make them in any sport. So if there are no major conferences represented in your state, this may rule you out.

As well, major conferences have “feeder” systems. The Big 12 Conference, for example, where I umpired for years, tends to get umpires from Conference USA (and others), which tends to get them from the Southland (and others). Thus, barring something unusual, to have a chance at the Big 12, you need to spend some time in these smaller conferences. Most others work the same way. When it is time to apply, set your sights low, hope to get picked and then be ready to take things a step at a time.

Then there is supply and demand. In any given year, there aren’t many openings. When there are, major conferences more often fill them with umpires whom the minor leagues have released under their up-or-out policy, which dictates that if you aren’t a big league prospect in a few years, you’re gone. This has resulted in a lot of guys in their 20s and 30s taking the limited slots that otherwise would exist for aspiring amateurs. Faced with a choice of hiring the latter or an ex-pro, I’ll probably hire the ex-pro, for the ex-pro brings a lot to the table.

Size and appearance matter. Much has been written on this so I won’t dwell on it here; suffice it to say that major conferences don’t hire overweight umpires. You need to have an athletic build. Not every prospect will have the “it” factor that makes them stand out, but if they look dumpy they’ll get passed over.

Age may be a factor. If you’re getting up in years — 50s or late 40s — a coordinator may pass over you because he has applicants who are younger and as or more qualified. Fair? Maybe not. Illegal? No. As independent contractors, umpires are not protected by federal anti-discrimination laws.

One thing that can get you exposure is attending an umpire camp. At last count, there are about a million. But be careful: they are not shortcuts to becoming a solid umpire or an automatic way to advance. I cannot, as an observer, see the myriad things I need to see to judge a prospective staff member based on what he does at a camp. My assessment demands that I see you several times, over a few years, under game conditions. I want to see if you can keep a consistent strike zone from the first inning to the last and from game one to the next, how you handle people and situations, and if you know a balk when you see it, react properly when the ball is hit, look the part and stay composed under pressure, etc. Bottom line: You can learn valuable stuff at camps, and it might get you on a college coordinator’s radar screen, but that’s about as far as it goes.

Which brings up networking. People generally are not going to knock at your door and ask you to umpire; you need to put yourself out there (but only when, objectively, you have the refinement and experience to be ready). Camps are a way to do this. The problem arises when a camper makes it seem that the desire to expose himself is his sole, or main, reason for attending. Coordinators don’t like suck-ups or people who appear to be. If I think you’re at a camp to learn all you can and are incidentally there to network, fine — that’s how the system works; but if I think you’re faking it from the learning standpoint and are there to be seen, I’m not going to be interested.

I ran an umpire camp for 12 years. When I thought an applicant was coming only because I was the NCAA national coordinator and a conference coordinator, I turned him down.

If you can work scrimmages at a major college, do it. It won’t be game conditions, but if you’re honest, you can get an idea of whether you can handle things at that level. Work the plate, for that’s where you make a name for yourself. Ask the pitching coach afterward what he thought of your work. And go often. I once hired an umpire for a conference staff because, on his own dime, and for years, he worked spring and fall scrimmages at almost every conference school. I thought that anyone with that much “want-to” deserved a chance to show what he could do.

What I’ve written above barely scratches the surface. In the end, it boils down to the fact that whether you advance is a function of things you can control and some you can’t. So forget the latter and focus on the former. Above all, enjoy what you’re doing at whatever level you are.

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