n my early years as an amateur umpire, there was no formal performance appraisal. Once in a blue moon we’d get a call from an assigner if he or a coach was upset about something, but that was the extent of our oversight. We got nice assignments (or didn’t) and advanced (or didn’t) based on word of mouth from peers and coaches, relationships with assigners and luck.
To illustrate how loose things were, after my first year in my local chapter, I moved from Division 5 to 2, not because of anyone’s assessment of my ability, but because I was my assigner’s protégé and he did a tit-for-tat because he hated a fellow board member who had arranged the same leap for his son (we were both 18). That boost up the ladder made me eligible for high school games, which I began receiving although I was one year out of high school myself and barely knew what I was doing.
The plus side of this laissez-faire system was we didn’t have to look over our shoulder, fearful that one bad move might get us in hot water. We could also administer frontier justice. A strike zone could magically expand with a griping hitter or shrink with a pitcher who acted up. One college umpire, who had been in Triple-A ball and took no flak, called three straight balks on a pitcher who yapped about a ball four call in the last inning of a tied game. Game over. Just try that today.
On the flip side, some umpires looked sloppy, didn’t know the rules or mechanics or try to improve, and gave a subpar effort because, if they were on the assigner’s good side, they knew they’d get top assignments no matter what.
Formal assessment began in major college baseball around 1990 and filtered down into lower levels. Today, some areas have robust systems, some have none and some are in-between, maybe with coaches evaluating (not ideal, to say the least). Although the recent shortage of umpires and the need for warm bodies to cover games has caused things to backslide a bit, most amateur umpires have some form of accountability expectations and assessment is part of that. Most systems focus on appearance, strike zone dimensions and consistency, rules and mechanics knowledge, handling situations and communication skills.
Whether we like it or not, the emphasis on accountability and assessment is not going to lessen. Instead of resisting it, as some do, I believe umpires — at least, those interested in doing a good job — should embrace it. There’s a saying that success is a function of preparation meeting opportunity. Not only does performance appraisal (handled correctly) allow us to improve by identifying weak areas, but it also gives us an opportunity to shine and get an edge over others with whom we’re competing for assignments and advancement who may not be as industrious about preparation as we are.
There’s a lot about assessment that we can’t control. What are the expectations? What’s the grading scale? Are the evaluators knowledgeable and objective or do they play favorites? And so on. But there’s a lot we can control.
Carrying extra weight? Shed it. Cap look like it’s from the dark ages? Get a new one. Pants so tight your belly is hanging over your belt? Get a larger size. Not on top of rules or mechanics? Get in the books. Form study groups. Weak in positioning, plate stance, signals, etc.? Watch video. Seek help from top-flight umpires in your area. Experiment in front of a mirror.
Strike zone shaky? Work scrimmages, even if you’re a veteran. Seek advice from people adept in this area. Maybe it’s a function not of basic judgment, but instead of positioning or timing, which can be fixed. Not good at handling a messy situation or communicating with players and coaches? There are tons of study guides on game management; use them. Attend clinics; all address these topics (although, because the pro and amateur games are different, I’d opt for the ones with solid amateur instructors).
The bottom line is today there’s not a single area in which one might be weak where there aren’t resources available to fix it if one devotes the time and effort to find and use them. If you hone your skills and craft a positive image, you’ll have the confidence to think, “I’ve got this!” if an evaluator shows up. Because you may not know when that will be, assume one will be at any game you work and give 100 percent effort. I know a fledgling umpire who dogged it in a scrimmage and, when an evaluator met with him afterward, said, “Gee, if I had known you were here, I’d have worked harder.” Not good for career-building.
Don’t worry if you make a mistake; every evaluator I’ve known assessed based on a body of work, not one play or pitch. Don’t change how you usually do things, for this may take you out of your comfort zone.
Don’t be so anxious to impress with your hustle that you hyperactively dart here and there; overdoing it makes it seem like you’re not ready to work at that level. Focus on being relaxed and in control and moving in a brisk, cruise-control manner. If you’re working the plate, think about slow, rhythmical, consistent timing. In the first inning, get in your stance for warmup pitches, for the sooner it feels like “game on” the quicker you’ll settle down. Then take a deep breath and get after it. Once the first pitch is thrown you’ll forget anyone is watching you.
Later, if the evaluator meets with you, don’t have a “yes, but” answer to his comments. Be receptive; he’s likely been around and may have something beneficial to offer. Based on years as a supervisor and evaluator, I guarantee being branded as someone “who doesn’t take criticism well” can negate any positives that came out of the evaluation itself.
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