One of the most familiar sights in baseball is the trio of figures gathered at home plate before each pitch. The batter waits for the delivery, while the catcher and umpire huddle behind the dish, waiting to receive the ball or make a call.
In northeast Indiana this year, however, that group has been split up for social-distancing purposes because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“When we umpired this year, we had to do it from behind the pitcher's mound and not behind the plate,” said Dave Jones, an experienced umpire who worked a handful of games this season before deciding to opt out for the rest of the summer. “My passion is behind the plate. I love being behind the plate, in control of the game. It just didn't feel the same this year.”
Jones, 45, estimated that he usually umpires 200 to 300 games per summer, but this year he did only about 10, including a few in Ohio, before deciding to hang up his chest protector for the year.
A variety of factors contributed to his decision, in addition to the inability to work from behind the plate: his wife's concerns about him working after his temperature was elevated shortly following a game (he did not test positive for COVID-19), a feeling of discomfort at being one of the few people at some games with a mask on and the eye-opening cancellation of the Little League World Series were all considerations for him.
Regardless of why he decided to stop umpiring for the summer, Jones is far from alone in his decision. Austen Rigelman, president of the St. Joe Umpires Association and tournament director at the World Baseball Academy, estimates the number of umpires available is down 30% this summer.
“If you look at the average age of officials ... (it's) probably in the 50s,” Rigelman said. “To get the average that high, you've got a lot of officials in their 60s or even in their 70s. If you look at the CDC, what they're saying, that's a high risk. (These umpires) say they're high risk, they don't need the money and they're (usually) doing it just because they love the sport.
“The risk doesn't out-weigh the reward in a lot of these people's eyes.”
The shortage of umpires has forced some games to use only one, situated behind the mound, instead of the usual two. It's more difficult for a single umpire to be in the correct position for every call and in a normal year that might create some stress, but Rigelman said teams have generally been understanding of the difficulties the pandemic has caused.
“Really the coaches and parents have been supportive of this, they understand why we're doing what we're doing,” he said. “It's for everybody's safety and health. You would think there would be a lot of problems, but there really hasn't. I think everybody would say they'd rather go back to what it was and be normal, but we live in a world where that's not possible right now.”
Even the players understand how difficult a job the umpires have this year, even if they are able to field a two-man crew for a game. Carson Nutter, a member of the 16U TinCaps, a travel baseball team in the area, said he'd rather see the umpires behind the plate, but he's happy the precautions necessary to play games were put in place.
“It seems like it's a lot more challenging for the umps, when there's just one out there,” said Nutter, who plays high school baseball at Homestead and will be a junior in the fall. “It's a lot harder when you're trying to make calls on the bases and focusing on calling a good game behind the plate.
“It's just a positive environment all summer because everybody's just glad we can go out there and get games in in this situation, so regardless of what you the umps were doing, you're just sitting back and enjoying the games,” Nutter added.
Those umpires that have worked games this year have not been without challenges, however. Calling balls and strikes from more than 65 feet away is not an easy task, especially at higher levels where breaking balls come into play.
“It's a totally different (perspective),” Jones said. “You can't see the curveball or the sinker, you can't see where it crosses the plate. It looks like it should be called, but back behind the pitcher's mound – you're talking 6 feet behind the pitcher, usually – it's a different perspective.”
In addition, having one umpire behind the mound and another stationed at first base throws off the mechanics umpires are taught. On each play in a two-umpire game, the path of the ball prompts the umps to move in tandem, covering as much ground as possible in an effort to be in the best position possible to make a call.
Umpires who have worked this year have had to learn new mechanics on the fly.
“A lot of training that we've done in the past, we couldn't use this year,” Jones said.
Still, the umpires who have chosen to work games this year have found a more receptive environment. Mistakes aren't generally treated quite as harshly, according to Rigelman, and the umps are often just excited to be working games at all.
“There's an attitude right now, and it's a good attitude, that we're just happy to be doing something that makes us feel like we're doing something normal,” Rigelman said. “So parents and I think coaches have taken that step back on everything and if we do have a close call, maybe a call doesn't go in their favor, they try to remember that.
“I would actually probably say we've had less calls and less problems and complaints this year.”
As for Jones, he misses picking up tips from more senior umpires and mentoring the younger ones, but he's stayed busy fishing and spending time with his wife and grandchildren. In the fall, he hopes work as an official for high school football games.