Shawn Northey was finishing his day as a Duluth Denfeld math teacher May 6 when he received a message from Esko activities director Chad Stoskopf that umpires were needed to cover that afternoon’s Esko-South Ridge high school baseball game.
Northey and officiating partner Bob Nutt had been scheduled to call the Eskomos’ C game later that night and, since they are not registered with the Minnesota State High School League, needed a special waiver to be able to officiate the varsity game.
“Normally in past years I’d say, ‘Let me go grab a couple guys,’ since we’d always have a couple guys in the well,” said Dan Johnson, who has handled assignments for the Tri-State Officials Association the past two years after scheduling college games for eight years. “But the way we are now, I didn’t have anybody to give (Stoskopf) when he called me at 2:30, 3 o’clock.”
After the 2020 season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Northland’s umpiring situation has grown dire. In 2019, the association had 65 officials for baseball and softball. That number has dropped to 35 active, registered officials this spring.
“Our numbers have been declining for several years,” umpire Tom Muehlberger of Duluth said. “But a lot of people after the COVID year off decided to not come back. We lost about 40% of our ranks. We had a hard time on really busy days when we had those guys.”
While a handful of officials decided not to come back due to issues surrounding COVID, Johnson said, several other reasons are to blame as well. As older umpires step aside, retention among younger umpires has waned and recruitment has been lax. Meanwhile, female officials have been nonexistent in recent years.
“We have to do a better job at recruitment,” said Brett Klosowski, who handles between six and eight high school softball games a week and has officiated college hockey for 27 years. “We’re not getting anywhere near the number of people giving it a chance like we did 10, 15 years ago.”
Johnson often talks to seniors afterward, encouraging them to give back to the game. It hasn’t been very fruitful.
“A lot of it is attrition and no young guys wanting to come in and fill their shoes,” Johnson said by phone en route to umpiring a recent NSIC doubleheader in Bemidji, Minnesota. “That’s been our biggest issue, losing them over time and nobody wanting to fill the void.”
Stoskopf said the virus and subsequent job losses amplified an already existing problem.
“We’ve been seeing this for a number of years … but COVID pushed it over the top,” the Esko AD said. “A lot of people backed out because of COVID and then there’s people who were laid off from their primary job because of COVID and now they’re collecting unemployment and can’t work because it would take away their primary income.”
Situation ‘far from ideal’
As a result, several Northland varsity games have been postponed or canceled while JV games are either pushed later into the evening, are covered by non-registered officials or are canceled altogether.
The section playoffs, which begin next week, may need to be altered to accommodate the dearth of umpires.
“They’re going to be an absolute disaster,” Johnson said. “There’s not enough officials to cover the four classes. There’s no other way to get it done other than to spread (the schedule) around.”
Varsity games have been called by one umpire fairly often, a situation school administrators and coaches hope to avoid at all costs during the postseason.
Superior had a recent Tuesday baseball game against Proctor delayed until noon Wednesday so that it could be staffed.
“In my 22 years, we’ve never had to move a game because of an umpire shortage,” Superior baseball coach Don Dembroski said. “That’s a new one for me. Hopefully it’s a temporary issue that won’t continue. We need more young guys to get into umpiring.”
That’s the crux of the issue.
Whether they consider the pay substandard or just hate dealing with boorish parents and angry coaches, the younger generation is not enamored with the job.
“When they have that first confrontational experience, they say, ‘That’s enough for me,’ ” said Johnson, a 1992 Duluth East graduate, who has been calling games for 23 years. “Our goal is to keep them for three years. If we can keep them for three years, we know they’ll stay. But those first couple years are the challenging part.”
Muehlberger says the newer ranks of officials are more affected when someone barks in their ear.
“They’re going to say, ‘I don’t need this,’ ” Muehlberger said. “I’ve been doing it long enough (10 years) that I let most of that stuff roll off my back. Most of the coaches and parents know me and know that I’m not going to put up with a lot of stuff.”
Still, Klosowski says coaches and parents have become much more tolerant over the years.
“I don’t believe coaches are as aggressive or vocal and complain as much as they did back in the day,” Klosowski said. “I don’t think the abuse is as near as bad as it used to be in any sport. The younger guys, though, just don’t have the tolerance for any kind of abuse. They don’t want to get yelled at at all.”
While umpires won’t get rich calling games, the work is constant and that can pay some bills during the spring season.
Officials receive $80 for varsity baseball games and $52 for junior varsity games. Two-man varsity softball crews receive $71 each and umpires get about $100 for calling a varsity game solo. Plus, Johnson says, the MSHSL has waived the nominal registration fee in hopes of generating interest.
While one-person crews are commonplace for summer leagues, calling games solo at the high school level used to be a last resort. That’s becoming far more frequent in 2021, and it’s an imperfect situation.
“Calling something from 60 or 80 feet away is far from ideal,” said Muehlberger, a self-employed worker who has officiated prep softball games the past 10 years. “You want to do the best that you can and you have to use all the information that you can gather from what you are seeing to be able to make a call.”
Muehlberger has been in that position several times this spring, though he added, “I know the mechanics of it pretty well (from calling summer-league games).”
The fast-paced action and poor angles, naturally, can lead to judgment calls where umpires are unable to see plays unfold.
No easy solution
Solutions to the problem are not readily apparent.
Creating — or reinstituting — a mentor program for young officials is one idea being bandied about.
Northey, a Two Harbors graduate, says he had a mentor in veteran Ed Mettner of Cloquet when Northey began calling games as a Minnesota Duluth student in the 1980s. That gave him confidence he could do the job, Northey says.
But the current lack of umpires makes that arrangement difficult.
“When you lose 30 officials, those mentors are working every single night, too,” Northey said.
Muehlberger says he attempts to establish a rapport with players, especially the catchers, who are used to knowing balls from strikes.
“There’s a need to create some kind of mentoring program so when you get a new umpire, you don’t just say ‘Here ya go, have at it,’ ” Muehlberger said. “Maybe you can train them by having a couple teams do a scrimmage before the season starts and go through the mechanics instead of throwing them out at game time. Then they are in the wrong position at the wrong time and they get discouraged.”
Lexi Janigo, a 2016 Northwestern graduate who played softball at Minnesota Duluth, is one of those catchers who appreciated receiving advice from Muehlberger. For Janigo, now a third-grade teacher at Iron River Elementary School, it gave her an appreciation of umpires, something she saw precious few times coming from the crowd.
“Players and parents, too, don’t have that respect for the umpires,” she said. “That is a huge deterrent for young people (to become an umpire) — they don’t want to have to deal with parents. And what player is going to respect an umpire if all they hear is their parents chirping in their ears about a missed call? It’s a waterfall effect. People my age don’t want to get involved umping.”
Especially women. The Tri-State Association currently has no female umpires.
Janigo says she has considered it, “but for me, personally, I don’t think I could handle people chirping in my ear. It’s really unfortunate that there aren’t a lot of women in the umpiring world, and that’s something that needs to change.”
Game times and sites may need to change as well. Some say doubleheaders at neutral sites — especially those with lights — may become the norm. More night games could allow those whose jobs bump up into the usual 4 p.m. start time to officiate more often.
“There are several factors (behind the current shortage),” Northey said. “Myself, I can’t get out of school until 3:45, so a 4 o’clock start is impossible for me. Even with a 4:30 start, I’m looking at no more than a 15-minute coverage area.”
Perhaps Dembroski was on to something when he flippantly suggested the very people who were part of the problem could be part of the solution.
“Some of those parents who are really good umpires from the bleachers, maybe they need to step out on the field and show their skills,” he said.
And get paid to boot.