Behind the Mask, Part I

By: Tome' Higgins - January 6, 2015

Tome1I often hear people say that they could never be an umpire. The thought of getting hit by a pitched or batted ball, yelled at by fans and coaches, or the fear of missing a call scare most people away wanting to become a baseball official.

My name is Tome’ Higgins. I have umpired high school, American Legion, Dixie Youth, and travel/showcase baseball for twelve years. If it can happen on a baseball field I have probably seen it. No umpire will have the same perspective on how he or she sees things from an umpire’s standpoint. Since day one I took the simplest approach to officiate baseball. Hopefully my insight on the game can give a better understanding of what we as umpires deal within a typical game.

In 2002 I was a recent college graduate with a wife and newborn baby. Like many newlyweds, my wife and I struggle financially and needed an extra income to help with bills young couples incur. I pondered for hours one night trying to figure out what I was going to do to make some extra money. I wanted to do something fun.

Suddenly during the early morning hours I sat up in the bed and said to myself, “I can umpire baseball!” Excited about the thought of being an umpire, that morning I called the high school league office to inquire about becoming a member of the umpires association here in Columbia.

After contacting the booking secretary I attended my first umpires meeting and to my surprise, I learned that there was much more to the game than calling balls, strikes, safe, out, foul and fair. Who knew there was a specific rotation umpires made when a ball is hit to a certain part of the field? I thought the plate umpire called balls and strikes and the base umpire was responsible for anything that happened on the bases or in the field.

Boy was I wrong. 

I had played the game of baseball competitively in high school and on the collegiate level but I had no idea that umpiring baseball took so much preparation. It felt like the first day of school and I was the new kid in class. I quickly remembered what my mother had told me all my life. She would always tell me that anything worth having is worth working for.  The association members saw that I was interested in becoming an umpire and they collectively stood behind me every step of the way. If there was a question I had someone was always willing to help. Twelve years later I have blossomed into a decent umpire. I endured many bumps along the road and today I still seek ways to get better.

Tome3Coaches and umpires have better relationships than most people would think. I don’t think coaches wake up in the mornings thinking about how they can make the umpires officiating their game that day a living nightmare and vice versa. Coaches expectations are simple. They want umpires to know the rules, be consistent with their calls, be in position, hustle and be professional. It is the umpire’s goal each night to possess those five qualities.  He/she knows that if I perform those essential duties to the best of their ability, the night will normally go smoothly. 

That’s not true all the time. 

Some nights umpires just don’t have it. No matter how hard we try, our timing is a little fast occasionally, our judgment on balls and strikes aren’t consistent, and yes, we get some calls wrong.

Those are the nights we dread and coaches hate.   

I can remember two specific games in my career where I wanted to walk off the field. My timing was bad and my judgment was awful. That game couldn’t get over quick enough.

Later that week when my check arrived I contemplated sending it back. That is how terrible I was that night. Those nights don’t happen too often but when they do, that is when things can get pretty ugly between coach and umpire. The coach feels like he/she isn’t being treated fairly by the umpire and they want to let you know that they aren’t happy. A lot of situations on the field between coach and umpire can be defused without the big blowups we see on television and YouTube. Coaches will normally tell you what they saw and asked how you came up with the call you made. Umpires will then explain what they saw and inform the coach why that call was made. More often than not, they will both agree to disagree and the game will proceed.

Part II, coming tomorrow...