PLAYING IT SAFE: Umpires face unique challenges during pandemic
By BRANDON HURLEY
Game balls are off limits. For umpires, that is.
Both the Iowa Girls’ High School Athletic Union and the Iowa High School Athletic Association have agreed to cut down on a potential spread of germs by banning umpires from touching a baseball or softball this summer.
It’s all in an effort to slow the spread of the novel Coronavirus as Iowa attempts its brave transition as the first state to return to high school sports. The umpires, just like thousands of athletes and coaches across the state, will soon be adjusting to a ‘new normal.’
Coon Rapids’ Cory Meyer, who umpires softball throughout the area and also coaches the Crusaders boys basketball team, is busy studying the new guidelines as the season-opener approaches June 15. He’s one of many who must adjust to new rules and regulations amid a worldwide pandemic.
“The game is going to be a little bit different from an umpire’s perspective,” Meyer said.
The biggest concern was making sure umpires don’t contract COVID-19, either from coaches, athletes or fans. One third of Iowa’s softball umpires are 65 years or older, while the baseball crowd sports similar numbers. Though Meyer doesn’t quite fit into that crowd, he understands the concern for safety and is more than willing to adhere to a few precautions.
“There are a lot more protocols that are put into place,” Meyer said. “It’s alarming that we do have a large number of umpires that are a little bit older and their safety concerns definitely have to be addressed.”
The most glaring change deals with the game ball. Softballs and baseballs are off limits. The home squad is required to house six balls while the visiting team will bring six of their own. When a new ball is needed, it will come directly from the dugout. Umpires will not have any balls stashed in their pouches, nor will they switch out balls per the catcher’s request. On that notion, only athletes are recommended to fetch foul balls outside of the field of play. Fans and spectators are encouraged to stay away.
It was a simple tweak, and one that may take some time adjusting to, but a change that IHSAA administrator Todd Tharp believed was necessary.
“We feel it is important to have as few people as possible handle the baseballs (and softballs),” he said. “Hopefully with this measure put in place, baseballs are only be handled by defensive team and are being kept separate from the opposing team.”
Despite various rumors swirling since Governor Kim Reynolds approved the resumption of summer sports on May 20, home plate umpires will not be required to move behind the mound. They’ll stay put behind the catcher, but only after taking a few more steps back.
Both the IGSHAU and the IHSAA agreed that moving an umpire behind the mound to call balls and strikes would not only insult the original fabric of the game, it would also present even greater challenges.
“They thought if they went that way, it wasn’t a true game anymore,” Meyer said. “If they were going to do something like that, they felt it wouldn’t be worth playing.”
Proper social distancing as a home plate umpire will be a bit challenging, Meyer admitted. Asking an official to step back six feet from the catcher would likely push them right against the backstop and a little far from the action, obstructing their best judgement to make the proper call. To compromise, they’ll provide a bit more space than usual.
The other challenge of calling a game behind the pitcher is determining foul balls. No longer could the home plate umpire stare directly down the line, instead attempting to gauge their own depth perception and guess where the ball would’ve landed.
“Logistically, you can’t do it,” Meyer said.
Umpires are encouraged to drive to and from games alone, and will be pushed to bring a change of clothes to switch out of in between the junior varsity and varsity competitions each night.
Umpires, like athletes and coaches, should take their temperature before arriving to the diamond each night and once again when they return home. Health is of the utmost importance. Meyer doesn’t feel these changes will have much of concerning affect on the game if it means keeping everyone involved healthy. Most of all, the Iowa’s umpires have a responsibility to fulfill, they are there to make the games operate smoothly for a generation itching to return to some sort of normalcy.
“We have to wash our hands a lot and make sure that we use hand sanitizer,” Meyer said. “The bottom line is, there are a big chunk of kids that want to get out and play right now and parents that want to get out. As umpires, we’ve got to take safety concerns and measures, but we need to get out there for the kids.”
Perhaps the most heated conversations revolve around face masks and who should wear them. Umpires will not be required to don the new safety gear, and Meyer believes it’s a rule that is a step in the right direction. Asking an umpire to wear a restrictive face covering underneath the protective mask they already wear during Iowa summers is asking a lot.
“It’s already hot enough out there, and some times it is a really long day,” Meyer said. “They are encouraging us to wear a mask, but nobody is stressing us.”
As far as athletes are concerned as to whether or not they wear masks, it will likely be on a school-by-school basis. There is no rule requiring the players to strap on face masks while in the field of play.
In the same notion, social distancing will still remain a top priority during games. Meetings on the mound are restricted to merely the coach and player. No high fives are allowed, neither are team chants or songs, which are often prevalent during softball contests. During gameplay, a pitcher cannot, at any time, lick their fingers or spit on their hands to attempt to clean them off. Transfer of saliva is a big no-no.
“All those things are going to be different,” Meyer said. “That’s something different in the past, they don’t want any of that stuff. The first time it’s going to be a warning.
The game is probably going to be slowed down a little bit. We’re going to have give a little more time in between to disinfect stuff, those types of things. But that’s all part of what we are going through right now. I think the world’s probably not going to be the same. We’re going to have to make adjustments in everything we do.”
Thankfully, Meyer admits, umpires won’t be held responsible to enforce all these new guidelines and restrictions. Each contest will have a designated game manager who keeps a close eye on the athletes. Several warnings will be handed out, though any potential penalties have not been decided. Umpires are instructed to stick to what they know best, enforcing the traditional rules of the game.
“They’re going to be charged with making sure that the (players) are social distancing. Making sure that everybody’s abiding by the rules,” Meyer said of the game managers. “Our job (as umpires), honestly, is not to control that. Our job is to call balls and strikes.”
Despite the new safety concerns, which will take some time to get comfortable with, Meyer believes once games start June 15, everyone will settle back into their routines. It’ll feel like a normal Iowa summer with a few tweaks here and there, though the contests may take a little longer than usual.
“I’m just like the kids, I’m a competitive person. I want to get back to playing games,” Meyer said. “It’ll be a good feeling to get a little sense of normalcy. The last few months have been really long. Things will be a little different and we will have to be patient with the umpires. We have to do our best to make sure kids are staying safe and the game gets played.
We have to do our best to call balls and strikes and not worry much about the other things.”
With that, despite the relative excitement across the state, Meyer admits there are some umpires out there who, due to the pandemic and their age, are nervous returning to sports. He asks fans and spectators to show exercise a bit more restraint this summer and enjoy the games for what they are - an opportunity to once again join friends and family for a night on the diamond. Umpire numbers were low before the outbreak, they are even more dire now. Each and every official across the state will be forced to pick up the slack, some times driving more than two hours to umpire a game.
“We’re all in this together. The game is supposed to be fun,” Meyer said. “It was intended for kids to have fun. As umpires, we are going to do the best job we can. We’re all living in a different world.”