EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of our summer-long ‘Behind The Mask’ series following baseball and softball umpires, and the issues they face
It’s a warm, humid Saturday afternoon in June, and Scott Morrison is sitting on a chair behind his vehicle and reading a book about Edgar Allen Poe.
Is this a personal interest of his?
No, Morrison replies with a smile, it’s for a summer course.
The Mount Marty College graduate and long-time baseball player/umpire is taking advantage of some down time before he umpires an upcoming game in a youth tournament in Yankton to catch up on some reading.
With three young children at home, Morrison — an English teacher at Osmond (Nebraska) High School — certainly has a lot on his plate. And that includes, during the summer, a few nights a week as baseball umpire.
“There are a lot of things to do in life,” Morrison said.
No matter the challenges, though, he enjoys his role as an umpire. It’s a way, Morrison added, for him to stay in the game, make a little money and choose his own schedule.
“I’d like to coach, but I just don’t have the time,” he said. “With this, I can at least stay in the game.”
Aside from the family demands, there are certainly other demands facing baseball and softball umpires, as Morrison said he fully understands.
On a day like this particular day, umpires, coaches and players alike were all dealing with temperatures in the upper 90s and a heat index approaching 100 degrees. There was, at least, giant mister fans spraying water near both dugouts at Riverside Field at Bob Tereshinski Stadium.
And then there’s the threat of an umpire being hit with a ball or a bat — Morrison joked that he fully expects to get hit at least once a game.
Also part of the arrangement for umpires?
They may hear comments or criticism from spectators or coaches.
“You’ll maybe hear a fan or a coach say something, but usually they’re taking something out of context,” Morrison said.
It’s never come to the point of altercations or even overly heated debates during his career as an umpire, he added.
Ultimately, Morrison said he finds himself wondering in those rare moments when he hears comments, ‘Why are we here?’
“We’re all here to develop the kids,” Morrison said. “That’s the whole point.”
It’s that mindset that Morrison said he also embraces when he is working a game behind the plate.
As a teacher, he said he found developing a rapport with both catchers an easy transition.
“You can develop a connection with them, which is really cool,” Morrison said. “You’re obviously not going to coach them, but you’ll say things to them about certain plays.
“People in the stands don’t see that.”
Morrison’s time as an umpire has also given him a new perspective as an amateur baseball player for the Wynot (Nebraska) Expos, he said.
“It’s all about the spirit of the game and doing something you love,” Morrison added.
The umpires who work amateur games are not as appreciated as much as they should be, according to Morrison.
“You realize going in that guys probably aren’t going to tell you you’re an amazing umpire,” Morrison said. “Some will tell you you do a good job, but that’s part of the profession.”
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If there’s someone in Yankton who understands the struggle to find baseball umpires, it’s Tony Beste.
As the first vice president of the Yankton Baseball Association (YBA), a Yankton Sertoma board member and an umpire himself, he deals with it all summer.
“It does seem like each year, it’s a little more challenging to find enough umpires at the various levels,” Beste said last week.
Beste said YBA players are used to umpire 9-10 and 11-12 year-old games, and then the goal is to use certified umpires from the South Dakota Umpires Association for 13-18 year-old games.
The biggest challenge, he added, is finding enough umpires for American Legion games — Yankton will likely have to look outside the community for umpires for the upcoming regional (July 19-21).
Part of the problem in finding umpires is because of the nature of sports officiating, Beste said.
“There are going to be calls that half of the people disagree with, but unfortunately not everyone shows their displeasure in the right way,” Beste said.
Fortunately, the games or tournaments that Yankton has hosted have not featured any incidents more serious than an umpire having to address a coach or a spectator, according to Beste.
“It’s all a lesson in teaching people how to deal with adversity,” Beste said. “The toughest things I’ve experienced in life weren’t an officials’ decision.”
The hope for YBA and Sertoma baseball, just like every other organization, is to entice current players to give umpiring a try, Beste added.
“We have to figure out a way to connect them with resources so they’re comfortable enough to work games,” he said.
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It didn’t surprise anyone who knew John Marquardt well that he would somehow find a way to return to the game of softball.
But as an umpire?
That one probably caught people off guard nearly two decades ago.
“I told my wife one night that I was going to Sertoma (Park) to watch some games, and I think she was surprised,” said Marquardt, who lives in Yankton. “That’s what got me interested in umpiring.”
He had always been around the game, first as a fastpitch player near his home town of Milltown (northeast of Parkston) and later as a coach for a Yankton team (he once guided a 12-under squad to a state championship).
And now, Marquardt has become one of the region’s top softball umpires.
He now serves as the Southeast area Deputy Umpire in Chief for USA Softball, the governing body for the United States national softball team. In his role, Marquardt certifies and registers new umpires, and also continues to umpire games himself.
It’s that first part, though — finding new umpires — that Marquardt said he finds most challenging. Softball, just like baseball, has struggled to recruit and retain young umpires, he added.
“The younger ones, they don’t look at it like some of us do,” Marquardt said. “It might be a summer job for them, rather than a passion.”
The common belief in Marquardt’s eyes is that if a new umpire can make it through 3-4 years, they’ll stick with it.
Certain challenges along the way, however, can prevent a young umpire from returning.
“The number one thing that discourages young umpires is that they have to deal with parents critiquing them,” Marquardt said.
For those umpires who have been doing it for years, such criticism or comments roll off their backs, he added.
While that doesn’t fully account for the shortage of umpires in softball, Marquardt said Yankton’s softball scene does have a distinct advantage over other communities.
“In Yankton, we’re very fortunate that many of us work slowpitch and fastpitch,” he said. “In some towns, umpires won’t do both.”
This weekend, for example, Marquardt will be working both ends of that spectrum.
He umpired slowpitch games in Yankton on Friday and today (Saturday) will travel to Sioux Falls for the South Dakota USA Softball State Fastpitch Tournament. To ensure that the state tournament has enough umpires, Marquardt said he and some others have called around to elicit some assistance — “We tell everyone at their certification to just plan on working games at state.”
Every other year, Marquardt also attends an umpire in chief clinic in Oklahoma City, the headquarters for USA Softball. He was also afforded the opportunity five years ago to umpire 13 games over an eight-day span at the Hall of Fame stadium in Oklahoma City — Marquardt said every umpire should have the goal of working at least one game at their sport’s hall of fame location.
All of those experiences serve the same ultimate purpose, he said: He wants to become the best umpire he can be and help further the craft.
“I want to portray the game the best way I can,” Marquardt said. “I don’t care how old the players are, I just want them to have a good experience.”
Just as he has for nearly two decades.
What’s kept Marquardt going after all these years?
“Really, it’s the love of the game,” he said. “It’s in my blood.”
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