EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of our summer-long ‘Behind The Mask’ series following baseball and softball umpires, and the issues they face.
Somewhere, Terry Foxhoven is smiling as John Wieseler straps on his pads and puts on a cream-colored polo.
There was a time — nearly two decades ago — when Wieseler was playing amateur baseball for Wynot (Nebraska), which was managed by Foxhoven. Wynot was having trouble finding umpires for its games, so Foxhoven asked Wieseler a simple question.
Why don’t you give it a try?
There was a problem, though.
Wieseler had zero interest in it.
“I had no plans at all to do this,” he said, as he got ready before last Thursday night’s South Central League amateur game in Crofton, Nebraska.
Yet, here Wieseler is, 17 years later, staying busy umpiring games a few nights a week during the summer.
Himself a former amateur player (his resume includes stops in Yankton, Lesterville, Crofton and Wynot), Wieseler came to a turning point during the summer of 2001: He injured his finger.
“I couldn’t do much else, but I could still hit the ball pretty good,” he said, with a smile, as he continued to change into his home plate umpire gear last Thursday.
Wieseler eventually became certified and began working Wynot games that summer.
Even nearly two decades ago, every town had its own umpires, according to Wieseler, but to avoid any issues with what he called ‘homer’ accusations, Wieseler began working games in other SCL towns.
He added Crofton, and then Yankton and Lesterville
“That’s when the dominoes started falling,” Wieseler said.
Wieseler, who lives in Yankton, is now — all these years later — one of the more experienced umpires in District 6B (basically, the South Central League) within the South Dakota Umpires Association (SDUA).
The SCL — like many other leagues — has had problems over the past few years finding umpires, according to Wieseler.
Membership in the SDUA (there are currently 277 members) has varied in much the same way it has at the high school level, according to Richard Rockafellow, the Vice President of the South Dakota Amateur Baseball Association.
“We currently have good numbers in part of the state and small numbers in other parts of the state,” Rockafellow said.
Although it’s not required that district umpires assign umpires to league games, Wieseler (the District 6 umpire) does exactly that — “I can’t get out of it,” he said.
How busy does it keep Wieseler?
To prove it, he grabbed a manila folder out of his vehicle. Inside is a copy of this season’s SCL schedule, but at this point, one can’t make out the dates and teams with all of Wieseler’s notes and changes — the first month of the season has been marked by postponements.
The role as umpire scheduler is one Wieseler said he took on 5-6 years ago.
“What happens if I stop?” he said, rhetorically. “I’ve always told people that; who would take over if I stopped doing this?”
It’s not always an entirely glamorous profession, but Wieseler is also quick to admit that he’s long since developed a passion for his craft.
“It’s a lot of stress, but I do like doing this,” he said, before heading out to umpire last Thursday night’s Yankton versus Crofton game.
While not everyone may have the same level of passion, umpires all care about what they’re doing, according to Rockafellow.
“It’s like everything in life, there are those that are very dedicated and a few that are not so dedicated,” he said.
“Thankfully I believe that the vast majority of our umpires care about the game of baseball and are working to keep themselves dedicated to the betterment of baseball.”
— — —
It’s now a muggy Sunday evening in Menno.
Jeff Liebl is standing near the Menno Mad Frogs dugout, spraying his arms, face and neck with bug spray and vanilla to keep the gnats away.
The amount of standing water inside and outside the fence in Menno isn’t going to help matters, but Liebl said he doesn’t mind.
Liebl, who lives in Menno, had an introduction into the world of umpiring like many others have: He began working games (in his case, 11 years ago) when his own amateur career came to an end.
“And I got back into this three years ago again when Johnny (Wieseler) needed people to help out,” Liebl said before last Sunday’s South Central League game between Tabor and Menno.
Liebl, who also works legion and youth games, is gone two weeks out of the summer for his National Guard duties, but said he never hesitates when presented an opportunity to umpire a game.
To avoid any conflict of interest, Liebl typically only works as the base umpire during Menno games — his nephew, Ryan, is Menno’s manager, after all.
“I love baseball, that’s the bottom line,” Liebl said. “This is a way I can still be involved in it and help out.”
Follow @jhoeck on Twitter