Umpiring brotherhood vital to sports

An umpire makes a decisive call at home plate.
An umpire makes a decisive call at home plate.

“Honesty allows camaraderie,” stated Cody McAree as he made a point about the level of fellowship within the umpiring brotherhood.

McAree is in his sixth year within the Greater East Texas chapter of baseball umpires and his fifth year in the Commerce chapter of football officials. Both are part of the Texas Association of Sports Officials (TASO).

Sports reside at the heart of East Texas. So much of our identity stems from local sports accomplishments and legends that it is part of our shared life experiences. With the variety of available sports and the number of athletes increasing, maintaining professional sports officiating talent is critical.

TASO directly supports the University Interscholastic League (UIL) by coordinating independent officiating chapters for high school baseball, basketball, football, soccer, softball and volleyball. The organization grew out of the initial officiating efforts at the collegiate level early in the 20th Century. Today, 155 chapters operate around the state.

Zay Green, president of the Greater East Texas baseball chapter, endeavors to build on the concepts of honesty and camaraderie at every turn. Above all else, he stated, umpires must be professional. “Professionalism – it makes a huge difference,” he said. The 42 umpires led by Green cover umpiring duties at 32 East Texas schools. “From Mabank to Mount Pleasant,” Green noted.

Continued training is essential for maintaining professional standards. In addition to the TASO-mandated annual training, Green’s chapter conducts meetings twice a month in season. “We bring in respected veteran umpires to give us training on specific rules, such as obstruction, and we review our performances from the previous two weeks,” Green explained. That type of commitment to training pays off, “We get a lot of requests for our umpires,” he continued.

McAree detailed another contributing factor in the chapter’s professionalism. He described the baseball coaches meeting hosted by the chapter, which explains any rule changes for the upcoming season. Specific rule interpretations are also explained. The meetings have had a positive effect on consistency and accuracy.

Both men started calling slow pitch softball games just after high school. “It was, and still is, an excellent way to earn a little cash while going to school,” McAree said. The genesis of umpiring is, however, love of the game. “I have always had a love for baseball,” McAree offered, while Green added, “I simply wanted to be part of the game.”

Love of the sport is practically the only prerequisite for starting an officiating career. After the preliminary hoops of a background check, joining a chapter, passing an online test and attending a state meeting or regional clinic, a newcomer can count on significant training within the local chapters. Green noted the growing demand, “We can’t train umpires fast enough. We’ll do the best we can to get you ready for the field. We don’t turn anyone away.”

TASO just increased the game stipend to $70 per game. A mileage rate of 43 cents per mile based on a centerpoint mileage chart rounds out the monetary reward. As McAree explained, football officials are not paid a set fee, but rather receive a small percentage of the gate receipts. McAree admitted that last year’s Friday night deluges made for some skinny payoffs. The mileage helped offset gate shortfall.

Payment is not the only difference in officiating the two sports. While baseball umpires are generally scheduled individually, football officiating crews are scheduled as five-person teams. The process for football crew assignment is known as the draft. Each spring, region football coaches and head officials meet to determine assignments. A random draw identifies the drafting order, and the head coach then selects the team to officiate the game of his choice. So it goes until all the game assignments are set.

Expectantly, the 2019 football season will see an increased emphasis on targeting. With five years together as a crew, McAree greatly looks forward to the upcoming season. Due to recent retirements, his crew is the longest tenured in the chapter, and they acknowledge the need to replenish the ranks.

Green, too, sees recruitment as vital to the continued success of East Texas sports. He called out their most recent addition, former Mineola stand-out athlete Noah Sneed, as an example of a young man who has made an excellent start to his officiating career. He has become “one of our best umpires,” Green stated.

While knowledge of the sport may give one confidence, there is no standard background among the officials and umpires. McAree began his adult life on the rodeo circuit and now operates a chiropractic service for show animals. Three of the five officials on his football crew are present or retired educators.

There is likely no profession to prepare one for the scrutiny officials fall under in the competitive East Texas scholastic environment. Both Green and McAree listed “thick skin” as the No. 1 quality of an official. “You don’t want to ever miss a call,” explained Green, “it means you were not in position. But when it does happen – you feel this small,” he stated as he held up his thumb to his forefinger.

Each also listed “professionalism” as the next important quality. Green philosophically described the scholastic sporting environment and the impact umpires can have on the livelihoods of coaches. Umpires are keenly aware that their performance may impact a coach’s job. “I have tossed only one high school coach in 24 years of umpiring,” he admitted. “It’s their career,” he acknowledged.

The monitored environment of high school competition is loosened significantly in summer and select leagues. This can lead to more direct action by umpires and more vocal criticism from the crowd.

Recently selected by the Rains Youth Sports Association to assemble umpires for the three baseball age groups, McAree summarized his perspective: “Success is being able to handle yourself in a professional manner at all times.”

Green shares this perspective and added, “The game (of baseball) is simple. Umpires are there to enforce the rules that are already in place.”

As with many paths in life, a mentor can be a godsend. McAree called out his previous pastor at Clarks Chapel Church of God in Flats, Nathan Bounds, as the man who most influenced him to join the umpiring ranks. For any young man or woman seeking to continue, or begin, a relationship with sports in East Texas, two great examples are provided by Zay Green and Cody McAree.