Tuesday, September 27, 2022

More baseball, softball umpires needed before start of season

Richard Salazar remembers the days when umpires were competing for games to cover.

Those days are long gone.

In fact, the umpire shortage in Northern New Mexico has reached a critical stage. Heading into the softball and baseball season, there are just 14 softball umpires at the disposal of Salazar, the northeast region assigner for the New Mexico Officials Association.

It’s equally depressing and frustrating for Salazar, who has spent 25 years as a softball umpire and the past two as an assigner.

“When I started, you would not believe how many umpires there were,” Salazar said. “We were bulging at the seams. But every year, officials were retiring or moving or quitting, and we weren’t getting new blood to get to this point. We are at an all-time low.”

Salazar has a better situation than baseball assigner David Crawford, who said he has only eight umpires to serve 16 schools in a region that spans from Santa Fe to Questa to Santa Rosa to Clayton. The first varsity game is just 16 days away — Feb. 26 between Albuquerque Academy and Santa Fe High — and Crawford is recruiting like crazy.

He said he received an application from one individual in Santa Rosa this week and another from someone in Las Vegas, NM, which gives him hope that a little publicity for his situation and a little hard work “beating the bushes” will help restock his stable of umpires, which was between 22 and 26 in 2019.

Crawford said he had 16 umpires last year, but some retired and others quit to take care of older family members, especially through the coronavirus pandemic.

“It was a lot easier [to staff umpires for games] last year, as opposed to this year,” Crawford said. “It wasn’t easy, but we were able to grind through it and cover every game, every school, hard. I’m thankful for that, but this year is going to be a little tougher.”

Salazar said the declining trend for officials across almost all sports has been around for at least a decade, and a lot of it is because of how they have been treated by coaches, players and especially fans. He added that younger officials who venture into their respective sports become quickly disillusioned by the vitriol they experience and simply walk away.

“One of the first things they tell me is they don’t want confrontation,” Salazar said. “They don’t want to be yelled at and they don’t like how crazy officials are treated.”

Despite the disturbing trend, Crawford said the NMOA and the New Mexico Activities Association waived the registration fees for first-time umpires, which is $65 for the sport, to attract more applicants.

The dearth of umpires comes at a crucial time for Crawford. He worked with region schools to receive permission to use three-man crews for big-school district games from Classes 3A-5A so that teams could become accustomed to it for the state tournament, which uses a similar format. It might be something he abandons this year if he can’t attract more umpires.

He said he is working with John Quick, the central region assigner, to use some of his umpires in Northern New Mexico, especially since many Albuquerque schools travel to the region for games.

“He’s down 30 percent [of the number of umpires at Quick’s disposal], but he is more than happy to help because we are working together to cover both regions,” Crawford said. “Our whole thing is to make it work and stay in touch constantly.”

If Salazar and Crawford infuse their ranks, then they have to train them to get ready for the regular season that is only a couple weeks away. Salazar said he will use a four-team softball scrimmage at Santa Fe Indian School on Feb. 19 to help train new umpires, and getting game-like experience can only help accelerate the process.

Crawford will hold an umpire clinic March 5 to help bring his crew up to speed.

If numbers do not increase, however, the assigners said the shortage will create havoc for teams’ schedules. Salazar games will have to be rescheduled to accommodate umpires, and that could mean outright cancellations because both schools have to agree to the changes.

He added he also is cognizant of sending inexperienced and unprepared umpires to games they cannot handle.

“I can’t send young officials to go call a 5A game, a Santa Fe High-La Cueva game or a St. Mike’s-Bernalillo game,” Salazar said. “If I do that, I would have a melee on my hands. I gotta send my best and most qualified officials to those games.”

But first things first. Crawford and Salazar simply want as many able-bodied individuals who want to step onto the field and give teams a chance to compete.

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Nation World News Desk
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