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Sidelined: How COVID-19 affects umpires

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In the days since the COVID-19 pandemic sidelined the sports world, Babe Allen’s phone has been blowing up with text messages.

On March 23, the North Carolina High School Athletic Association suspended all spring sports competition until May 18. Since then, Allen, the NCHSAA supervisor for baseball umpires in the Eastern Plains Region, has had 50 stir-crazy umpires on his hands.

Four of those umpires started this season as their first in blue, but likely none of them will get to finish it. Like all the players, coaches and fans, the umps have been sent off by the novel coronavirus. Already, it has taken a toll.

“I’ve had several guys that have texted me and said, ‘Look, I’ve got to have a fix,;” Allen said, laughing. “‘We need a Wiffle Ball game or something.’”

Allen, an official for 33 years, has struggled on his own accord to stay busy, when normally he’d have plenty to do, scheduling games each week and calling games himself. All of that is uncertain now.

NOT IN IT FOR MONEY

The dream of being an umpire, or any kind of official, is not a glamorous one.

The lead-up to the spring sports season requires careful study of the rule book, training for warmer weather and the cost of new equipment and supplies. Officiating also requires a career flexible enough to allow for taking off to make a 4 p.m. first pitch and enough cash flow to maintain the equipment and certificates to call games year after year.

In exchange for those sacrifices, the reward often comes in getting to call two to three varsity games per week at $71 per game for varsity.

The money alone does not make it worth it, Allen said. To be an umpire, you’ve got to love it.

“There’s a lot of guys, including myself, there ain’t no telling how many games I’ve done for nothing,” Allen said. “They’re in it for the love of the game. You can tell the ones that love the game and want to get better every time they walk on the field. They would basically do it for nothing just because it’s for the love of the game.”

Though Allen said no one gets involved in it for the money, time spent away from calling games will hurt the financial well-being of umpires and other officials. Likely losing the playoffs for all spring sports, which would bring more money, will hurt too.

“A lot of guys that are just getting into it, they use it as extra income for their families,” Allen said. “And it’s tough because number one, they have to spend a lot of money upfront just to get the season going, and then you only get two or three weeks into the season. So it’s tough for them because they’re missing out on a lot of money.”

For some, that money provides discretionary funds on top of a salary. For others, particularly younger umpires, that money helps pay the bills.

Allen referenced one new umpire who has yet to call a game this season due to rain. Unless any part of the season can be salvaged, he’ll have only lost money. Allen estimated for umpires just starting out, it costs $300 to $400 in registration fees and equipment.

It takes several weeks of games to make up that money — games that likely won’t be played.

LOOKING AHEAD

It looks increasingly less likely the high school sports season can be salvaged.

During a press briefing Monday afternoon, Gov. Roy Cooper announced public schools across the state would be closed until May 15. The NCHSAA had targeted April 6 as a potential return date for sports, but pushed it back to May 18 in light of the governor’s announcement.

It is unlikely sports could return without schools. Should schools return in May, a shortened season scrunched into a month would be a logistical nightmare for umpires and athletic directors alike.

“I don’t see the high school season coming back,” Allen said.

All that officials can hope is that sports resume sometime in the summer, where ground can be made back up monetarily. A return to the field of play is all they want.

A summer untouched by the novel coronavirus would help officials rebound from some of the money already lost, Allen said. It’s also what folks are clinging on to in a period of uncertainty.

But until a decision can be made, like everyone else connected to sports, referees and umpires will be sitting at home at the mercy of the unknown.

“It’s heartbreaking for the guys because they spend a lot of time, a lot of money to get ready for the season,” Allen said. “They just kind of pulled the rug out from under their feet, so it’s been kind of disorienting for the guys.”

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