College baseball’s canceled season impacted players, coaches and programs at every level.
They are not the only ones affected by the lack of spring competition due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
When games were wiped out for the remainder of the academic year, umpires found themselves without the opportunity to participate in the sport they love, interact with the athletes and managers and earn extra cash.
“Economically, I had a few guys that took a hit this year,” longtime umpire and college baseball assigner Jeff Frese said. “Someone who works 20 to 30 dates could be losing between $4,000 and $6,000.”
Frese said National Junior College Athletic Association umpires get $220 for a doubleheader, consisting of a 7-inning and a 9-inning game, NCAA Division III umpires receive $230 for two 9-inning games, while about $600 is offered to call an NCAA Division I contest. He added that a JUCO regional tournament was set the second weekend of May and could have yielded an umpire $1,000.
“College baseball umpires really took a beating, this year,” Frese said. “The kids and the coaches are the ones who are suffering most. It’s very unfortunate.”
Chris Oberbroeckling, of Marion, graduated from baseball hotbed Dyersville Beckman in 1989 and began umpiring high school baseball in 1990. He has worked the college level the last 15 years, but has scaled back in recent years.
Oberbroeckling said many of his colleagues work a lot of games to help supplement their income.
Now, they don’t have that financial stream.
“They do rely on that income,” Oberbroeckling said. “They’re hurting a little bit. They use that money to live on or set it aside for whatever it may be. It’s affecting a lot more people than you think.”
For most, umpiring is more than a paycheck. There are many factors to suit up and embrace a thankless job.
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Bill Connolly, also of Marion, played baseball from tee ball through high school. He remained on the diamond, transitioning to fast-pitch and slow-pitch softball. Connolly turned to umpire to remain in the game after his son was done playing in high school.
“It’s a great way to stay in baseball,” Connolly said. “You’re not going to get rich doing it, but it’s a nice little stipend to have, doing what you like to do. I’d do it for a cut in play if it meant seniors could get on the field, especially in high school since you can’t take a redshirt. I feel for them.”
Connolly is in his fifth season of college baseball and hopes for a 10th prep season. He estimates he works about four college games per week, increasing to six during the high school season, which is in limbo. Connolly has had to find a way to spend his unexpected free time on the weekends.
“I’m trying to be creative,” Connolly said with a laugh. “I got my garage cleaned. Just trying to stay in physical shape, if there is some sort of a summer season. I’m trying to do what everybody else does, trying to find things to do since you can’t really go anywhere.
“I miss the players, the coaches and my umpire partners.”
Oberbroeckling said he works 45 to 55 games a year, which is a drop from about 100 when he was at his peak. He called a doubleheader between Iowa Central and Madison (Wis.) Area Technical College at Mount Mercy on Feb. 29, avoiding the first time in 15 years without a college baseball game.
“It’s tough,” said Oberbroeckling, who works full-time in insurance. “I’m missing the camaraderie and being at the park. That’s what I’m missing.
“It is my little getaway (or) side hobby. I’m just missing being at the park. The weather is always iffy in the spring some days, but you kind of get used to that.”
Frese said only 45 to 50 umpires are certified with the College Baseball Umpires Association. It isn’t a large pool when you have up to five Iowa Community College Athletic Conference and American Rivers Conference sites and a few more for the NAIA. The small pool makes it difficult to cover them all, at times.
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Sports have dealt with a shortage of officials. Missing an entire season could hinder retention and recruitment efforts.
“As for umpires, I am kind of worried some will hang it up,” Frese said. “I’m worried about losing umpires.”
Oberbroeckling said he has used the additional time to hunt and fish with his sons. He has also started weekly Zoom meetings, helping train USSSA umpires. His first was Sunday and it went well.
“We’re going to start going over plays and talk about stuff,” Oberbroeckling said. “I’ve got tons of materials I’ve acquired over the years. I kind of help him out training his guys. It’s a way for me to give back. I have such a passion for umpiring that I love talking about the game.
“I’m still trying to stay sharp.”
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