Umpire shortage causes Indiana baseball games to be canceled

High school baseball games are canceled due to the lack of teams available to officiate competitions.

INDIANAPOLIS — For the second week in a row, the Fishers junior varsity baseball team was forced to call off its game, not because of bad weather, but because of a shortage of umpires.

“This is the second time this spring that we have canceled a high school game on a sunny, dry day because we had no referees available!” Lily a tweet from school.

“It’s really frustrating, especially with the weather we’ve had, with the snow and the rain and having a great day and not being able to play,” said Matthew Cherry, head baseball coach at Fishers High. School. “It’s the first year that we haven’t been able to play a scheduled match because of the referees.”

Wednesday, It happened againthis time to the junior varsity baseball teams of Carmel and Center Grove.

It’s a growing problem that affects everyone, regardless of age or experience.

“It’s been a problem since probably 2010 or 2011. We’ve had a negative decline,” said Blake Hibler, director of scouting for PBR Indiana and president of BullPen Tournaments. “Across the country, it’s become the number one problem that every baseball administrator and athlete manager is trying to solve.”

Part of Hibler’s role is also to run tournaments at Grand Park in Westfield. According to him, the shortage is only getting worse.

“One day for high school baseball last week, we had 16 canceled games – from varsity to JV to seventh grade games. This weekend at Grand Park we are 20-30 umpires short,” he said. “Saturdays are a huge problem, and referees are asked to work six, seven days.”

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Teams are hitting left and right across the country trying to find officials. Hibler said one of the reasons was unruly fans attacking and criticizing the officials.

This month, a female umpire in Mississippi was punched in the face by a mother during a softball game and in Texas, a coach was filmed shoving an umpire to the ground after being ejected from the game.

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Also last year, Lebanon’s Little League declared a “no tolerance” stance in an attempt to end verbal abuse by parents and coaches, especially of referees. If anyone is caught shouting or threatening a referee, they will be banned from the park for a year.

Besides non-sporting fans, Hibler said many referees also left during the pandemic and never returned.

“They are not supported in their profession. It’s very expensive to become a referee and to buy all the equipment and go through all the necessary training,” he said.

This is something the IHSAA has been trying to change by working with local and national referee groups, but the current numbers don’t look promising.

“The data is staggering. The federation has just released statistics that we have lost between 30,000 and 50,000 officials across the country,” said IHSAA Assistant Commissioner Sandra Walter.

The data shows that in Indiana the problem is not much better. During the 2015-2016 season, the state had just over 1,800 referees. This year, Indiana has barely 1,400.

Walters said those numbers were for baseball only, saying other sports were struggling as well.

Just a week, Lawrence Central High School Track and Field canceled his meeting due to arbitration “problems”.

To help solve the problem, the IHSAA is turning to student-athletes for help.

“Our new avenue is to address the issue with these kids and introduce what we call ‘Officer 101’ into the circular day at the high school level,” Walter said.

This year, ISHAA began offering high school students the opportunity to become a public servant through an elective class. At the end, they can receive a “provisional license” which will allow them to referee certain matches.

Currently, it is being piloted in seven Indiana high schools with 140 students enrolled.

“By then, hopefully, we will have trained them well enough to work in these adverse working conditions and teach them some responsibility,” Walter said.

The IDOE has also provided a course number and course description for this option. The IHSAA is currently working to add it to the Graduation Pathway of Employability.

Walter hopes not only to recruit more people, but also to retain them.

“Hopefully a lot of wins with what we’re trying to do,” she said.

Until then, Hibler predicts teams could see rising fees or creative planning to pack more games. He gave his best advice to teams and parents: “When you show up to be a fan, be a fan.”

You can find more information at become an arbitrator or referee with IHSAA here.

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