No fastballs popping catcher’s mitts. No spikes slamming into the floor. No sidearm blasts finding the back of the lacrosse net.
In this strange spring, there are also no strike calls or whistles.
The cancellation of spring sports at the collegiate and high school levels that has impacted countless athletes, coaches and fans, has also left its mark on officials. Baseball and softball umpires, lacrosse and volleyball referees, and track officials have been sidelined, left without a usual income stream and missing the sport that, in many cases, they love being part of.
“When your schedule comes out in October, you want to see where you umpire because that drives how much money you’re going to make, but more importantly to me, is looking to see who my partners are,” said Keith Peterson of Coventry, a collegiate baseball umpire. “The camaraderie we have throughout the Northeast is awesome. You look at the schedule and you figure out where you’re going to travel, where you’re going to be staying, who you’re going to be working with, where you’re going to eat after the games. The whole camaraderie is lost. It’s been tough.”
The officiating ecosytem is wide. Anywhere people are playing organized sports, someone is there to administer the rules, from rec softball to youth sports, from high school junior varsity to Division I college sports. Youth sports officials are often high school kids making a little extra money, while many high school officials work games as a side gig. For those who have worked their way up the ladder, it’s a big part of life.
“Once April hits, between juniors tournaments, high school and college, I’m usually working every day,” said Ted Tracy of Coventry, a volleyball referee.
Tracy was following the news as the coronavirus pandemic suddenly gripped the sports world. He was planning to fly to St. Louis on Thursday, March 12, to officiate at a large juniors tournament. When he saw news of the positive test for Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert and the subsequent suspension of the NBA season, he reached out to the tournament’s head of officiating.
“I’m watching that at home, texting the guy I’m working for and asking, ‘Should I be getting on a plane?’” Tracy said. “And around 11:30, he said, ‘No, don’t come.’”
By the weekend – when he was supposed to be knee deep in the tournament – every major sporting event in America had been called off. The men’s college volleyball season, which starts earlier than other spring sports, ended around its midway point. Tracy hoped to get back on the court for high school boys volleyball, but the RIIL season was officially canceled April 24.
Peterson and fellow Rhode Island umpire Will Bowers, of Rumford, were getting set for a weekend series at Northeastern when the college baseball season was canceled. At the time, the season was in full swing for New England teams but not for umpires. The teams migrate south for the first month or so of the season, while regional umpires wait for their return. For Peterson and Bowers, the series at Northeastern that didn’t happen was to be their first of the season.
“My first game was scheduled for March 14 at Northeastern,” Peterson said. “The season got canceled on the twelfth. That week leading up to it, some of the schools were canceling themselves and then the NCAA came in. As soon as that happened, my schedule went from having some games to everything being completely canceled.”
For umpires who typically work a three-game series every weekend and a mid-week game, the time since has been unusually quiet. Peterson is temporarily out of work from his full-time job at Cap City in Warwick, hoping to return when the store re-opens. Bowers, a teacher at North Providence High School, is adjusting to the distance learning world and missing his usual spring routine.
“It’s fun in the fall to get your schedule and see who you’re going to work with, making travel arrangements, looking forward to meeting up with guys,” Bowers said. “It’s people you only see in this one circumstance, so now you don’t see them at all.”
Bowers grew up in Oregon and played baseball through his freshman year at Western Oregon University. When he stopped playing, he found his way back to the field as an umpire.
“When I stopped playing my freshman year, I started refereeing basketball,” Bowers said. “Then spring came and I wasn’t playing baseball that spring. My basketball referee friends were like, ‘You’ve got to still hang out with us.’ So I started umpiring baseball.
“It was great to be around the game and I still had that competitive drive. That made me want to move up. I enjoy umpiring the kids, but I wanted to get to the next level – up to varsity, then college. There’s a drive to get up to the next level. And to be around such good quality college baseball, it’s awesome. All of the games are fun, but when it gets to the end, it’s tense, championships are on the line, it’s just so cool to be a part of.”
Bowers moved to Rhode Island for graduate school and has remained in the Ocean State. He helps out with the high school umpire association and is on the field for college games and summer collegiate leagues.
“It’s something I really enjoy doing, but if I had to do it for free, I wouldn’t do it. I would rather spend time with my family,” he said. “The fact that I do get paid for it, there isn’t a better part-time job.”
Peterson began umpiring Little League games not long after he finished playing in them. He went on to umpire at the Little League World Series in 2010, a thrill he was ready to relive this year, until that event was also canceled.
“A bunch of us who umpired there in 2010 were going to go back out this year and get together,” he said.
The baseball bug runs deeper than calling balls and strikes to simply being a fan, something that also isn’t possible these days.
“We can’t work it, we can’t watch it,” Peterson said.
He, his wife and his step-son are healthy, so Peterson counts himself fortunate in that regard. Bowers is making the most of the extra time with his wife and two children.
“I haven’t had spring weekends at home for years,” he said. “I’ve been doing college for a while. Almost since my kids were born, I’ve been gone every weekend. It’s weird. I definitely miss baseball and definitely miss the second job, but it’s kind of conflicting, because I also get to spend so much more time with my family, which is always a plus.”
Tracy, who is also on the game day staff for Providence College basketball, hasn’t had this much time off in years.
“Boring,” he said, when describing it. “I can only clean my house so many times.”
Tracy works at an accounting firm, as well, but officiating is a major source of income, so the time off has been tough.
“It’s a pretty big hit,” Tracy said.
The National Association of Sports Officials is recommending that officials apply for unemployment as an independent contractor. Not normally eligible for benefits, that classification may be eligible now through the CARES Act, which was signed into law March 27 and gives states the option of extending unemployment compensation to those who are not ordinarily eligible. Rhode Island is permitting applications, according to the Department of Labor and Training’s website.
Tracy is hoping to get back to work. The junior tournament circuit may be back up and running in some capacity this summer.
“They are trying to postpone and reschedule as much as they can,” Tracy said. “Right now, the big events are scheduled to get going Memorial Day, hopefully. That’s the earliest one that’s still on the schedule right now. It might be a little too optimistic, but they’re trying to find ways to make it work. We’ll see what happens.”
Baseball in New England took another blow with the cancellation of the Cape Cod League and New England Collegiate Baseball League seasons. American Legion ball remains a possibility for players – and umpires – to get back on the field.
“I don’t want to go a whole season not doing any baseball,” Bowers said. “I just talked to my wife the other day about my son, who’s going to leave coach pitch and go up to minors this year, and we were just saying, it’s like him taking a year off. It’s just a weird feeling. I’m hoping to get some time on a field this year, somewhere.”