Tag Archive | "basketball"

It’s Only a Game!

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I began officiating youth, high school, and competitive adult sporting events about five years ago.  And, I love it!  I love the interaction with the participants and the realization that the role that I play helps to maintain the integrity of the games and assures both sides that they are being treated fairly.  I’m not perfect, far from it, but the play of the participants and the decisions of the coaches in the games that I officiate are not either.


I especially enjoy a close, well-played contest between two evenly-matched teams.  In those games, I pay rapt attention to each play, since I know that, should I make a bad call, the outcome of the game may be affected.  And, although many officials do not, I also thoroughly enjoy officiating games for younger children.  In those games, I know that the participants are playing their hearts out and that I, as the official, have some small role in their enjoyment and perspective on the sport itself and life in general.


In games involving young children, I do my utmost to bring good humor and compassion to my decision-making.  Don’t tell anyone, but sometimes I give a favorable call to that player who has never made a basket, caught a pass, or gotten a hit.  I have even arranged for the players on both teams in a youth basketball game to allow an emotionally-challenged player to score a basket, unbeknownst to their coaches and those viewing the game.  The thrill of seeing that child’s reaction was all the compensation I needed that day.


Most often, the demeanor and behavior of the players, coaches, and spectators at these games is tolerable and even commendable (I’ll speak about officiating competitive adult sports on another occasion).  Sometimes, however, it is deplorable.  Last evening was one such game.


I was assigned to umpire a softball game for young girls, most of whom were nine years old.  I have done these games in the past and know from experience that the level of play varies widely, but most often, is not very good.  My goal, in these types of situations, is to protect the girls from injury, make the game an enjoyable experience, and, if the situation arises, help to educate the girls about the sport.


Upon my arrival, there was one team, the Braves, on the field taking batting practice.  As I watched the coach gently toss ball after ball to batters and then go collect all the balls missed at the backstop to toss to the next batter, I knew that this game had all the makings of a “yawner.” 


At this point, I should tell you something about this league.  It is comprised primarily of teams from a North-Central New Jersey town (that will go unnamed) with some teams added from less populous towns in the general area.  It has several age groups and can be accurately described as non-competitive and instructional in nature.  They have rules to speed up the game including a rule that a maximum of six runs can be scored in an inning by any one team, unless it is the bottom of the final inning.


When the other team, the Yankees, arrived, I was struck by their level of organization and the number of coaches.  As I watched them warm up, they went through drills and appeared to be very well schooled.  They were clearly superior to the other team.


Before the game, I introduced myself to the apparent managers of both teams and informed them that I had previously done games at this age level and would be calling a very liberal strike zone (“nose to toes”) to avoid having the game turn into a “walk-a-thon.”  The representative from the Yankees told me that he was only the acting manager, but that the proposed strike zone was alright with him.  The Braves’ manager indicated that he would agree with anything I wanted to do.


With the game only in the top of the first inning, yet another coach appeared for the Yankees and from the way the other coaches deferred to him, I assumed that he must be the actual manager of the team.  Upon his arrival, he promptly informed me that league rules stated that the Braves’ outfielders must be positioned on the outfield grass (they were, at that time, positioned on the dirt portion of the infield but behind the infielders).  I looked to the Braves’ manager who angrily stated “They’re staying where they are!”  I looked back at the presumed Yankees’ manager and stated that I was not aware of that rule and would not enforce it.  But, if he wished, he could lodge a formal protest of the game and let the league commissioner settle it.  At this point, I surmised that the coaches of these teams had probably had an altercation earlier in the season and that there would likely be problems as the game continued.


My supposition turned out to be prescient.  Just a matter of pitches later, the Yankees’ third base coach, who I overheard their other coaches refer to as a “bulldog out there,” pushed one of their base-runners toward home plate when she did not respond to his verbal command to “go.”  I called the runner out as a result of being contacted by the coach and heard the presumed manager mutter “that rule he chose to enforce.”


As the game wore on, I heard the Yankees’ coaches continually complaining among themselves about the strike zone I was calling (about which I had informed them prior to the game).  All I heard from the Braves’ manager was that I was doing a good job.


A pivotal moment occurred in the game.  With the Yankees’ leading 17 to 2, the Braves scored a run.  Immediately, the Yankees’ manager called “time out” and trotted out to the mound; at which point, the Braves’ manager, in a voice loud enough for everyone present to hear, said “This is not the college softball World Series!”  The “bulldog” then responded “Hey, we’re trying to teach our girls something,” and added “You should keep your mouth shut.”  At that point, more comments were made by both sides, and I indicated that I would tolerate no more from either side.  That, however, merely muted the bickering which continued unabated.


In the bottom of the final inning, the Yankees brought in a new pitcher who couldn’t even reach the plate.  As the Braves tallied run after run, I heard the presumed manager of the Yankees say to his coaches that, when the score reached 17 to 11 in their favor, they would revert to their previous pitcher to save the game.  They did, but it didn’t help.  The girl who returned to pitch promptly hit the first batter she faced.  Several walks and two hits (or errors) later, the game was tied.  I point this out because of the fact that of everyone in attendance at the game – players, coaches, and spectators – the only people who realized that the game was tied were the Yankee’s manager and coaches.  The Braves’ coaches, all the players from both teams, and the spectators were completely oblivious.


The game ended as a tie and the players from both teams appeared to be happy to congratulate each other and move on to whatever was next in their individual lives.  The consternation on the faces of the Yankees’ coaches, however, was palpable.  Clearly, they were not thinking about anything other than the victory that slipped away.


As I walked off the field and headed home, I thought about the events of the game and the behavior of the men who were there presumably to teach the girls about softball and help them to enjoy the activity.  About what were they thinking?  When grown men nearly come to blows over a softball game played by nine year old girls who could care less about its outcome, it’s time to rethink the purpose of youth sports and the people who are charged with running them.


Sports are a wonderful way for children to learn about cooperation, sharing, winning, losing, and life in general.  To the coaches who selflessly instruct and encourage these young athletes, I applaud you.  To those coaches who live vicariously through their players and who glory in the victories of others (and, we can all be subject to these emotions) without regard to the integrity of the game and the true purposes of competition, look within yourselves and try to identify the reasons for your behaviors.  If you do, you, your players, and youth sports will be better for it.

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