Armband Program Aims to Retain Young Umpires
Jack Butler is just 14 years old and he’s already in his second season of umpiring baseball. He officiates various levels and says he enjoys being around the game with his buddies and meeting new people. “I love umpiring,” Jack says. “It’s a pretty fun job.” An initiative launched this summer in Nova Scotia is aimed at keeping umpires like Jack on the field and safe from negative interactions while they continue to learn. The green armband program is used to identify umpires who are minors. The hope is that wearing the armband will be a visual key for coaches and parents to pause and be aware of how they interact and communicate with officials aged 18 and under. “If someone can actually see it, then it’s OK, I’m going to back off because I’m not dealing with an adult,” explains Joel Rodgers, supervisor of umpires with Baseball Nova Scotia. “I’m dealing with a minor.” The program also comes with more severe penalties when there is an ejection involving an umpire who is a minor. BNS helped find funding to make sure there was no extra cost to the officials wearing the armbands. Brandon Guenette, the executive director at BNS, says verbal abuse of young players isn’t tolerated and it shouldn’t be any different for young officials. “We’re talking about young people who are still learning the game themselves and learning the art of officiating,” Guenette says. “That type of hostile language we wouldn’t use with our players if they make a mistake. We understand they’re going to make mistakes and same thing with umpires. So why are we having a different approach in our communication just because they have a different shirt on, on the field?” Baseball followed hockey’s lead in adopting the armband program, and data collected this summer indicates it’s working. Umpires are asked to file reports after every game. Rodgers says the goal at the beginning of the season was to have 1,000 reports from minor officials, and as of mid-August they were already closing in on 900. Only four per cent of the reports indicated any sort of issue. “Most of that is a lot of heckling and just chirping umpires,” says Rodgers, also the president of the Baseball Nova Scotia Umpires Division. “We haven’t heard of any major incidents, and the couple of the more severe incidents, BNS has been all over it, very quickly, sending emails, notes, out to the associations basically saying this isn’t tolerated, knock it off.” As of late August, Baseball Nova Scotia had to issue just two suspensions for incidents involving umpires wearing a green armband. Ideally, Guenette says he’d like the number to be zero, but being down to two is progress. He says he sees the armband initiative continuing well into the future. “I think that’s a positive in showing that people are showing restraint and an understanding of why this program is in place,” he says. The longer-term goal is better umpire retention, which is crucial to the overall health of the game. While player registration is on the rise after COVID, umpire numbers dropped dramatically. Prior to COVID, there were about 540 umpires. Now it’s about 390. It’s causing a crunch in filling game assignments. Retaining umpires is key to maintaining baseball’s momentum in the province. “Recruitment was never really the issue,” Guenette says. “It was the retention and the overturn you’d see year over year. There’s a number of reasons that play into that overturn, but one of them is the constant stress our young officials are being put under. We had to explore ways to try to minimize those types of negative interactions.” Jack says he hasn’t had many issues this season during his games. He approves of the stiffer penalties that come with the armband program. “They’re obviously trying to do something good for the young umpires,” says Jack, who also plays with the U15 AA Dartmouth Arrows. An area in Montreal is the only other jurisdiction using the armband approach in baseball, Rodgers says. Other provinces are already asking Nova Scotia how it’s going. Continuing to raise awareness about the armband and building support from everyone involved are important to the program’s progress. “We’re moving in the right direction,” Rodgers says.