The days of a middle-aged, overweight, gruff looking guy calling balls and strikes at a softball game are changing.
Proof of that could be seen at last weekend’s Dirt Devil Classic softball tournament at the Wayne Summer Sports Complex, where almost a fourth of the 18-person umpire crew were nowhere near middle age, a long way from being overweight and were young women under the age of 22.
Three of the four young women in the umpiring crew, in fact, are still playing competitive youth softball, but are among a growing number of current and former players who are giving back to the sport by exchanging their gloves and bats for chest protectors and ball-strike counters.
The eldest of the four girls on the umpiring crew is Katelyn Wobken, a 22-year old senior-to-be who plays softball at Wayne State College and has been around the game since she was barely out of kindergarten.
In fact, Wobken has been umpiring for more than half of her life.
“I first started when I was about 12 years old,” she said while cooling off in the complex’s press box between games Saturday afternoon. “I’d been playing since I was about six, and I felt that I knew the game pretty well and it would be a great way to make some money.”
Wobken got registered with the American Softball Association as an umpire before she was in junior high school and worked local games in the Scribner and West Point area. She now works games throughout the region and was busy with games all weekend during the Dirt Devil tournament.
“I probably work about 50 games during the summer between here, Wisner and West Point,” she said. “A lot of these guys have been umping my games since I was a kid, and now I’m here working with them, so it’s kind of strange.”
She said that getting the opportunity to work alongside umpires who have been at the job much longer than she’s been alive has been a wonderful opportunity for her to experience the other side of the player-official relationship.
“It really helps you to understand the other side and realize that umpires are humans and they put a lot of time into it,” she said. “These guys have been doing my games since I was a kid, and if I have a question I know I can ask them. They have a ton of experience and are very gracious about helping you out in situations you may not know.”
Curtis Roberts, who worked as the umpire in chief during last weekend’s local tournament, has been an umpire for more than 30 years and knows Wobken and her family’s connection to the sport quite well.
“I umpired Katelyn’s mom, Roni, when she was in school,” Roberts said, laughing. “Katelyn is really good as an umpire because of that experience she’s had as a catcher. She sees what an umpire is calling and knows what she’s doing out there. She’s very well-composed and very approachable.”
Like Wobken, Pender softball players Makrae Kelly and Michaela Wegner, along with Makendra Kellogg of Tekamah, worked behind the plate and on the basepaths for a number of games here this weekend, and Roberts said those younger umpires are a welcome sight for people like him who have worked the job for many years.
“Two of the girls here are playing summer ball and umpiring, and it’s great for them because it helps them be better umpires and players, and they get to see both sides of the situation,” he said. “My daughter pitched when she was younger, but until she worked as an umpire she never really understood what a strike zone really was, so it helps these girls grow as both players and umpires.”
Umpires must take a certification test with the American Softball Association before the can umpire a ball game, but the biggest teacher is the experience of working behind the plate or on the basepaths, where they not only get to learn the game, but learn how to deal with coaches and fans who, many times, aren’t as knowledgeable about the game’s rules.
“All us older guys have horror stories about coaches and fans,” he said. “I’ve had some good coaches rip me, but that helps makes you a better umpire. (Wayne coach) Rob Sweetland usually doesn’t say much, but if he comes out and questions me, I really have to think about it because he’s very knowledgeable about the rules and he’s a very good coach for some of these younger umpires to experience. He’ll let you know if you miss something, but he doesn’t keep yelling screaming about it.”
Sometimes, those personality conflicts are what keeps younger umpires from continuing with the job, and that is of particular concern to umpires in the “old guard” like Roberts.
“The average age of this umpiring crew is up near 60, and for us older guys, working six games in that heat really wears on you after a while,” he said. “We need to get younger umpires starting now while they can learn from the older guys and we can pass on what we know, because that’s how we learned. It’s up to us to be able to pass that knowledge on to the younger generation.”
Wayne resident Dom Consoli has been a softball umpire for more 20 years, and he agreed that it’s important for people like Wobken and the other younger umpires to pick the job up and learn from the more experienced umpires they work with.
“Katelyn has really come a long ways and you really don’t have to worry about her when you’re out there working with her,” he said. “I’m 49 years old and probably in the median age range for umpires in the state, and some of these guys have worked for 30 or 40 years, so it’s refreshing to get new blood in there with these girls who have played the sport. It’s an easy transition and they can learn the extra nuances of the game that they might not be aware of as a player.”
Consoli echoed Roberts’ concern about the need for a younger generation of officials, not only in softball, but in other sports as well.
“I know the (Nebraska School Activities Association) is looking for officials, because we’re losing them and the younger ones aren’t replacing them fast enough,” he said. “We’re running out of umpires, so these younger ones coming in are the best thing.”
Wobken, who graduates from Wayne State next year, plans on continuing her work behind the plate for at least a couple more years before staring medical school.
“I’m hoping to go to UNMC, but I’m going to do this as long as I can,” she said. “It’s been a great way for me to give back to the sport.”