Wisconsin has a shortage of umpires, and this group hopes better training will fix that

NOW: Wisconsin has a shortage of umpires, and this group hopes better training will fix that

GREENFIELD, Wis. (CBS 58) -- The buzz has returned to diamonds across Wisconsin. Youth softball began a new season this past week, and the first pitches in baseball will be thrown in the coming days.

However, the officials with the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) say the biggest complaint from school officials is an ongoing shortage of umpires who can capably call balls and strikes.

The Wisconsin Umpires Association seeks to change that.

For 12 consecutive Wednesdays, spanning from early January to late March, the WUA conducts a training program at Whitnall Middle School. It's aimed at attracting and improving a new wave of baseball and softball umpries.

One lesson WUA Training Director David Furru tries to impart is that, in some ways, the art of umpiring is not getting noticed.

"The best game you could possibly have is if nobody remembered that you did the game," Furru said.

That might seem strange for a sport where the officials are seemingly always saying something, but Furru said the stakes have never been higher in the quest to consistently get calls right.

"I would say that [umpring is] a little more challenging because the teams are getting better," he said. "The players are getting better, but that means the expectations are getting higher."

Furru was referring to the caliber of players at both the high school level, as well as the proliferation of competitive travel ball teams where coaches and parents eagerly try to showcase kids for colleges and Major League Baseball scouts.

The shortage of officials is creating obstacles for the WIAA.

"We're about to hit some time of retirements," Kate Peterson Abiad, who oversees officials licensing for the WIAA, said. "And as officials decide that it's time for them to retire, we are going to need younger officials to come in and fill those gaps."

Abiad said the WIAA is hoping to get its number of licensed referees and umpires back to a high point of the 2009-10 school year. For softball, there were 2,165 umpires that year. For the 2023-24 year, there were 1,877 umpires, and 22 of them were students.

In baseball, the overall numbers are closer with 2,240 licensed umpires in 2023-24 compaired to 2,337 in 2009-10. However, 430 of last year's umpires were students, and Abiad said therein lies the issue.

She said athletic directors tell the WIAA their biggest program is a shortage of officials experienced enough to handle the highest levels of competition.

"The number of licensed officials who are ready to officiate at the varsity level is not where it has been in the past," Abiad said.

The shortage is what got Adam Misurek involved. A couple years ago, he began calling games in a Spanish language youth league on Milwaukee's south side.

It was a bit of a deal for Misurek: He helped fill a need for umpires in that league in exchange for his son getting free baseball lessons from the league's directors.

"Just a baseball guy trying to help out the community," Misurek said. "And it led to me wanting to take the class to do a better job and to get paid to do it."

When it comes to finding more Adams, the biggest obstacle is bad behavior. In 2023, the Racine-based National Association of Sports Officials surveyed more than 35,000 referees and umpires nationwide.

68.6% of those officials said they believe sportsmanship is getting worse. The biggest culprits, they said, were parents in competitive youth leagues.

Furru had his own encounter with an out-of-control parent.

"I had a parent throw a bottle at me. The game was over, and he wasn't happy with the result and how his son played," Furru said. "It landed right at my feet, and then he challenged me to a fistfight if I would walk off the field towards him and, of course, I did not."

In this 12-week course, the WUA tries to cover all the bases. During a three-hour session one night in February, one hour was spent in the gym practicing balls and strikes with live pitches from softball players who looked to be about 8-10 years old.

The other two hours were spent in the classroom, and learning the finer points in the rulebook was just part of the lecture.

"It's four nights where we're talking about verbal deflection, better communication," Furru said.

While learning the rules and mastering the strike zone are challening enough before considering the heckling that can become abusive, both Misurek and Furru said umpiring is more than answering a community's call. It's something they can do for themselves.

"Just getting to enjoy the game without the pressure of winning or losing, or pleasing the players or the parents," Misurek said. "This is, I think, the first thing I'm doing for me since playing."

For Furru, even after 22 years of umpiring and 11 years of training, the ability to get behind the plate is something he'll never take for granted.

"I was out for almost two years, and I missed it a lot," he said.

In 2020, Furru had an infection, but he decided to let it linger because, at that time, he figured the safest thing to do was stay at home during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unfortunately, the infection got so bad, when Furru finally went to see a doctor, he needed to get his left leg amputated below the knee.

However, the only acceptable fate for Furru, was getting back behind the plate.

"After 20 months of working hard, and with the help of my family and friends, I was able to come back in April of 2022," he said.

Furru ended up working 120 games that year.

When trying to find -- and train -- a few good umps, it helps to have leaders truly dedicated to the cause.

"I'm gonna umpire until I physically can't do it anymore," Furru said.

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