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Eastern Ontario baseball league could strike out amid umpire shortage

As baseball leagues get underway across Ontario, many are struggling to find umpires. 

Hundreds of umpires are needed, and even large tournaments are calling in replacements from out of province. 

As day turns to night in the village of Lyn, west of Brockville, two teams in the North Leeds Men's Fastball League prepare for their game.

However, a shortage of umpires in the region could end up postponing some games, or even cancelling them all together.

"Not just in our sport, refereeing is no different," said Gerard McKenna, Zone 10 Deputy Umpire in Chief. "Volleyball, basketball, every sport seems to be lacking the officials, for sure."

According to McKenna, pre-pandemic, Softball Ontario had 1,200 registered umpires across the province. This year, there are just under 600.

Other provinces, including Manitoba, are also experiencing the same problem. 

McKenna has been an umpire for 40 years and says it is the worst he has ever seen. 

"People have found other things to do, that's probably been one of the bigger ones, especially with the senior umpires," he said. "In eastern Ontario, there's not as much ball as there was a few years ago, and guys and girls aren't willing to get involved."

Rob Smith umpiring first base during an eastern Ontario baseball game. (Nate Vandermeer/CTV News Ottawa)

Rob Smith, an umpire with 27 years of experience, says another reason the numbers are down is the abuse thrown at them from the stands.

"Heckling was part of the game back when I started in the 70s and 80s," Smith said. "But today, the heckling, that bad behaviour is more verbal abuse that umpires are taking more from the parents, not really the children or the adult male players, but mostly the spectators."

"For new people or parents trying to get their child into umpiring ball, they are hesitant to have their child come onto the field and being heckled or harassed or verbally abused," he said. 

McKenna noted during a recent tournament in Brantford that featured more than 100 women's teams, eight umpires had to travel from Quebec to help.

He says it is the first time it has happened.

"We had 73 umpires, so if you look at the 600 or so that are registered, we had 73 of them in that weekend alone," McKenna said. "We threw the invite out and they came, they brought a van with a little trailer behind with everybody's equipment and it worked out great."

Umpire Gerard McKenna (centre) looks down the third base line. (Nate Vandermeer/CTV News Ottawa)

Last year, the North Leeds League began scheduling doubleheader games on evenings to try and solve the shortage.

The eight-team league only has five umpires available, with some teams playing more than 75 kilometres apart.

"We're typically Tuesday and Thursday nights, so we're kind of pushed in every direction to try and cover everything off," McKenna said. 

At a recent umpiring clinic held two weeks ago, under 10 people showed up, with only one over 18-years-old.

"It's all regions, and it's unfortunate that parents aren't stepping up to the plate to help out, umpire, or even coach," said Smith. 

"We're more than willing to teach somebody or more than one," said McKenna. "(The) last couple years we've tried to get a couple of the young kids just to come out and do an inning, we talked to both teams to see if they are open to it, which they have been."

"We're open to having anybody come out and try it, so come out for an inning, just step on the field and try it," he said. "Yeah, sure, you're going to be nervous, but there's certainly ways for them or anybody to get involved."

McKenna noted that umpires are paid an average of $50 per game, depending on the league, and they try to follow the Softball Ontario rates. 

Lyn and Easton's Corners playing a baseball game. (Nate Vandermeer/CTV News Ottawa)

They are also paid a travel fee ranging from $10 to $40, depending on location. 

"If you don't have an umpire, you can't play the game," noted Smith. "Minor ball level, you could probably manage with one, but when you get to the men's league you need two carded umpires."

"I do it for the fun. I do it for the sport. I love sports and as I child playing here all my life, it's time to come back and I just hope other parents will do the same," he added. 

McKenna said umpiring is open to all, and men and women are welcome to give it a shot like the many others who have, before the strikes add up and more players lose out. 

"We're not getting any younger," he said. "One of these years we're going to give it up too, so we're just trying to keep the sport moving as best as we can."

More information on being an umpire in Ontario, or how to register, can be found on the Softball Ontario website Top Stories

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