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Love 'em or hate 'em... Officials have the final word in today's sports

Thursday, June 3, 2010

(Photo)
Greencastle umpire Chuck Schroeder signals a strikeout at the Class 2A No. 46 Sectional last week. [Order this photo]
GREENCASTLE -- They are the lawmen of the game. Referees and umpires are the yin and the yang, the hated and the beloved, but most of all they are the voice that keeps our sports in check. It's a high-pressure position that calls for quick decisions, a calm mind and nerves of steel.

For local officials Mark Miller and Chuck Schroeder, the job is one driven by passion and something the duo have been part of for many years.

"Well, I just finished 36 years and I started right out of high school," Miller said. "I had played or been around athletics all my life and it was just kind of noticing the officiating in high school. Then head basketball coach and assistant coach in high school, they said something about it and I got interested in it and applied for it and started off."

Participation in athletics also paved the way for Schroeder to get involved with the career as well -- a career that began in 1983.

"Basically, I played the game, enjoyed the sports and a good friend, who was an official, asked me to join his football crew and from there, once I joined that sport, it became easy to join the other sports too," he said.

Asked about if there was certain call that has stuck with him over the years, Miller returned to the infancy of his officiating career to pull a memorable moment.

"I remember the first year I ever worked, it was probably the second or third game I ever did, I screwed up by calling three seconds on the defense in a basketball game and I had to have a coach tell me you don't call three seconds on defense," Miller laughed.

Becoming an official is a job of training and keeping on top of your game. Miller noted that all one needs to do is apply to the IHSAA, get the books and take the test. But that might sound easier than it is. A person must receive a 75 percent on their test before they're able to get their license.

After receiving a license, an official must continue to stay up as rules change and new ones are adopted. Miller said there are camps and clinics for officials to stay fresh.

Describing what he believes are the attributes a person must possess to be a good official, while they are obvious to most people, they are the essentials that each person making the call must have.

"You have to be decisive," Miller commented. "You have to be real careful, you have to expect the unexpected to happen and be prepared to do... sometimes you can anticipate a call, but you don't want to anticipate making the call. You have to let it happen. So it takes a lot of patience to let a play develop before you jump in there.

"It's like last night, this girl was going to be out and I could have come up quick calling her out, but the first baseman drops the ball. So, you have to be patient and you have to be decisive. I think patience is a characteristic you have to have when you're handling the kids and the coaches. You can't have a quick temper or you can't let everything bother you. You have to be firm, fair and that kind of thing. You have to be able to make decisions and make their fairly quick."

Miller also said all officials must conduct themselves in a professional manner and treat people fairly and with respect -- even when they disagree with the calls.

With all the calls each sport has, Miller narrowed down two that prove difficult to call during the flow of the game.

"I think in basketball it would be the block/charge," he said. "You have to make that call quick. Whether the person was set, whether they were there or not. I think in baseball or softball it's probably -- sometimes on your angles, the tag-ups, whether you try to cover tag ups or things like that, that's kind of hard. Depending on where the fly ball is and where you need to position yourself quickly to make sure it happens."

Miller also said a tough call is a tight ball inside that hits low on the bat. The call could be a foul tip or a hit batter and it all depends on the angle. And as he alluded to earlier, the game is one of angles.

Schroeder couldn't agree more.

"I think with any sports, it's being in the right position to make the call," he said. "Usually you have a part and if you know where your partner's going to be, that's one thing. And umpire your area. A lot of time, especially in basketball, they don't want you -- if you have someone underneath and you have a three man crew -- you're not all supposed to be looking at the ball, you have a certain area for the picks and stuff.

"As far as angles in softball and stuff, they are very, very important. People just don't understand the 90-degree angle and it's difficult to obtain sometimes, but that 90-degree angle is very important in softball and baseball," Schroeder added.

Of all the calls the game that must be made, Miller said all of it boils down to a single word -- consistency.

"I think that's a big thing that coaches really want is for an umpire to be consistent. A pitch high and you call it low and you're all over the place, it's extremely frustrating," Miller acknowledged.

In addition to being consistent, Schroeder believes another attribute that draws an amount of respect from coaches is approachability.

"One of the things I don't see in a lot of officials, and there are certain officials I won't officiate with, is the approachability," Schroeder said. "If a coach wants to approach me about a call, why I made a call, and if I have time, I will be more than happy to explain it.

"The biggest I think with any sport that you run into is consistency," he continued. "If you're going to call a low strike, you call it on the other team too. If you're going to call a high strike, you call it on the other team too.

"Consistency and approachability is what I've always looked at as being an official and knowledge of the game. If I didn't know the game and making up things, then I'm going to get in all sorts of trouble," Schroeder added.

North Putnam Athletic Director Jason Sims echoed Miller's and Schroeder's emphasis on being consistent. Sims went further to discuss how a school like North Putnam goes about choosing officials for their contests.

"Our goal is to never use a varsity official more than twice in a year," he said. "We have really tried to upgrade our varsity officials in the past few years here. I have found in my time as an A.D. that I have never seen an official 'cheat' a team. Incompetence is usually the issue that we deal with."

He added that the IHSAA actually selects the officials for the sectional tournament. Some schools use assigners, but smaller schools, like North Putnam, find their own.

Schroeder acknowledged a person interested in pursuing a career as an official, needs to start small and work their way up.

"Start at lower levels. Things happen in lower levels you never find happens in the upper levels," he said. "So, you always look at rules. There's always things that you'll never find in the upper levels, but you'll understand the rules once you start doing the lower level games. Anything can happen on that level.

"I would also say, attend some umpire camps and then join an association, like I belong, I was president, of the Wabash Valley Officials Association and with that you get to know other people, other sports and people in the same surroundings. So if you ever have a problem or you want some information on something, they're a good source," Schroeder added.

Offering some additional advice on the career, the duo believes a person should make their decision with their heart and not their wallet.

"I think it would be helpful if they'd played the game," Miller said. "If you're going to officiate basketball or baseball, that you've played the game. It's like volleyball. I've got a license in volleyball, but I find that's one of the more difficult sports for me because I didn't play it. So I would say it should be a sport that you've played, that you love and that you understand.

"The money is something that's very good, but I would caution anybody getting in it just to do it for the money because you want your passion for the game and the passion to be the overriding reason you're out there. To help kids more than anything else," he said.

I've always said, if you're going to do it -- it can be a good source of income, but do it because you enjoy it," Schroeder agreed. "Then, secondly for the money. If you don't enjoy it, don't do it because it just reflects (in the performance). I know a lot of officials out there that live and die for the money and it usually comes across in the way they officiate."

And as with any career, Miller is planning on making his exit from the game once the passion wanes and the enjoyment diminishes.

"I enjoy it," he said. "I said once I started not enjoying it, it was time to get out. I've always said I'd rather for people to say 'Are you still officiating?' rather than 'Why are you still officiating?'" he said with a chuckle. "It's a lot of fun. The camaraderie with the other people you work with and it's a lot of fun."