Bemidji baseball umpires log the miles to serve northern Minnesota
Qualified umpires are always in need, especially in northern Minnesota where distances can limit the options of a coach looking for someone to call a game.
"When I moved to Bemidji six years ago there were three guys umpiring together: Kevin McCarthy, Pete Larson and Marshall Graham," said Brian Schultz. "There were other guys working on their own trying to line up games. There always is a need for officials, no matter the sport and no matter the level."
That need formed the foundation of the Bemidji Umpiring Association and the association has grown to include 16 umpires who contract for, among other levels, high school softball and baseball, VFW baseball, Legion baseball and Blackduck amateur baseball.
"During the high school season the association did 205 regular-season baseball and softball games," Schultz, who is the association's president, said. "There were many nights that we did seven games with 14 umpires."
The association handles an expansive area. Among the communities and schools that have contracted with the association are Lake of the Woods, International Falls, Kelliher-Northome, Blackduck, Bemidji, Laporte, Walker-Hackensack-Akeley, Bagley and Fosston.
The umpires also hail from various communities. Bemidji is represented by 10 umpires while two live in Bagley and others call Shevlin, Leonard, Laporte and Park Rapids home.
Schultz is part of the Bemidji contingent. The group also includes Scott Seaton, Neal Huewe and Jason Rogers.
The vast majority of the Bemidji High School, Legion and VFW games have been handled by a combination of these four umpires although anyone in the association could work any game.
"We use a random draw to select the umpires," Schultz said. "We draw names out of a hat and then massage and tweak things as needed to best work with everybody's schedules."
Huewe has always enjoyed baseball and he currently plays and manages the Bemidji Mudcats in addition to umpiring high school, Legion, VFW and some Blue Ox games.
"I enjoy baseball so why not find a way to get paid while watching a game," Huewe said. "I think the secret to being a good umpire is to not be in a hurry to make a call. The key is to be confident with the call you make."
Rogers, a recent graduate of Bemidji State University, also enjoys the game. His resume includes playing for his high school teams in Donnelly, Minn. and in Oregon. He also is a veteran of the amateur baseball ranks and currently is a player/manager of the newly formed Blackduck Decoys amateur team.
Rogers feels comfortable either on the bases or behind the plate but he prefers to view the action through a mask.
"You can get into a groove behind the plate," he said. "You have to make a call on every pitch and, once in awhile, you become involved in a running play. Because you are so involved, I think that working the plate is easier."
Seaton also enjoys the involvement with the game and the players that being behind the plate provides.
"You are involved with every pitch when you are calling balls and strikes," Seaton, who has been a baseball official in the Bemidji area for seven years, said.
A baseball background isn't required to be a successful umpire but Seaton does recommend it.
"It helps to have knowledge of what it takes to play the game," Seaton said. "You also have to want to continually improve and having a thick skin definitely is important
"Umpiring is a humbling job. You are going to miss some calls and some pitches once in awhile," Seaton continued. "You are only human."
When a call is questioned an umpire must be willing to listen but also must know when to end the conversation, according to Schultz.
"You need to be cooperative with the coach but you also have to be able to say 'this is what I saw and we're moving on,'" Schultz said. "An umpire must be quick on his feet as far as making the decision and, once the decision is made, the umpire must stick to his guns."
Baseball has been termed "The All American Game" and anyone who grew up taking ground balls and snagging flies fully understands that phrase.
"I've always had a passion for baseball," Seaton said. "Some umpires say they do it for the money but I do it because I enjoy seeing the kids develop as baseball players and because it is an opportunity for me to give something back to the sport. I just love the game."