When I was 10 and in my first year of organized baseball, our pitcher asked the rest of the team if anyone wanted to be the catcher that day. No one said a word. I have no idea why I did it, but I stuck my hand up and said I would, not having any idea what was involved.
I remember nothing about the game except afterwards the pitcher came up to me and said "You did a good job. I'd like you to be my catcher from now on."
That started a baseball career that saw me play catcher in every game except a handful, for the next 22 years. I had my successes, but that's not the real issue here. The issue is that those kind words when I was 10 resulted in 22 years of loving baseball - and catching - which eventually led to my even longer umpiring career.
It shows the power of words, the impact and influence they can have. Had that pitcher said something negative to me, or even said nothing at all, who knows how that would change my involvement in baseball?
Please keep in mind the power of words when you're giving feedback to other umpires, whether it's in a mentoring platform, supervising, or just peer to peer.
There's a larger goal than just having that young umpire stop looking at his indicator after every pitch, or being too quick with his timing.
You want them to have a positive feeling about baseball in general, and umpiring specifically. You want them to stay with umpiring for years and years, which is more important than fixing one small problem right now.
And, as a bonus, if they get positive, constructive feedback, not only will they stay around for years and years, but they'll also get better just through experience.
In the late 1990s, I had my first out-of-province national tournament, umpiring real adults, not kids any more. This felt like the big time. I had a great crew chief as well. It was going to be a great tournament.
Little did I know I had a nightmare for a supervisor. Our first game, I thought, went well. My crew chief had the plate and did an awesome job. Yet here's what happened in our debrief.
In the dressing room, the supervisor came right up to my crew chief, pointed his index finger an inch from the umpire's face, and loudly yelled "I F**CKING HATE YOUR STRIKE CALL!"
That was the start of our debrief. I have no idea what was said the rest of the session, because all I could focus on was that yelling and finger-pointing. I learned nothing that session, except my crew chief would have to change his strike call. I don't know what, if any, other points were made to help us improve.
I'm sure there were other factors involved, but my crew chief retired after that season. And I made sure to never go to another tournament where that supervisor was involved.
How important was the strike signal that the supervisor had to swear at, yell at and embarrass my crew chief and his whole crew?
Obviously, the supervisor wasn't looking at the big picture. He wasn't interested in building character or umpires. He was interested in forcing others to bend to his will through intimidation.
Please keep in mind, if you're in a mentor, trainer, or supervisor position, others look up to you. They want your approval.
And keep in mind the big picture, the long-term goals. Usually, those goals are making your umpires stay around for many years, having them improve and becoming the best umpires they can be.
Giving them negative feedback works directly against those goals. Sure, when you see a beginning umpire doing poorly it's hard not to tell them 75 different things they need to improve, and improve right now.
But that's not how it's done. No one will remember more than 3-4 things they're told, and no one can work on more than one or two items at a time when they're trying to change habits or learn new ones.
It's up to you to be able to focus on the big picture. That umpire isn't going to go from brand new to seasoned veteran after one mentoring feedback session. You have to be positive, and you have to be patient, keeping the long-term goal always in mind.
One more story: Way back when I was a relatively new umpire, I had settled on going to one knee behind the catcher, much like Tim McLelland and other MLB umpires. Even though several MLB umpires worked one knee behind the plate, it was frowned upon in our national program. I knew that, but at that point I didn't care. It worked for me.
So Stan Porter, my first supervisor and my first mentor, had a challenge and an opportunity. He had to get me to stop going to one knee, but he also had to frame the discussion positively so I didn't feel like I was being told what to do.
How would you deal with that?
Here's how he handled it. He said words to this effect: "Boy, I sure admire you one-knee guys. You're comfortable and confident in that position. Even though you can't get into position on a batted ball as quickly as others, and you'll get in the way of a catcher trying to retrieve a wild pitch.
"Not to mention you'll never be able to go to a national tournament because they don't allow the one-knee there. Yup, I sure admire you one-knee guys for your courage."
He had put a positive spin on it. He was telling me stay that way if you want, if you're happy with it. But here are the consequences. It's up to you.
I wasn't THAT dumb. I never did the one-knee stance again, all because of the way Stan framed my debrief. He had made it positive, but still talked honestly and showed me my options, leaving it up to me.
So keep that in mind when giving feedback. Just because the umpire is doing something poorly or wrongly doesn't mean they have to be chastised for it.
Point out the issue, ask them why they do it or if they're aware of it, show or tell them why it's not a good idea, and introduce them to an alternative, if there is one. You can do all that positively, yet still business-like, but you don't have to be negative.
And what you have then is an umpire who can learn, who doesn't have to get defensive because you're criticizing them. You're explaining logically why their issue is a problem, and offering them a reasonable alternative.
Most umpires - at least the ones you want to stay around - will take into consideration your process and your experience and come around to your way.
The goal should be to have happy, high-quality umpires who keep coming back. You can get more of those with positive, helpful feedback than you can with negative, pessimistic words.
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The American Association paid four regular umpires a $140 monthly salary, gave them $3 per diem and requested them to take an oath of honesty.
There were many early incidents where players literally attacked umpires. In 1927, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis required a 90-day suspension for any such attack, and in 1940 it was changed to a one-year suspension.
This Week's Umpire Quote
“Umpiring is best described as the profession of standing between two seven-year-olds with one ice cream cone.”
- Ron Luciano
former MLB umpire
This Week's Quote That Applies To Umpiring
“If people are doubting how far you can go, go so far that you can't hear them any more.”
- Michele Ruiz
entrepreneur and author