The stage is set: a team in green and yellow runs onto the field, anxiously awaiting the signal to begin. A familiar figure in gray walks out and brushes off home plate, steps back behind the catcher and yells, "Play ball!" The universal call is heard across the diamond and play begins.
This figure in behind the plate is the umpire - a job kids in Magnolia have been taking on now for three seasons.
To help them along the way, Magnolia Little League runs the Youth Umpire Program. Designed to train interested individuals in the rules of softball and baseball, the program prepares them for challenges they may face on the field.
"The Youth Umpire Program was started in 2003," said Mark Undeberg, coordinator of the program. "In three years, it went from eight youth umpires, who umped a total of 55 games, to 18 umpires who worked a total of 160 games last year."
The ultimate goal of the program, like all Little League programs, is to give participants the opportunity to learn and succeed in a challenging albeit safe environment. As baseball players, kids are responsible for their actions on the field; as an umpire, they are responsible for controlling the actions of two teams of players as well as the teams' adult coaches.
"I was watching one of my little brother's games, and the ump didn't show," said 13-year-old Jack Pappin. "They asked if anyone would do it, and I volunteered. I really enjoyed it, and got involved."
Youths who join the program are asked to sign a contract spelling out their responsibilities to the league. In return, the league communicates its responsibilities to the youths. This ensures that future umpires as well as their parents understand the benefits and responsibilities that come with a youth umpire position.
"I love softball," said Leila Buker, who is 13. "And because I love to play, I got involved in the program." In fact, Buker was the first young female to umpire a softball game, working a total of five AAA softball games.
Both boys and girls are encouraged to join the Youth Umpire Program and to learn the rules of baseball and softball. In upcoming seasons, youth umpires will be encouraged to cross over and work both baseball and softball games.
Pappin umpired AA baseball first, and then a few AAA baseball games after that. At the end of the 2005 season, he umpired a Majors baseball game. "It was exciting to see the different levels of play especially since I had just graduated from Majors the year before," Pappin said.
Both Buker and Pappin have been involved in Magnolia Little League from early on, and they understand the dynamics and rules of the game very well. Even so, training is an important requirement in becoming a part of the Youth Umpire Program.
Magnolia Little League ensures that participants receive a rulebook, training and support. They also receive a hat, shirt, league patch and payment for games completed and properly recorded.
Youth umpires must be between the ages of 12 and 18, and are required to attend at least one training per year (either District 8 or Magnolia training), study the rulebook and dress appropriately for games. They must arrive at least 15 minutes before game time, behave professionally, work a minimum of eight games a season and properly record those games worked.
"Being a youth umpire is fun way to earn money," Buker said, "especially if you love the sport."
The program emphasizes community service, although the youths are paid $10 an hour to start. "We want the kids to feel like they are giving something back to the community," Undeberg said.
"I would encourage kids to sign up - you get paid really well and (have) the opportunity to see more games," Pappin said.
Not only is umpiring a good way for kids to earn money; it is also a way for individuals to enjoy more of the sport they love. "Learning to umpire also makes the kids better ball players," Undeberg said.
"It's a lot better then a parent umpiring," Buker explained. "With an outside person [behind the plate], everyone can enjoy the game."
"My favorite part is everyone is waiting on you," Pappin added. "You hand the pitcher the ball, clean off the plate and say 'play ball,' and you get the game going."
Magnolia Little League is always looking for good umpires of all ages. Everyone is invited to sign up. For more information or to join the program, contact Mark Undeberg at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the league's Web site at www.magnolialittleleague.com. Interested participants need to contact Undeburg by Jan. 30.
Audra Jackley is a resident of Magnolia.[[In-content Ad]]