*Click on the highlight to see pictures. Good series Jeremy, Thanks for doing.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of our summer-long ‘Behind The Mask’ series following baseball and softball umpires, and the issues they face
Where is the best place to find Doug and Tyler Gurney?
Answer: A softball field.
That was exactly the case Monday evening at the Summit fields. There, behind the bleachers of one of the fields, stood Doug, a veteran softball umpire from Yankton. Then, minutes later, arrived his son Tyler, himself a long-time softball umpire.
The duo is never far from the sport.
Whether as a former player, an umpire, a coach or a spectator (as was the case with both of them Monday), they’re bound to be found at a nearby diamond.
“Softball is pretty engrained in our blood,” Doug said, while looking over at the game being played nearby.
“We go on trips together and end up talking about plays that happened or rules,” he added. “It’s a strange dynamic.”
And he’s not embellishing.
Gurney’s wife, Lynne, has coached and umpired softball for many years, while his daughter, Amy, is a former college player (at Northern State) and coach (she was the head coach at Black Hills State).
Then came Tyler.
The now 35-year-old Yankton man followed in his parent’s footsteps and has himself become a respected umpire at every level — from youth games on up to NCAA Division II games.
“It’s in the blood line,” Tyler said, with a smile, as he stood next to his father Monday evening.
“And it’s a two-fold thing for me now; I get to experience all these different levels and I get to go to my daughter’s games.”
— — —
For three decades, Doug has been a fixture at softball tournaments across the region.
It’s a span that began back in high school, when he began working baseball and youth basketball games — “I got an early start,” he said.
Umpiring then quickly became a passion.
He’s stuck with it long enough to become a regular face at Great Plains Athletic Conference games at the NAIA level and Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference games at the Division II level.
He’s seen it all.
Although, as he will jokingly point out, Doug still sees something new every game —‘If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen on a softball field’ is a line he says all umpires would understand.
And so, what keeps him going after all these years?
“I want to see the sport continue to grow,” Doug said. “And these kids deserve good umpires, at every level.”
That’s why he has worked to bring in new, younger umpires into the profession, he added. It’s also partly why he watching the two games Monday evening: Doug was watching two umpires he has helped mentor.
In true Gurney fashion, Tyler picked up where his father left off and said that he’s always felt that umpires need to treat every game like a championship showdown.
“No matter the level, these kids deserve good, quality umpires,” Tyler said.
“These games mean everything to these girls, and we need to act like it, every single time.”
— — —
It’s not all bad, the father and son tandem say, as they occasionally look over at the action on the nearby field.
Sure, they hear comments from fans and coaches, but not to the extreme lengths that some may believe.
In fact, Doug said he and Tyler at one point figured out that they worked a combined 700 games before they had to “ask someone to leave” — Doug’s way of saying, eject someone.
“Then, of course, it happened twice in the next 10 games,” Doug added.
It’s the connections umpires develop over time that truly makes what they do memorable, especially over three decades, he said.
“Young umpires may only see or think about the negatives, but there are so many positives,” Doug added.
Included in those positives has been an outlet for Tyler.
His work as an umpire has allowed him to step outside the stresses and tragedies of everyday life, he said.
“It’s always been a sanctuary for me,” Tyler added.
Tyler and his wife have had personal tragedies in their life, he said, and Tyler is going on three years sober.
“This has helped me cope,” he added, pointing to the softball field. “It helps me forget about reality. It’s an escape.”
Why they continue to umpire, though, has plenty to do with their passion for softball.
“It’s all about the love of the game,” Tyler said, “and about a love of wanting to give back.”
And in their small way, they’re able to do that.
“Ultimately, it’s for the kids,” Doug said.
Previous articles in the series
Behind The Mask
‘Why Don’t You Give It A Try?’
Somewhere, Terry Foxhoven is smiling as John Wieseler straps on his pads and puts on a cream-colored polo.
There was a time — nearly two decades ago — when Wieseler was playing amateur baseball for Wynot (Nebraska), which was managed by Foxhoven. Wynot was having trouble finding umpires for its games, so Foxhoven asked Wieseler a simple question.
Why don’t you give it a try?
There was a problem, though.
Wieseler had zero interest in it.
“I had no plans at all to do this,” he said, as he got ready before last Thursday night’s South Central League amateur game in Crofton, Nebraska.
Yet, here Wieseler is, 17 years later, staying busy umpiring games a few nights a week during the summer.
Himself a former amateur player (his resume includes stops in Yankton, Lesterville, Crofton and Wynot), Wieseler came to a turning point during the summer of 2001: He injured his finger.
“I couldn’t do much else, but I could still hit the ball pretty good,” he said, with a smile, as he continued to change into his home plate umpire gear last Thursday.
Wieseler eventually became certified and began working Wynot games that summer.
Even nearly two decades ago, every town had its own umpires, according to Wieseler, but to avoid any issues with what he called ‘homer’ accusations, Wieseler began working games in other SCL towns.
He added Crofton, and then Yankton and Lesterville
“That’s when the dominoes started falling,” Wieseler said.
Wieseler, who lives in Yankton, is now — all these years later — one of the more experienced umpires in District 6B (basically, the South Central League) within the South Dakota Umpires Association (SDUA).
The SCL — like many other leagues — has had problems over the past few years finding umpires, according to Wieseler.
Membership in the SDUA (there are currently 277 members) has varied in much the same way it has at the high school level, according to Richard Rockafellow, the Vice President of the South Dakota Amateur Baseball Association.
“We currently have good numbers in part of the state and small numbers in other parts of the state,” Rockafellow said.
Although it’s not required that district umpires assign umpires to league games, Wieseler (the District 6 umpire) does exactly that — “I can’t get out of it,” he said.
How busy does it keep Wieseler?
To prove it, he grabbed a manila folder out of his vehicle. Inside is a copy of this season’s SCL schedule, but at this point, one can’t make out the dates and teams with all of Wieseler’s notes and changes — the first month of the season has been marked by postponements.
The role as umpire scheduler is one Wieseler said he took on 5-6 years ago.
“What happens if I stop?” he said, rhetorically. “I’ve always told people that; who would take over if I stopped doing this?”
It’s not always an entirely glamorous profession, but Wieseler is also quick to admit that he’s long since developed a passion for his craft.
“It’s a lot of stress, but I do like doing this,” he said, before heading out to umpire last Thursday night’s Yankton versus Crofton game.
While not everyone may have the same level of passion, umpires all care about what they’re doing, according to Rockafellow.
“It’s like everything in life, there are those that are very dedicated and a few that are not so dedicated,” he said.
“Thankfully I believe that the vast majority of our umpires care about the game of baseball and are working to keep themselves dedicated to the betterment of baseball.”
— — —
It’s now a muggy Sunday evening in Menno.
Jeff Liebl is standing near the Menno Mad Frogs dugout, spraying his arms, face and neck with bug spray and vanilla to keep the gnats away.
The amount of standing water inside and outside the fence in Menno isn’t going to help matters, but Liebl said he doesn’t mind.
Liebl, who lives in Menno, had an introduction into the world of umpiring like many others have: He began working games (in his case, 11 years ago) when his own amateur career came to an end.
“And I got back into this three years ago again when Johnny (Wieseler) needed people to help out,” Liebl said before last Sunday’s South Central League game between Tabor and Menno.
Liebl, who also works legion and youth games, is gone two weeks out of the summer for his National Guard duties, but said he never hesitates when presented an opportunity to umpire a game.
To avoid any conflict of interest, Liebl typically only works as the base umpire during Menno games — his nephew, Ryan, is Menno’s manager, after all.
“I love baseball, that’s the bottom line,” Liebl said. “This is a way I can still be involved in it and help out.”
‘Behind The Mask’
‘Best Seat In The House’
Randy Hartz is not perfect.
There, he got that out of the way right off the bat.
A group of 50 youth baseball players sat in silence, not really sure how to respond.
There’s a reason for the statement, though, Hartz — a veteran baseball umpire from Yankton — told the group during an umpires clinic last Thursday at Yankton’s Riverside Field at Bob Tereshinski Stadium.
“I’m not the best umpire, but I work at it as much as I can,” Hartz told the kids.
For the next two hours, Hartz — who umpires games at the college, Legion, high school and amateur levels — loads up the young players with the kind of information they’d usually receive in a two-day clinic.
Everything from hand gestures and positioning is covered, but the point of the clinic boils down to two main points: Be assertive and communicate.
And yes, realize that you’re not going to please everyone.
“Every call we make, half of the people aren’t going to be happy,” Hartz told the kids.
Regardless of any negative feedback he may receive during the course of a game, Hartz made clear to the crowd that he’s been an umpire for two decades and remains one because it’s a way to stay close to his passion.
Before Hartz took the kids out to the field for some work, Yankton Baseball Association (which was hosting the clinic) first Vice President Tony Beste addressed the group with another piece of advice.
“Just take it seriously and do the best you can,” Beste said.
After all, that’s the entire point of the clinic.
YBA officials wanted its players, who will be doing some umpiring at younger levels this summer, to have some kind of introductory instruction.
“We felt it was important to have something like this, where they could receive some training and some tips,” Beste said.
Those in attendance at the clinic will work at a Yankton Twins/YBA Tournament on June 22-23, according to Beste — the tournament is a main fundraiser for the association, he added.
“We want our players to be in the best position they can when they’re running those games,” Beste said.
— — —
It was at this point that the clinic really began.
The players then separated into lines out on the turfed infield, where Hartz demonstrated certain calls — outs, strikes, safe, etc.
If a pitch is close, Hartz said, call it.
The crowd then gathered around home plate, where Hartz put baseballs down on the turf near the batter’s box and discussed what he would call.
Umpiring, he later added, is far more than crouching behind home plate and calling balls and strikes: It’s about getting in the right position, which then makes the play a judgement call for the umpire.
“Be patient,” Beste then told the kids. “Let plays happen all the way through and then be definitive.”
On the bases, Hartz said he watches the bag and listens for the ball to hit the glove — rather than watching the ball.
“In umpire school, they blindfold you,” he added.
— — —
On the one hand, the clinic was designed to aid those Yankton youth players who will eventually umpire games during that June tournament.
And yet, there’s the hope that it sparks an interest in the craft, according to Beste.
“We know our kids have a good background in baseball because of the coaching they get and we know that several like to umpire,” he said.
Drew Ryken is one of those several.
The 14-year-old player for the Yankton Lakers 14-under team was asked last summer by Beste if Ryken had any interest in umpiring.
Even with the initial nerves, Ryken said yes.
“After the first out, I calmed down,” Ryken said following last Thursday’s clinic.
Ryken was one of a handful of the 50 players in attendance at the clinic who had previously donned umpire gear to work a game, and yet, he still found that Hartz’s tips proved beneficial.
“It made me feel better,” Ryken said. “I knew I was right on some calls and wrong on some.”
Landon Loecker was likewise nervous during his first game as an umpire last summer.
“I was scared they’d (crowd) yell at me or that I’d make a bad call,” said Loecker, a 15-year-old member of the Yankton Black Sox 16-under team, Loecker
In time, Loecker said he learned to be confident in his calls, whether behind home plate or out on the bases. The clinic, he added, got Loecker thinking back to this games a year ago, and he admitted after the clinic that he had perhaps been out of position on a handful of occasions.
Having now had the opportunity to view the game from both sides of the coin as a player and as an umpire, Loecker said he has a new level of respect for what an umpire endures.
“People don’t realize that it’s as hard as it is,” he added.
— — —
The clinic has ended (and in the rain, no less), and yet, Hartz remains out on the turf to work with Yankton baseball player Peyton Mueller.
He volunteered his time, but Hartz later said, his main goal to pass on his knowledge of the game he loves.
“I just love baseball,” said Hartz, who moved to Yankton three years ago.
“I can’t play anymore, but what a view I have. It’s the best seat in the house.”