Schools in Cattaraugus County planned to play 408 varsity, junior varsity or modified baseball or softball games this spring.
Each of those games require paid umpires, who stand to make more than $58,000 combined total during a full season, according to Jud Foy, the Cattaraugus County Umpires Association vice president. Now, with the spring season at least delayed until late-April, and in danger of cancelation if schools can’t reopen soon enough due to the COVID-19 pandemic, umpires are left to wait just like many athletes, coaches and fans.
More than for himself or any umpire, Ken Woodruff empathizes with the athletes who could lose their season.
“As a grandfather, I have a grandson that was supposed to play modified baseball at Portville and a granddaughter who’s on the varsity softball team in Bradford, I was truly looking forward to not only umpiring this year but also watching them play,” said Woodruff, set for his 42rd spring as an umpire. “As you get older, you start to realize these opportunities don’t come along that often or they don’t last that long. I’m really feeling bad for these kids more than anybody else.”
Woodruff referenced a recent Times Herald story that highlighted Allegany-Limestone baseball coach Eric Hemphill’s thoughts on the threatened spring season.
“Reading that article, to me, was pretty heartbreaking,” Woodruff said. “If I’m one of those seniors that’s been looking forward to baseball, the idea that could all be wiped away is pretty depressing and pretty discouraging. Watching the news it doesn’t seem very encouraging that we’re anywhere close to this thing plateauing or getting better.
“Today I got an email from (Olean athletic director) Steve Anastasia saying they had canceled everything through April 20. That’s my hope, my hope is that right around April 20, things will be better, kids can go back to school and baseball and softball will resume. That’s what my hope is.”
High school umpires in the area don’t work enough games to make enough for a main source of income, but it could be important seasonal work.
“I have friends who are Division I (college) umpires, and I was talking to one up in Hamburg, and he had already started his season,” Foy said. “He’s done Division I games already. When they canceled the season two weeks ago, he just lost $35,000. Because he was going to end up doing 90 games in Division I all over the East Coast. Is that his job? It very well could be, I don’t know, but if you’re doing high school, it’s just seasonal. It’s nothing that I don’t think anyone can count on as their income. For a varsity game you’re getting $94, a JV game you’re getting $70 and a modified game you’re getting $62.50.”
Woodruff said he typically hopes to work at least 20 games in a season, which could amount to close to $2,000 income.
“My rule of thumb, and the month of April is always an iffy thing with weather, but my goal is to typically do at least 20 varsity baseball (or) softball games in a spring,” he said. “If I get over that number, I consider it a pretty successful year. Some years we get up near 30 games that you might end up working during the high school season. At least 20 and all the way up, maybe, over 30 depending on what happens in the playoffs.”
Umpires typically work three games a week with good weather. Now, for a change, they aren’t depending on Mother Nature, but rather the greater health of the population to allow spring sports to resume.
“Last year was an extraordinary year where I think I did two games in the month of April and ended up going 15 straight days in the month of May because of all the cancellations,” Foy said. “That’s what we’re waiting to hear right now, if, and it’s a biggie, if they go back to school on (April) 21st, the only thing they can do before the playoffs is get league games in. And that’s if they can get them all in and Mother Nature cooperates. Your non-league games are now gone ... that’s what the teams spend the first three weeks on ... non-league games.”
But Foy also realizes the possibility of a lost season, meaning lost games and lost revenue for umpires.
“If they cancel the season — I don’t count on it for anything to pay bills or things like that — we’re going to end up losing a season unfortunately,” Foy said. “I feel bad for the seniors because they’re going to lose their senior year (if that happens).”