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Umpires find the job a lot of work yet rewarding

Sunday, July 13, 2003

(Photo)
Joe Bill Davis calls a strike during a recent American Legion game.
SIKESTON - For the record, this umpire doesn't need glasses. "Contrary to popular belief, my eyesight is still pretty good," laughed Joe Bill Davis of Benton.

Since about 1982, Davis has officiated for most of the area's American Legion, Junior Legion and high school baseball games. For the last 10 years or so, most of those have been officiated along with Mark Mars of East Prairie.

"We do most all the Legion and Junior Legion games," said Davis. "From Perryville to Portageville. We go all over Southeast Missouri."

Davis and Mars are licensed by the Missouri State High School Activities Association. "You have to take a test to get certified and then you have to take a test yearly," he said.

While umpires are paid, Davis and his fellow officials are in it for the love of the game.

"This is kind of our hobby I guess you could say. The money comes in handy but we really don't do it for the money. It's far from a full-time job even though it feels like it sometimes," Davis said. "I played ball and it's basically just a good way to keep close to the game, keep involved. I like young people and being around them."

Having played sports when he was growing up, Davis has been on the other side of things. "Some were good, some were bad," he recalled of the officials. "I set my goal to be as good as I could because I think the kids deserve a fair shake out there. They're out there giving everything they've got, and I think the person officiating should give all they've got, too.

"It's what I expected - I knew it would be a lot of work and a lot of effort. It takes a lot of commitment to do this," Davis continued. "We may be umpiring four or five times a week. It takes an understanding wife and kids because we're gone a lot."

Most players appear to have a certain amount of respect for the umpires, Davis said. "But we're the first ones to blame when things don't go the way they want them too," he added. "We know that going in - we have to. We have to be pretty thick-skinned. If we can't handle that, we don't need to be doing this."

So far, Davis has never had dust kicked on shoes, but he has had his share of protests. "As long as they do it in a proper way, I'll listen to anything they have to say. They can express their opinion," he said.

But does it do any good? "No," Davis admitted with a chuckle. Calls by officials, right or wrong, stand. "It's a human element in the game and that's part of it.

"There's times when we miss a call," Davis said. "What people don't realize is, we're the first ones to know it but we can't change our mind. When a call is made, it's made and we have to live with it."

After 20 years in the business, Davis is conscious of the officiating even as a spectator of professional games. "I spend a lot of time watching the umpires," he admitted.

While instant replays do catch mistakes on professional games, Davis said about 98 percent of their calls turn out to be right. "And umpires need to make quick decisions," he added. Viewing angle is also important. "It looks different from different places you're at," Davis said.

When working with a regular partner like Mars, Davis alternates positions. "I prefer to be behind the plate," he said. "There's more action, more involvement in the game being behind the plate."

From behind the plate, Davis uses "a variation of the word strike" together with a forceful hand gesture for the good pitches. "I don't know how to describe the sound I make. ...Everybody's different - some people don't say anything if it's a ball. I've gotten in the habit of saying 'ball' so there's no question."

In addition to the pressure of making and sticking by calls, the job can be physically demanding as well. While players get to cool down in the dugout roughly half of the game, "We're out there from the time it starts till the time it's over," Davis said.

Nevertheless, he enjoys calling baseball and said the best part of the job is "the pride you take in doing a good job and the enjoyment of still being involved in the game."

Davis said he strives to keep improving as an official. "Practically every game you learn something new," Davis said. "I think as long as you're an umpire you should continue to learn and get better."

"I've seen a lot good baseball players through the years. I've made a lot of good friends though this," he added. "So umpiring has been very good to me as far as that goes. It's been fun."