When umpiring is all about fun—and learning how to play the game ‘right’

For the past seven weeks or so, Craig Gauthier hasn’t seen much of his wife, Dawn. While both normally have demanding weekday work schedules, from the last week in April through the first week or so of June, Gauthier is also umpiring Little League softball games six days a week—most every evening after work and, usually, two games each Saturday.

“I can’t say no [to requests that I umpire a game]. I really don’t want to say no. Every game I say no, that’s another game these kids are playing without an umpire. And when somebody—a coach or a parent—steps in and umpires, but doesn’t really know the rules, they are in there kind of making up their own rules, because they don’t know. So it’s good to have an official in there to say, ‘All right, you can’t do this, you can’t do that and this is what you have to do to play the game right.’”

Gauthier has been focusing on what it takes to play Little League softball “right” ever since Dawn, who herself had been coaching Little League softball for over 10 years in St. George at the time, asked if he would like to umpire—that was eight years ago, just before the couple was to be married in the fall of 2010.

“They were, as usual, short on volunteer umpires. So I said yeah, great, I have no trouble stepping up. I like to do anything I can for the kids.”

Umpiring softball, in fact, was a volunteer opportunity practically made to order for Gauthier, who has had a lifelong love of the sport. “Out of the sports that I play, which are basketball, football and softball, I like softball the best because you can really shine at both ends, offense and defense. It doesn’t take much to hit a ball and it doesn’t take much to catch a ball. It’s a hitting game. You have to decide where you want to hit the ball, given how the other team is fielding. It’s all about strategy, which is fun.”

To Gauthier, having fun should be a key aspect of the Little League experience, which involves girls and boys nine to 12 years old. And Gauthier also believes Little League should in large part be about learning the game—this applies not only to the young players, but also to their coaches and parents.

A read-through of the rule book is important, but Gauthier says there is so much more to the game than most people realize. “When I first started umpiring, Ben Vail, the director of St. George’s Parks and Recreation Department, asked me if I wanted to go to ‘Umpire School” in Bristol, Conn. [at the Eastern Regional Baseball and Softball Little League Center] to become certified. And I said yes.”

The Bristol Little League Center puts on clinics every spring where a volunteer umpire can, Gauthier says, “learn enough to go out and satisfy the parents and the coaches.” But the certification course lasts five days, with three days spent in the classroom before participants ever step out onto a ball field.

“There were so many little things that as a player my whole life I never knew. At the school we were at it eight to 10 hours a day and I thought is there really all that much to umpiring? But there is. And so many of the rules have come about because someone somewhere tried to cheat a little bit.”

Gauthier uses the example of the infield fly. “Most people don’t realize that when there’s an infield fly you automatically call time—it’s a dead ball and the person who is out is the batter. There are no additional plays possible, no force plays.” The rule, he says, exists to prevent the fielding team from making a double or triple play when an infielder chooses not to catch a ball otherwise easily caught.

Other rules have to do with safety. “Like not throwing the bat,” Gauthier explains. “You’re out if you do that, because someone could get hurt. If you’re just using what I call ‘playground rules,’ as so many people do, a thrown bat is often considered okay if no one got hurt.”

But while a very strict adherence to the official rules of the game is crucial at the junior high, high school and college levels, Gauthier believes that for Little League games a different approach is beneficial because Little Leaguers and many of their coaches and parents are new to softball.

“Sometimes a college-level umpire comes to some of these Little League games and they call the game very strictly. But I take it at levels. I can tell when a player is petrified of a fast ball coming in—she’s never seen it before, she’s been hitting off a T until now so she jumps out of the batter’s box and I have to call it a strike. She won’t know why I made this call, so I’ll explain it to her and I’ll even position her in the box, put one foot here and the other foot there. And I take it from there. Because at this level it is learning.”

At the Little League level, too, skill is a factor that sometimes affects the way games play out. “I did a game the other night where the score was 16-6 and the winning team didn’t even have to bring a bat. They scored on walks and balls. It often comes down to how well does your pitcher throw a strike and how well does your catcher catch the ball and not allow it to get behind her. That’s why a game can last one-and-a-half hours to four hours. It varies. Fortunately in our league we only allow 10 runs in an inning, so if we reach 10 we stop and the teams change the field. And if you’re ahead by 10 runs after four innings the game is over.” With a wry smile, he adds, “It’s a mercy.”

Gauthier admits that sometimes he finds ways to offer encouragement to struggling players. “I’m not technically bending the rules or forgetting the rules. I’m making the rules fit the situation. When a team is down by 15 runs and this poor player finally gets a bat on the ball the reaction of the crowd is so loud it’s an uproar and I call her safe even if she’s a step out. If the other team’s coach says something I say, ‘You’re ahead by 15, what does it matter? It will be you sometime.’”

Little League, Gauthier points out, “is your last chance to shine if you’re an average player. If you make the team in junior high you’re probably going to be sitting on the bench.” His hope is that the kids playing the game enjoy it enough that they continue to play it recreationally all their lives—like he and Dawn still do. Gauthier plays all summer long in the Elks League and all autumn long with Dawn in the co-ed league in Waldoboro.

“Softball is not a ‘girl’s’ game,” he emphasizes. “At our co-ed level it is very competitive.” After a pause he adds reflectively, “To find someone who loves the game as much as I do—that’s Dawn—it was amazing.” —JW

PHOTOS: Julie Wortman

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