The Thrill of Umpiring Special Olympics Softball

When I recently told friends and family I was going to Kansas, I begged them not to make jokes about Toto, a broomstick, or the wicked witch.

I was going to Wichita to umpire the Special Olympics National Invitational Softball Tournament from September 24-27, and I was thrilled.

Of the 30,000 umpires registered with the Amateur Softball Association who were eligible to apply for this assignment, 24 umpires were selected. Two Milford ASA umpires were picked — Brad Sanchez and me.

Most Special Olympics sports officials get hooked with the first game and return many times, drawn by deep appreciation for the program and love for the athletes. We umpires pay our own expenses for the tournament, and receive no game fees. And the hundreds of volunteers who staff these events aren’t paid either.

Is it worth it? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

This year, I arrived in Wichita a day before games began for a mandatory umpire clinic. There, ASA Umpire Coordinator Jim Ballengee said that 30 teams from throughout the United States had registered to play.

There were 17 so-called traditional teams of Athletes with varying degrees of intellectual disabilities, some with additional physical disabilities. There also were 13 unified teams pairing Athletes with able-bodied Partners for game play. Special rules make it a very level playing field. For example, Partners in unified play cannot dominate the Athletes; that is, to take a potential defensive play from an Athlete in position to make it.

Special Olympics softball teams often have players from their teens through their 60s. Men and women compete together. And tournament directors take exceptional care to place teams in divisions with similarly skilled opponents.

So as we reviewed the Special Olympics rules and ASA points of emphasis before play began, Jim reminded us that the number one rule was to be flexible. We’d work up to four games a day.

My first day, Alaska umpire Jack Eppley and I umpired traditional team play. With the first pitch, I was reminded why I love this “job.”  Athletes often high-five umpires as they run out onto the field. They play and take instructions from their respective coaches with an intensity uncommon in many leagues of play.

We umpires, on the other hand, focus on interacting with players in ways that are unheard of on classic diamonds. We’re encouraged to talk with Athletes; to recognize effort and achievement with a pat on the back or a word of praise; and to always be approachable and friendly.

That first day, an Athlete from Illinois approached me and said, “Umpire lady, I remember you!”  He recalled, as did I, that I umpired his unified division gold medal game in Princeton, New Jersey two years ago.

I told him he looked great. He said he hoped I had his games this year, too. Later in the tournament, I would trade my Connecticut Special Olympics shirt for one of his team warm-up jerseys.

My second day, I worked with Michigan umpire Don Newsted in unified division play. Rules require an even split of Athletes and Partners, with equal numbers of each in the infield and outfield. I’ve learned never to underestimate the players’ speed, athletic ability or competitive spirit — whether Athlete or Partner.

While games were great, the players’ personalities and warmth won the day for me. Working one game as the plate umpire, I enjoyed one Athlete who turned and smiled at me each time he set up in the batter’s box to receive a pitch. When I complimented a first baseman on a great catch, he flashed a smile as big as the field. Base hits were cause for celebration; outfield catches often sparked joyful dancing.

Having played against one another for years, in some cases, Athletes often encouraged opposing team members. One catcher said, “Good eye” when the batter in front of him refused to swing at a bad pitch. Coaches, too, tirelessly encouraged Athletes if effort fell short of success. They also closely monitored the physical and emotional status of each Athlete during play.

On the third and last day of play, Brad and I were assigned to the unified East Division medal round. Our final game between the Oklahoma Razorbacks and the Cobb County, Georgia Warriors would determine the gold medal winner. I knew it would be a fight to the finish.

Indeed, there was great hitting, super defense and shirt-drenching effort in the 82 degree Kansas heat. It was intense competition with a smattering of gamesmanship. The coaches and Partners pled their cases fervently when a call didn’t go their way.

Tied at the end of regulation play, the Razorbacks ultimately hit their way to victory.

As we’re encouraged to do, Brad and I lingered around the field exit after the championship game to congratulate all the Athletes and wish them well. As we mingled, I saw the Warriors left centerfielder standing with his team, dirty from diving, drenched in sweat, and still breathing hard. His team had lost.

Brad and I congratulated this outstanding outfielder. “You did a great job,” I told him. Utterly spent, he couldn’t answer. “You played great and you left it all on the field. Wow!”

The Athlete nodded at us and smiled. Without a word, he hugged Brad — a big man’s full embrace. The Athlete next came up beside me. He wrapped his arm around my shoulder, squeezed, and briefly lowered his sweaty face to rest on the top of my head. Then he turned back to join his Partner and his team.

This is why I volunteer to umpire Special Olympics softball. God willing, I’ll be where they are next year.