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Umpires not sure if they’ll call balls or strikes

WHEELING — Umpires don’t get the limelight.

They are at the field everyday, despite blazing hot temperatures or early season snowfalls, for the same reason as the players — they love the game.

During the current coronavirus pandemic that has caused the postponement of prep baseball and softball, umpires are left wondering ‘what to do now?’

“The majority of umpires love the game,” 18-year veteran umpire Mike Cox said. “We want to be around the game, the players and the coaches. I just miss the crack of the bat and the pitch hitting the catcher’s mitt.”

Postponing spring sports could also be detrimental for those who rely on the money they make umpiring.

“The extra change in the pocket certainly is nice and I usually use it for vacation or different things but some depend on it just to make ends meet,” Cox said. “It’s hitting home for some in that regard but they had to shut things down. There’s no doubt. How long will that last? I don’t know.”

Regardless of what happens with the season, all umpires in Ohio and West Virginia are staying prepared to return at a moment’s notice.

“We’ve gone through testing for West Virginia and Ohio,” Cox said. “We just started another one (Monday). We have to take (tests) before every season and we take them online, so we still have to keep doing that, even if we don’t get any time out of it. We just miss being on the field.”

Forty-six-year veteran umpire and OVAC Softball Commissioner Tom Bechtel is not accustomed to the downtime from his normally busy schedule, which makes him realize how much sports has impacted his life through the years.

“I started in 1974, so I’ve been umpiring a long time,” Bechtel said. “I look forward to spring. It’s nice getting out there after being cooped up all winter. People really miss that this year. It’s tough. I don’t have many more years left and I’d hate to think we may miss a whole season, but I’m holding out hope.

“I’m a three-sport official in softball, football and basketball, so there’s not too many days out of the year I’m not doing a sport.

“I’ve always wondered, ‘if I didn’t have sports in my life, what would I do?’ Well, I’m finding out now. Cleaning the house is not my forte but I’ve got to do something.”

Although this is a difficult time for Bechtel and all other umpires, their hearts go out to every senior who may not get an opportunity to take the field one final time.

“For umps, there will be other years,” Bechtel said. “The ones that really suffer are the seniors. There are some good teams around here with a chance to go down to state. It’s heartbreaking.”

Fellow umpire and Buckeye Local athletics director Sam Jones agreed.

“The hard part is, these seniors are never going to get these games back,” Jones said. “I talked to (Barnesville) Coach (DJ) Butler. He was going to have one of the premier teams in the valley with players like Jagger Jefferis and Jared Kernen returning. That’s a heckuva team coming back that won a sectional last year.”

Bechtel is trying to stay positive that the games will be held but with each passing day, it gets harder and harder to keep that hope.

“As the softball commissioner for the OVAC, we are in limbo,” Bechtel said. “There is nothing we can do. We are hoping it will back off but I can’t imagine playing ball if they don’t go back to school.

“I’ve never experienced anything like this. One year we had a measles outbreak that backed the tournament up a few weeks so maybe that set the precedent.

“Looking at the timeline — right now Ohio is tentatively going back to school April 6 and the season starts April 11. We’d like to have OVAC playoffs by early May and still have OVAC championships but that’s all speculation. I expect to hear something in the next couple of days. I hate to think we may miss the whole season but it is leaning that way but I’m holding out hope.”

Jones has been calling balls and strikes for 20 years now and for the time being, that daily walk behind home plate, dusting off the dish and chatting up the players will be missing from his life.

“It’s depressing,” Jones said. “I miss the camaraderie with the kids and teasing the kids a little bit out on the field. I miss watching the two best pitchers face each other on the mound.

“I had Toronto on my schedule a few times this year. Coach (Brian) Perkins is just rolling out Division I athletes up there. It’s an experience just like football up there. Watching them take infield is really impressive.

“The tournament assignments are exciting, too. Waiting to see if you get a state tournament game is like waking up on Christmas morning for a veteran umpire. I’m going to miss that experience this year.”

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