By STEVE KRAH
A veteran umpire and his son have been calling high school games this spring in northern Indiana.
South Bend’s Laird Salmon, 64, has been an umpire for more than two decades and an IHSAA-licensed official for upwards of 15 years.
Matt Laird, 28, is in his first season as an IHSAA umpire. A 2012 graduate of South Bend Riley High School, where he was a player, he served in the U.S. Navy for nearly seven years and is now a student at Indiana University South Bend.
Matt expects to work around 15 games and is not yet eligible for IHSAA tournament play.
Laird’s 2022 schedule started at the end of February. He worked 13 games in Florida. By season’s end, the custom furniture maker and Bowling Green (Ohio) State University graduate expects to have between 60 and 70 contests.
Many schools use assigners. Games are often booked through EventLink.
Matt and his brothers played at Southeast Little League in South Bend. That’s where Laird got his umpiring start.
“All the dads like to come late in Little League because they don’t want to umpire,” says Laird. “I was one of the guys who didn’t mind doing it. I always used to come prepared and did it.
“I eventually decided that this isn’t a bad gig. It’s kind of fun to do.”
Not that he enjoys it every time out.
“Some days I don’t,” says Laird. “I’m just being honest. Some days it’s work. We call it work. But — for the most part — it’s a fun game.
“It’s fun to hone your skills as an umpire. You try to get a good strike zone. You try to make sure you get everything right.”
There are often second-guessers.
“The fans think you’re one-sided,” says Laird. “No. We’re trying to get every single play right. It’s a challenge.
“Coaches are passionate about their teams. They see it a certain way. They see it how they think it was. Well, that’s not how it happened.
“We’re there to be impartial.”
Matt notes that the coaches often don’t have a better angle than the umpire to make a call.
Many times, fans don’t know the rule they are arguing about.
Matt cites an example from a recent game in South Bend.
“(An outfielder) was on the warning track,” says Matt. “As he caught the ball he ran into the fence and dropped it. You have to have possession of the ball and voluntary release.”
The fans were all over the umpires, screaming “That was a catch!”
“No. There wasn’t a catch,” says Laird. “That’s a prime example of not knowing the rules.
“We strive to know the rules.”
Matt is always coming up with possibilities on the diamond and those are almost endless.
“You put forth a situation to see what would happen,” says Matt. “The situations aren’t always in the rule book.
“You have the overall general rule, but it doesn’t outline every scenario that you’re going to see out on the field.”
Laird tries to think about what could happen.
“Could I have batter or catcher interference?,” says Laird. “What else could possibly happen?
“Catcher’s interference is really hard. Did the ball hit the mitt before the bat or the bat hit the mitt before the ball or did it all together?”
Mechanics involve timing and consistency.
“You try to use the same exact stance every single time,” says Laird about setting up to call balls and strikes.
“Sometimes you have a catcher that loves to squirm,” says Laird. “I had a catcher that would set up late every single time.
“About the 10th or 11th pitch, I understand that. I have to wait to the catcher gets set and moves up and then I get in my spot.
“We don’t coach. I’d love to tell catchers to scoot up. You’re taking pitches away from your pitcher. I’m just there to call balls and strikes. If it doesn’t look good because (the catcher) is way back here it’s probably going to be a ball.”
The Salmons, who are members of the St. Joseph Valley Officials Association, see the umpire shortage.
What can be done to bring the numbers up?
“It starts with a little bit of recruiting,” says Matt. “People also have to be interested in it. One way to get people really interested is to raise the game fees.”
Rates vary. In the South Bend area, umpires make around $50 for a junior varsity game and varsity ranges between $65 and $75 depending on the school.
Umpires have to way factors of time, gas prices and the heat they may get from the fans, coaches and players.
Emotions are bound to be a part of baseball. Matt says it’s up to the adults to see they don’t get out of hand, leading to a blow-up or an ejection.
“The coaches are supposed to set the example for the kids,” says Matt. “As soon as they do that, the kids think it’s OK. The kids get tossed and the parents overreact because you just tossed their kid when they set a terrible example for him, right?
“The kids’ behavior follows the coaches almost to a tee. If he’s a decent coach and he’s calm, the kids are going to be calm. If the coaches is hyper and all strung up, the kids are going to be all strung up.”
The Salmons don’t do all their games together, but when they do a decision gets made long before they reach the field on who will be the one behind the plate.
“If he’s had a particular team behind the plate already, I’ll typically take that team and vice versa,” says Matt. Jennifer Salmon, Laird’s wife and Matt’s mother, will often be there to lend support.
ESPN’s Buster Olney has floated the idea of having Major League Baseball umpires rotate to do more games behind the plate or at a specific base relative to their accuracy rates.
If an umpire is getting 95 percent of balls and strikes correct they would be called upon for that duty more often than one who has a lower grade.
“You run into a lot of problems with that as training goes,” says Matt of Olney’s proposal. “If one person is always taking the plate and another guy hasn’t worked the plate in 40-plus games how crisp is he going to be with those strike calls? It’s going to be even worse.
“On top of that, you have to deal with retirement issues. When somebody leaves, someone has to be there to step in and fill their role.
“Behind the plate is still a man game (with no replay reviews that can overturn calls). How much practice do you need (on the safes and outs) if you can review the calls anyways?”
Says Laird, “The electronic strike zone is not there yet. I don’t think it will be there for a few years.”