Umpire shortage leaves players waiting on deck

Despite the rise in the popularity of other sports, such as soccer and lacrosse, more than 500 enthusiastic young baseball and softball players continue to come from around southern Sussex County to play for the 43 teams in the Lower Sussex Little League.

But because of a shortage of umpires for the younger teams, some of the eager aspiring athletes have been unable to play their games.

“The shortage is mostly among the Minor League, with 7-, 8- and 9-year-old girls,” said Bill Wingate, the umpire-in-chief for the Lower Sussex League. “It’s unfortunate, because that’s when they really learn the ins and outs of the game.”

Wingate said the shortage is due to the fact that many umpires are attracted to games with more experienced players. Since all the league’s umpires are volunteers, they are allowed to choose which games to officiate.

In fact, all those affiliated with Little League baseball and softball must be volunteers, according to an international contract. And that volunteer requirement has been a dual factor in the shortage, since at least one nearby facility pays umpires for their time, Wingate said.

There are currently 22 volunteers who umpire at the games, which are held in the Pyle Center in Roxana. There are at least seven Little League games each night on the center’s nine fields.

Wingate said that when no umpire is available for a game, a parent may come out of the stands and volunteer to officiate. That option is only allowed, however, in games where players are less experienced and the balls are not traveling at high speeds.

The umpires for Little League Baseball range in age and knowledge. Some of the youngest volunteers are in their mid-teens, while the oldest are in their mid-80s. For those interested in volunteering but who know little about baseball, Wingate said he holds clinics on the field to demonstrate the basics of the game.

The Lower Sussex Little League has been attracting baseball and softball fans for nearly 40 years, and has at times had as many as 800 young ball players, according to Bruce Layton, president of Lower Sussex Little League.

“Soccer and AAU baseball has really cut into the league through the years,” Layton allowed. “But we have 550 kids now and I’m pretty tickled with that.”

The league is broken down into six age groups, as determined by a local administrator. There is the minor league for 7- and 8-year-olds, the major-minor league for 9- and 10-year-olds, the major league for 11- and 12-year-olds, the junior league for 13- and 14-year-olds, the senior league for 15- and 16-year-olds and the big league for 17- and 18-year-olds.

Little League baseball also spans the world. Millions of players from ages 5 to 18 participate in league games throughout the U.S., Israel, Jordan, Russia, Germany, Japan, China and numerous other nations.

In 2003, the Pyle Center (which has served as the home for Lower Sussex Little League games since 1981) was also named the new site of the Little League World Series for Senior League softball.

Girls ages 14 to 16 will come from around the world to play in the 2005 Senior League Softball World Series this August, the second year in a row that the series will be held at the Pyle Center. The center will serve as one of eight locations for World Series games worldwide.

Layton said that, although umpires for the World Series must have at least 20 years experience and be approved by the International Little League, volunteers are still needed to help with the event.

“We can keep the World Series here as long as we have the volunteers to run it,” Layton said.

For more information about Lower Sussex Little League or to volunteer as an umpire (or for the World Series), contact Bill Wingate at (302) 436-2995.