Not Just Balls And Strikes: Umpire Sean Kerins Does More Than Call The Game — He Manages It While Working With The Players
Baseball umpires at the local/youth level, in the eyes of fans and players alike, may seemingly be there to call balls and strikes or rule a baserunner safe or out.
Although those may be duties of umpires, Newtown Babe Ruth Baseball Umpire Coordinator Sean Kerins — who calls games himself — says there are three elements of umpiring: Managing the game, controlling the game, and keeping the integrity of the game.
“People, coaches, players, and parents think umpires are there to make calls, but we are there to manage and control the game, keep it moving, control behavior, and make sure people are treated with respect. This should be easy but is very difficult to enforce. When you deal with the success or failure of someone’s child, it becomes hard to manage them at times. Keeping the flow of the game is really hard, especially when a team is struggling with throwing strikes or fielding,” Kerins said.
Kerins added that looking out for the wellbeing and integrity of young players when they are struggling is essential. There are instances in which a child has not pitched much and can not throw a strike and gets frustrated. “On top of it, they balk at younger ages. I will not call a balk but explain to the coach present what they did to balk. I do not want to put extra pressure on a kid 13 and younger who is learning — even if I get some flack from opposing coaches and fans,” Kerins said.
“I feel like I am an extension of the coaching staff. I have the ability to teach players, coaches, and sometimes fans the rules of the game. The kids and most of the coaches are great. I like talking with the players and getting to know them,” he added.
Kerins works games either in the field or behind the plate from April through October, minus some time off in August, and umps about 90 games per year. The games Kerins calls on smaller fields for the youngest players run approximately one and a half to two hours, and the larger field games last between two and three hours.
He and his wife, Maureen (Mo), have lived in Newtown since 1999. Their children, Johnny, Ricky, Kathryn, Brian, and Sean all played Newtown baseball — the boys into high school and Kathryn until she was ten years old.
Kerins played throughout his childhood as well as four years in high school (New York Military Academy in Cornwall, N.Y., 1978-1982) and three at the collegiate level (Dominican College in Blauvelt, N.Y., 1982-84); he was a catcher, so the view from behind home plate is second nature when calling balls and strikes as the home plate ump.
He umpired for about two years in his early 20s and started calling games in Newtown two decades ago. “I umpired for high school with the Western Connecticut Umpire Association. I was introduced to low level college baseball while with that Association,” Kerins said. Due to work commitments with Sealed Air Corporation, he gave up the advanced umpire levels but still works games at the 8-21-year-old age levels.
Kerins started with Newtown ball in 1999. He was a Newtown baseball division director two times, 2001-08 and 2011-18. Kerins was the Newtown Baseball coaches certification trainer from 2003 to 2006 before that process moved online. Kerins has been an umpire trainer since 2007 and has been umpire coordinator since 2016. Additionally, he coached the game from 1999 to 2017.
Kerins umpires games differently depending on the age group. The strike zone is bigger for 8-, 9-, and 10-year-olds to encourage batters to swing. As players grow up, the strike zone is changed to better reflect the high school strike zone. Additionally, the teams move from the 70-foot base paths to the 90-foot base paths when the players turn 13.
There is an exception. “For all district, state, and regional games, we stay with the high school strike zone for all ages. There is a lot more on the line,” Kerins explains.
“There are a few rules modified depending on the age group. We do not typically call balks at the younger age groups (8-10). We give pitchers one warning about balks (for ages 11-13),” said Kerins, adding that balks are called consistently for players 14 and older.
Umpiring can be a thankless job at times.
“Most fans and coaches are great, although you have your times when they are not so great. There are times the fans get out of control. They show up, ready to yell at the umpire. They do not realize we are human and will miss calls. There have been some tough situations,” Kerins said.
“In my experience, the coaches set the tone for the team — both players and fans,” he said. “When coaches that do not allow their players to be disrespectful to the umpire, the fans will follow suit. The coaches will have discussions but never raise their voice.”
There are different ways to defuse situations, and Kerins certainly figured out a good one at game in town not long ago.
“Last year, I was up at High Meadow. A visiting team fans were commented loudly about many pitches. Between innings, I walked off the field and sat with them in the bleachers. They were silent. I looked up and said ‘you do have a better view from here than I do from behind the plate.’ They laughed for the rest of the game,” Kerins said.
“I do feel the fans are growing to be more difficult every year, or I am becoming more impatient with disrespect. I tell coaches all the time, ‘youth players are following you and parents’ example. If you treat us disrespectfully, they will learn that behavior.’ Again, the majority of fans and parents are great,” Kerins said.
“The plate umpire has full control of the game. All umpires like control. The plate umpire has the difficult task of concentrating on every pitch. The strike zone has more room and frequency for criticism. The field umpires have less plays to call but the greater chance of having bang-bang plays,” Kerins added. “The toughest part of umpiring is getting a call wrong. Players and coaches work very hard with their teams. An umpire does not want to make a questionable call that may drive the result of the game.”
Of course, part of the (foul) territory that comes with being behind the plate is having a foul ball deflect off part of the mask or, ideally, another piece of protective equipment. Kerins notes that attention to detail when getting into position behind the plate goes a long way.
“I hate getting hit by foul balls. Usually, if you get hit be a foul ball, I am not set up correctly,” he said.
Kerins’ favorite part about umpiring: “The friendships with the other umpires. I really like many of the guys. The majority want to do a great job and succeed. Also, I love being around the gems. I love being a part of good baseball. Watching a great play or a player who struggles be successful is fun.”
There are many memories from unusual and thrilling or nerve-racking games Kerins has called.
“A pitcher from Kent School was being scouted by colleges and pro teams. I was behind the plate. There were many speed guns and cameras pointing at home plate. I just kept praying have a good strike zone,” he recalls.
Another fond memory was a 14-inning game between Ridgefield and Danbury High. “The game was very intense. For seven innings, the crowd was reacting to every ball/strike call,” said Kerins, adding that the game ended on a steal of home.
“I was doing a 9-year-old game behind Hawley School. The game ended on a unassisted triple play. Redding had bases loaded, no outs. There was a line drive to the shortstop, who caught it, tagged the kids that came off second and first,” Kerins recalls.
In his role as coordinator, Kerins assigns all the games for Newtown Baseball, conducts umpire trainings for youth and adults, and assess umpires and their skill set. For youth programs, there is training that goes for about two to four hours.
“We will bring you to a live, younger age group game to give you supervised experience. There is a written exam on the National Babe Ruth website,” Kerins said.
“The older age groups have on-field training. For your first several games, you are partnered with an experienced ump. There is a online test you need to take with the National Babe Ruth website,” he added.
For the high school level, there is three-day training and written 100-question exam. “You will start at the freshmen and JV level before being asked to work varsity,” Kerins said.
Umpires learn to make calls both behind the plate and out in the field from the get-go. “You start calling balls and strikes immediately; you switch on and off from the plate to the field with a partner,” he said.
Umpires earn from $25 to $110 per game, depending on their level and if games have one- or two-person umpire crews. Those interested in learning more about becoming an umpire may visit the Newtown Babe Ruth website, newtownbaseball.com.