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Sports Saturday

Longtime umpire says unruly coaches, parents creating shortage of umps in Chicago

To combat the shortage, he runs the Home Plate Umpires Association (HPUA), an organization that employs more than 100 youth umpires across the city.

Eddie Del Valle umpiring a game at Wrigley Field.
Ben Friedl/For the Sun-Times

Enduring verbal tirades from parents and coaches is a daily expectation for Chicago’s amateur umpires.

Eddie Del Valle says it’s not the expletive-laden rants bent on reversing a strike call for an 11-year-old that’s driving the umpiring shortage in Chicago. It’s stories of tangible threats to the lives of baseball’s men in blue that’s starving the city of its umpires.

“Some games, it’s just you and your partner against 40 or 50 people,” veteran ump Del Valle said. “When I was first doing this, I had a parent tell me in Spanish that he would wait in the parking lot to shoot me.

“It’s hardcore and that’s why umpires are leaving.”

Despite this incident, Eddie and his boisterous personality have been staples in the Chicago youth baseball community for more than 15 years. If Del Valle isn’t on the field calling the game himself, his voice rises above all others’ in the crowd.

“I’d turn around and tell them to shut up, and they listen,” Del Valle said . “They know better — because I’ll throw them all out. There’ll be an empty stadium, but we’ll still be playing baseball.”

Though Del Valle can be bombastic at times, he understands one of the biggest reasons there’s an umpire shortage is that not everyone has the same tough-skinned, zero-tolerance personality he does.

“If you’re worried about the parents, this isn’t for you,” he said. “If you’re worrying about the coaches bickering, this isn’t for you. Me? Man, I laugh at them.”

Because Del Valle keeps parents and coaches in his back pocket, he’s able to focus on two things he loves: umpiring and baseball. “When I’m out there umpiring, I’m alive,” he said.

Whether it’s a dramatic strike-three call or a mundane grounder to second, Del Valle never turns off his sense of showmanship. He takes a few steps back to add some strength to an enthusiastic fist pump after a bang-bang play at first base — scooping an extra layer of flavor to what would otherwise have been a run-of-the-mill high school baseball game.

He tries his best to maintain youthful energy on the field, attesting that he still has three or four good years of umpiring left in him. But at 53, he has begun to think about his bad knees and the city’s umpire shortage.

What Del Valle understands better than anyone is that without umpires, kids can’t play organized baseball. To combat the shortage, he runs the Home Plate Umpires Association (HPUA), an organization that employs more than 100 youth umpires across the city. Since 2010, Del Valle and HPUA have been training kids as young as 12 the skills of umpiring.

For Del Valle and other veteran umpires, it’s important that kids learn everything from the minutiae of which types of bats are legal to the best strategies in handling disgruntled parents and coaches.

“When I first started, I was not confident in myself and very quiet,” 18-year-old umpire Christian Armstrong said. “Now I feel very much in control of the field when I’m umpiring.”

Armstrong joined HPUA six years ago and is a testament to how umpiring equips kids with conflict-management skills. Though Armstrong admits dealing with parents is the most challenging part of his job, years of learning from Del Valle’s zero-tolerance personality has paid off.

“Sometimes I hand them the mask and say, ‘If you think you can do this better than me, be my guest,’ ” Armstrong said. “I absolutely learned that from Eddie.”

For Del Valle, working with young umpires is what he loves most about his job. Del Valle says many kids who arrive at their first day of umpire training are similar to Armstrong — introverted with low self confidence. But Del Valle thoroughly enjoys being a mentor for his umpires.

“The kids mean everything to me,” Del Valle said, wiping tears from his eyes. “They’re the reason I do this. Some of these kids come from tough areas. I grew up in the West Side of Chicago, it can be rough. I was one of those kids, so I’m just trying to give back.”

Del Valle always arrives prepared to games with extra uniforms.
Ben Friedl/For the Sun-Times

While Del Valle is equipping young umpires for life’s emotional rigors, there are some experiences formal training can’t duplicate. For example, after making a controversial call at second base, veteran umpire Carlos Rivera was punched in the back of the head.

“It almost made me quit umpiring,” Rivera said. “I was going to call the police because my partners told me they can get locked up.”

According to Illinois state law, inflicting any kind of physical harm to a sports official is a Class A misdemeanor, which can ultimately result in jail time. And though Rivera didn’t press charges, he understands experiences like this are deterring young people from pursuing umpiring as a career.

“We need these kids,” Rivera said. “Eddie and I are getting older and we don’t have younger guys.”

A lack of umpires sometimes forces Del Valle to work five games in one day, which in the summer heat can take a toll. Del Valle admits that when umpires work a lot of games in one day, they become sluggish and start blowing calls — a vicious cycle that leads to more outbursts from coaches and parents.

Del Valle admits there is no easy answer to solving the umpire shortage. Though he believes better pay would cause more umpires to stay, at a certain point, it becomes the responsibility of parents and coaches to be respectful.

“Parents and coaches need to calm down and realize that it’s a Little League game,” Del Valle said.”

In the meantime, Del Valle and other Chicago umpires must continue to prioritize their safety and follow their usual mantra: Umpires arrive at the game together, and umpires leave the game together.

“If I wasn’t here, who would do this?” Del Valle said. “I wanted to walk away a couple times — I want my life back. I’m constantly on the hustle and grind.”