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'This could be the year that never was' Area umpires dealing with season on hold indefinitely

Umpires like Paul Layman of Villa Park (left) are struggling with the uncertainty of when, or if, baseball will return this spring as the season is delayed indefinitely because of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak.
Umpires like Paul Layman of Villa Park (left) are struggling with the uncertainty of when, or if, baseball will return this spring as the season is delayed indefinitely because of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak.

After receiving his first postseason umpiring assignments last season, Batavia resident Chuck Toth was especially excited about working high school softball games again this spring.

Now he doesn’t know when he’ll umpire again, and he doesn’t believe it will be anytime soon.

“This could be the year that never was,” Toth said. “I don’t see us doing anything. I’m canceled now until mid-April and I assume more and more will be canceled.”

While Illinoisans are under a stay-at-home order and inundated with information about what they can do now to decrease the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19, many high school sports officials have no idea what to expect next. And some are at the point where they can’t afford to wait.

“There’s a feeling right now that we’re not sure if we’re going to see high school baseball and that’s just a feeling from everything that’s going on,” said Jordan Cohen, assignment chair for the Illinois Officials Association, which assigns baseball umpires for a number of conferences including at Oswego, Oswego East, West Aurora and Yorkville in the Southwest Prairie. “We haven’t been told anything and the whole thing with the governor is through April 7. It keeps pushing back.”

All Indiana schools are closed until May 1, but the state hasn’t officially canceled its spring sports season. Will Illinois follow suit?

“Since we don’t know what’s going to happen all we can do is be patient,” Cohen said. “We don’t have any more information now that can help anybody, but I know once they tell anybody to start playing, I think there’s going to be a lot of people playing.”

It may not be easy for a hitter to dig in with an 0-2 count in the last inning against a hard-throwing closer, but as a hitter you have to keep fighting and remain confident.

Umpires need to do the same.

“This is tough for all of us,” said Jeff Collis, assignment supervisor for the Fox Valley Blues, which assigns baseball umpires for the DuKane and Interstate Eight conferences among others. “There are many umpires who rely on the income as a second job. And there are others who just miss the camaraderie, being around the game and seeing the coaches. One thing we all know is that baseball will persevere through this and will come roaring back with the most amazing level of spirit when all of this passes. I look forward to that day.”

If, and when, that day comes, some among the umpiring brotherhood might not afford to come back. That includes three-sport official Paul Layman from Villa Park.

“I’m looking for work now and we’re uncertain if and when we’ll ever get rolling again,” Layman said. “If I take a job that may mean that I’m potentially done umpiring and refereeing forever. Our profession is in trouble enough with the lack of officials. I can see this potentially being a major problem when sports restart.”

Umpiring is what people like Layman do. It’s their passion. But they also have bills to pay and bread to put on the table. Unlike other livelihoods or part-time jobs, umpires cannot collect unemployment.

“What people in general don’t understand is that we who do it for a living make sacrifices in a sense,” Layman said. “I can make far more each year with the right job. I don’t do this strictly for the money. The kids make it worth every penny of sacrifice.”

Michael Durmus has already given up on his season. In 1980, Durmus saw his playing career cut short due to a horrific leg injury while playing for Hersey. Now, 40 years later he umpired a single Division III college game before this season was canceled. Talk about bad luck.

“This was going to be a breakthrough year for me,” he said. “I got a full D3 schedule in and now it’s all gone. But this is more like a hobby for me compared to how bad it is financially for others. But I’m 58 and there’s only so long I have where you can be this active.”

Durmus, who lives in Prospect Heights and works as an independent carpenter, said he was going to self-isolate by backpacking in the wilderness to cope with the decimation of his college umpiring plans for this spring.

Dean Casper, a high school baseball umpire for 12 years, said if the fields remain empty as the weather improves, it’s going to make it even more difficult to live without baseball.

“Our first nice day is when it will sink in,” Casper said. “Instinct with kick in and we’ll want to be on a field somewhere. But these events are beyond everyone’s control. We will make the best of it when our opportunity presents itself.”

If that day comes.

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