Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Baseball Umpiring Down Under

Today's post is a little different. I thought it would be interesting hearing from a brother in blue from another country. I was especially interested in amateurs that have the same passion as Americans for baseball. My search found David Gripper, president of the Western Australian Baseball Umpire’s Association (WABUA) in Perth, Australia. David is a life-long baseball fan and a graduate of the Wendelstedt Umpire School.

MWU: Thank you for participating in my first-ever international interview! Please tell us a little about yourself and your association.

Gripper: Western Australian Baseball Umpires Association was formed 75 years ago and is still a vibrant organization. Baseball in Australia is administered by each state and the grading and competitions are completely autonomous. Our association only has approximately 50 members of which 35 umpire on a regular basis (mainly on weekends). Personally, I got involved as an umpire after playing from Under 13 to age 35. When my son started playing junior baseball, the team needed an umpire and I was pretty much the only Dad with playing experience. My son quit playing after three or four years, but I was enjoying the experience and persevered. Been umpiring for 22 years now. As a 60 year old I get more satisfaction from training and developing young umpires now than umpiring top level baseball ... been there and done that !!

MWU: How did you end up attending the Harry Wendelstedt School for Umpires?

Gripper: I was selected to go to Harry's (1993) after another umpire from here trained at Brinkman Froeming in 1992. The selections were made by our national body, Australian Baseball Federation, and only offered to those umpires considered to have the ability to "bring it all back home." At that stage it was not possible for us to get jobs in USA; we really went to school to learn to be good instructors. It was a fantastic experience and one that I reflect on regularly.
[I later learned that David is being very modest. He was actually only the second umpire selected by the ABF to attend a professional umpire school. A very great honor. MWU]

MWU: Tell us a little about the weather climate in Western Australia and the length of the baseball season.

Gripper: Baseball in Australia is played during the summer months, October through March. In Perth summer temperatures range from 28-40 degrees Celsius [82 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit]. Fortunately the humidity is quite low. Providing that the umpires take plenty of fluid during the game, the heat is not a major factor. We work a two man system and normally the umpires work two games per day ( plate and base).

MWU: How popular is baseball in Australia ?

Gripper: Baseball is really a second tier sport in Australia. Cricket is the most popular summer sport along with basketball, soccer and a lot of water sports. In winter it is Australian Rules Football and Rugby.

MWU: What is the organization of baseball like in Australia (youth/adult levels)? How many baseball games are played during the week?

Gripper: In Western Australia the competition is almost totally limited to Perth (population 1 million). Baseball starts with our TeeBall kids (Under 8's through to Under 11's), then we move to Little League, then to Under 15's, Under 17's, Under 19's then onto senior baseball where there are about six different divisions culminating with our State League (1st division). We provide umpires to most of the senior grades of baseball and to the top grades of junior baseball. Most of our baseball is played on weekends; juniors on Saturday and seniors on Sunday. On Saturday with TeeBall, Little League and junior baseball there are hundreds of games played. Senior baseball on Sunday there is approximately 45 games each day. Clearly we do not have enough umpires to cover all games; the clubs need to supply their own umpires for the lower divisions. The State League teams also play some night games and we usually would cover four games mid week starting at 7.00pm.

MWU: What opportunities are there for advancement in the umpire ranks?

Gripper: Being a strictly amateur sport in Australia the opportunities for advancement are extremely limited. Once our umpires have progressed through and umpired at State League level, they need to rely on being selected to umpire at a national level. These games are very limited. There is an Under 14, Under 16 and Under 18 National Championship Series held in January each year. Each state of Australia, plus a couple of regional teams play a round robin series then an elimination round to decide the National Champion at each age level. The games are played in one central location over a 12 day period. Locations are rotated each year to give each state an opportunity to host the series. This is a great opportunity for umpires looking to push on to the highest level in Australia.

MWU: What is the per-game pay like for amateur umpires in your area?

Gripper: We sure as hell don't umpire for the dollars; almost strictly for the love of the game. Our State League umpires are paid about $65 for a plate and $55 for a base [approx. $52 US for plate and $44 US for bases] . These figures decrease throughout the minor grades to about $35 for a plate and $25 for a base [approx. $28 US for plate and $20 US for bases]. In junior baseball it is about $25 for a plate. Most of our guys umpiring juniors do two plates on a Saturday.

MWU: What rules and modifications are used?

Gripper: In senior baseball we play strictly to Major League Rules. In juniors we make several modifications mainly in relation to the number of pitches that can be thrown per game. We also limit the type of pitch that Under 13's and younger can throw (no curves or sliders; just fast ball and change up).

MWU: I see from your association’s website that four of your umpires have umpired professionally in the United States . You must be very proud of them!

Gripper: Having trained four of my younger umpires to the point of them being selected to attend Jim Evans Academy has been enormously satisfying for me personally. These guys really showed a high level of commitment to do whatever it took to be selected to attend. Fortunately for them the rules were relaxed so that they could also be selected after Jim Evans to attend PBUC and challenge for a job in professional baseball. One at a time they have worked as hard as they could to succeed at the highest level. Now after several years we have three of them (Brett Robson - Texas League, Jon Byrne and Travis Hatch - Eastern League) working AA ball in the USA. Who would have thought it possible from faraway Western Australia? What is even more satisfying is that no other state association in Australia has had success at having an umpire work professionally in USA. Our fourth umpire, Kyle Byrne (Jon's identical twin brother), quit after last year in Long A. He only quit because became engaged to the current reigning Miss Montana. They plan to marry soon so he needed to get a "real" job that would help pay his mortgage.

MWU: So, what the heck is Claxton Shield?

Gripper: The Claxton Shield ..... this is our premier senior national baseball competition. It is played on a limited scale between each state of Australia. The format has changed over the years but this season is set to revert to a three game home and away series for each team. Playoffs will then decide the National Champion (not quite the World Series but it is the best we have got). Many of the players are playing professionally in USA, with a few in Japan and Taiwan. Interestingly the Claxton Shield has been won by Western Australia for the past two years. We have to compete against the likes of New South Wales and Victoria; both of these states have populations four times bigger than Western Australia. The competition is fierce and the umpires really get to work at a very high level. My pro umpires tell me that some of the clashes are close to AA standard.

MWU: Is it difficult for umpires in Australia to find training and equipment?

Gripper: We are fortunate to have a specialty baseball store in Perth (Fielders Choice) which provides a large range of equipment and clothing for players. They also stock a range of umpires gear. We also import our own direct from USA, mainly +POS and we will also be using Gerry Davis. Our pros also help out by bringing back whatever customs will allow. We conduct all of our own training in-house.

Thank you, David, for sharing this information and insight with us. It sounds like you have a quality association with umpires passionate about the game of baseball.


Anonymous said...

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Bob Bainter said...

It was very cool to read this interview...since I was a fellow classmate of David Gripper's at Wendelstedt's before I got into pro ball. I would love to travel to Australia and see the work that David, I know, is very proud to have such a large part of. Keep it up, my fellow classmate!

Bob Bainter

tonyinSpokane said...

Kyle Byrne<----Glad to hear he quit. He made a horrible call in Great Falls in a playoff game.