Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Review of the Mid-American Umpire Clinic

Earlier this year I interviewed Jason Blackburn, owner of the Mid-American Umpire Clinic in Springfield, Missouri. After our interview Jason invited me to the camp to see his training first-hand. Although Springfield is only a three hour drive from my home, I was a little skeptical about attending the clinic. The cost is extremely low at $125.00, so how good could it be, right? It sounded like a clinic run by Jason and his buddies. Despite my reservations, I accepted Jason’s invitation and in early September I drove to Springfield for the clinic.

The first thing I noticed was that I was correct in my assumption regarding the clinic staff: Jason Blackburn and his buddies do run the clinic. However, this clinic is not an excuse for the instructors to get together and tell a bunch of war stories. The future of any umpire clinic depends on the quality of the staff and the ability to instruct, so Jason surrounds himself with highly qualified and experienced umpire instructors (who also happen to be his friends and umpire colleagues). The staff is very knowledgeable, stayed on task, and were willing to take the extra time to answer all of our questions throughout the weekend. The staff includes:

Jason Blackburn - Missouri Valley Conference Umpire
Rick Denny - MIAA Conference Supervisor of Umpires
Greg Chittenden - Former AAA Minor League Umpire
Matt Deane - Current Minor League Umpire
Jeff Spisak - Missouri Valley Conference Umpire
Greg Harmon - Missouri Valley Conference Umpire
John Routh - Missouri Valley Conference Umpire
Steve Govero - MIAA Conference Umpire
Nick Ramos - RMAC Conference Umpire
Scott Maid - MIAA Conference Umpire

The Mid-American Umpire Clinic is not a “boot camp” (although instructor John Routh is a former Marine), but it's not about holding hands and singing folk songs either. Jason and his instructors are more like your older brother and his buddies. They are critical and quick to point out your short-comings, but these guys are serious about your improvement and are committed to ensuring that you leave the clinic a better umpire.

All of the instructors are fantastic. While each student received the attention of different instructors, three stood out to me personally: Jason Blackburn, John Routh, and Greg Harmon. Jason is very detail-oriented and picked apart my plate work. It was very enlightening to me to receive his feedback. John and Greg are similar in their easy-going personalities, but are very specific in ensuring that the student executes the proper field mechanics. Both John and Greg took the extra time to explain some fine points of proper field mechanics, and I am grateful for their instruction. Throughout the weekend the instructors treated each of us as equals in the umpire fraternity. In fact, a few weeks after the clinic I was invited to meet Jason Blackburn and John Routh at the University of Missouri to watch them work a Mizzou game and talk umpiring. Great umpires and even better people!

As umpires it is difficult to gauge our performance, strengths and weaknesses. No one keeps score of the umpire’s calls. We don’t have a box score. That is why it is important to have an experienced umpire evaluator scrutinize your work. As umpires we take a lot of abuse. It is a difficult concept to pay for more criticism. However, a critical evaluation is exactly what an umpire needs to grow and advance.

On Friday evening the students were divided into four cage groups for plate mechanics at a local school gymnasium. Two instructors critiqued the student’s plate work while being video taped, while a third reviewed the tape with the student after the session. After the plate work, the cage group rotated to a class discussion of field mechanics led by former AAA umpire Greg Chittenden. The classwork continued that evening with classes on pitching rules and the umpire's mental preparation for a game. The mental preparation discussion is a unique feature jointly developed by Jason Blackburn and Scott Maid, a licensed psychologist. This presentation offered insight into improving focus and concentration, as well as imagining and relaxation techniques. The presentation was worth the price of the clinic alone.

Saturday was a busy day of evaluation and classroom discussion. The students were paired up to alternate plate and field duties. I worked my innings with Casey Campbell, a younger guy from Mt. Vernon, Missouri, with aspirations for attending the Harry Wendelstedt Umpire School in January. Casey and I worked well together. I spent four innings on the bases and two on the plate and received written evaluations and immediate feedback on my work. The games were of good quality and played by high school and college teams throughout the weekend.

The M.A.U.C. instructors were often on the field with the students for immediate feedback and correction. Anyone who has attended a clinic or camp can attest that it is very difficult to break bad habits and implement new techniques while being evaluated - and don’t forget officiating the game! Even though Jason knew I would review his clinic, he did not take it easy on me. I learned a great deal from his honest critique.

For those ready to advance from high school to college ball, there were several assigners at the camp including Rick Denny, Supervisor of Umpires for the MIAA and umpire assigner for teams in the Northern Sun and Midlands Conferences. Rick got a good look at all of the students over the weekend.

Saturday continued with evening classwork covering appeals and base awards, interference/obstruction, umpire professionalism, and handling situations. Saturday concluded with a late dinner at a local bar (the instructors paid for the meal!). Jeff Spisak entertained with his animated stories from the minor leagues. Suffice it to say that Jeff Spisak and his stories are a whole other blog entry! Additionally Rex Mehrhoff from Between the Lines displayed the latest umpire equipment and uniform items.

On Sunday the students practiced three-man mechanics. There were three high school practice games scheduled throughout the day, and everyone that wanted three-man instruction was afforded the opportunity for both plate and base work. The instructors stayed on the field with the students. I took advantage of some opportunities and worked 3 innings on the field and two behind the plate.

The cost for this clinic is a tremendous bargain. This year’s cost was $125.00, and the clinic offers a special room rate and will book you either solo or with a roommate to split the room cost. Students of the Mid-American Umpire Clinic receive $200.00 off the tuition at Wendelstedt’s school, which makes attending this clinic free for those students planning to attend pro umpire school.

Bottom Line
Perhaps the most impressive thing about this clinic is the number of repeat students. During the weekend I met several students that make the clinic an annual event.

That's not to say that this is a local clinic. I was surprised to learn that during the last ten years the clinic has attracted both male and female students ranging in age from 12-72, from places such as New York, Florida, Louisiana, Utah and everywhere in between. In fact, this year I met Alex Ironside from Perth, Australia (Alex is pictured at right with John Routh). Yep, Alex is a member of the Western Australian Baseball Umpires Association featured in a recent Midwest ump interview with WABU’s president David Gripper. It’s a small world.

I suppose the highest praise I can give the Mid-American Umpire Clinic is that I will return for next year's clinic, September 10-12, 2010 in Springfield, MO. The M.A.U.C. offers an unbeatable combination of instruction and low cost. I highly recommend this clinic.

No comments: