Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Midwest Ump Goes To RussMatt

The RussMatt Tournament is the largest spring collegiate baseball tournament in the country. Each March, over 200 colleges travel to Florida and Arizona to play baseball under the sun while there’s snow on their fields back home. The tournament hosts all college levels, from JUCO to NCAA Division I. The RussMatt Tournament begins in late February and runs through the end of March.

This year I was able to attend the RussMatt Tournament in Florida. The weather was spectacular, and I was impressed with the quality of umpires and tournament organization.

The Teams
The RussMatt Invitational in Florida is actually two separate tournaments: a junior college tournament hosted in the Tampa Bay area, and a tournament in central Florida centered around Winter Haven.  However, teams are scheduled at a variety of facilities. Most teams stay about a week, but some more northern teams may stay longer.

The quality of play is “average early season college,” which means it can vary greatly. Many of the northern teams are playing their first games during the RussMatt Tournament, so every facet of play can get sloppy. This keeps everyone on their toes!

The Umpires
The umpires are recruited from all over the country. Groups of umpires from New York, the New England area, Colorado, and Chicago make this tournament an annual event. The umpires are very experienced and work at the top collegiate levels in their respective areas.

The games are scheduled as two man crews, regardless of level. An extra umpire can volunteer to get in work as a three man crew, but there is no additional pay. Often top level umpires who also serve as umpire evaluators in their regions will observe a crew and give feedback. The atmosphere is very supportive and collegial.

Umpire Pay and Accommodations
RussMatt umpires are paid $70 for a seven inning game and $80 for a nine inning game. Payday is once per week, and then on your last day. Condominiums are available and the cost will depend on the number of occupants (usually around $20 per night). Some umpires rent apartments and houses for the tournament, some bring their wives and work some baseball while vacationing, and at least one umpire stays in his RV.

Progressive Energy Park in St. Pete
The Fields
For me, the best thing about this tournament was visiting the historic spring training ballparks. Some of these parks are on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. The base for the Florida tournament is Winter Haven, and its centerpiece is Chain of the Lakes Park. Built in 1966 it has been the spring training home for the Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians.

Since this is a huge tournament, there are several college and high school sites. Lake Myrtle Sports Park in Auburndale is heavily used as is the Walter Fuller Baseball Complex in St. Petersburg. Other notable sites and their major league spring training teams include:

Henley Field Ball Park (Lakeland)  – Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers
Progress Energy Park, formerly Al Lang Stadium ( St. Petersburg) – New York Yankees; New York Giants; St. Louis Cardinals; New york Mets; Baltimore Orioles; Tampa Bay Rays
Jack Russell Stadium (Clearwater) – Philadelphia Phillies
Tinker Field (Orlando) - Cincinnati Reds; Brooklyn Dodgers; Washington Senators; Minnesota Twins

The RussMatt tournament is a business and the teams are the customers. You are not working for an association at this tournament and no one will hold your hand. Umpires are expected to work hard and make the customers happy, which can be a foreign attitude to many. A “this is my field” or “this is my game” approach can get you sent home early. Management will stand by a good ejection, but failure to properly manage a ball game can get you fired. With that said, the coaches and players are usually well behaved.

Because of the large number of games, some travel is involved, especially if you do not have seniority. This can mean an hour or more in the car driving to your game site, fighting traffic on one of Tampa Bay’s bridges, or getting stuck in rush hour or accident traffic. The scheduling (generally) takes distance and traffic into account, but arriving on time is your responsibility.

  • Umpires are assigned one or two games each day. Some umpires request a day off for golf or family.
  • Umpires are responsible to text in the score after each game.
  • All but a couple facilities have umpire changing rooms and most have showers.
  • The busier complexes provide water for the umpires.

Last Words
The RussMatt Tournament in Florida was a great experience! I worked 18 games in 11 days and got a great jump on my college season. One day was very wet, two days were quite warm (upper 80’s), but most days the weather was perfect. One night at Progressive Energy Park in St. Pete was especially beautiful.

The umpires I worked with were also terrific. Not one was substandard, and several had professional experience. They were all good guys - the bad apples are vetted very quickly by management. Each year umpires are sent home early for a variety of transgressions. This tournament is not for the lazy or untrained. You are expected to work hard, be in position, manage the ball game, and be a good partner. If working with excellent umpires in perfect weather sounds good to you, check out the RussMatt website for application information.

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