We all know how important youth coaches are to kids trying to learn how to play the great game of baseball.

But have you ever thought how important the men in blue, who run the games, are to young baseball players?

Oh sure, it goes without saying that you can't play the games without umpires, and thus, their presence is imperative.

Their importance goes beyond that, and the more I watch and coach youth baseball and that played on the high school level, the more I'm convinced theyare just as important as the coaches. The way they call a game has alot to do with the development of a kid as a hitter or a pitcher.

Before I really get into this, let me say that we are fortunate in Anne Arundel County to have a pretty good umpires association, run by Jack Kramp.

Overall, the Anne Arundel County Umpires Association is very proficient and most of the officials take pride in their work.And the man who runs them is not out to make a buck on amateur teams.

More on that in a moment.

Getting back to the importance of these guys, the most vital thing they do is call balls and strikes. The way they do it is the key to youth baseball.

The one big question I recently asked Kramp, other umpires and a host of coaches is: "Why don't our local umpires call more strikes?"

Most agree that giving the pitcher the close pitch and not the hitter makes for better games. With the pitchers' getting a break, it definitely makes the games go faster and eliminates a rash of walks and 3-2 counts that cause games to drag.

"The games would definitely go faster, and yes, I would like to see more strikes called by our men," said Kramp, who is the chief of the local group that handles a number of leagues and agegroups.

The Anne Arundel group of arbiters works high school games for our county, Baltimore County and Howard County. During the summer, those guys man the games for the 15-and-under Joe E. Brown League, the 16-and-under Mickey Mantle, the American Legion, the Connie Mack 18-and-under, the unlimited Baltimore Major, Chesapeake Seniors andChesapeake Independent leagues, plus 13-14 baseball.

"We have about 80 men and I think most of ours are very good," said Kramp. "And when I go out and watch them work, I sometimes go away wishing some ofthem would call more strikes.

"But I think the problem is with the differences in strike zones between the National Federation and theofficial baseball rules. The federation rule calls for a higher strike zone and most older summer teams don't want that."

The federation strike zone calls for pitches from the top of the letters to the top of the knee. Going by the regular big-league rules, the zone during the summer is the top of the knees to the belt, according to Kramp.

"We tried an experiment once, asking our men to call the high federation strike, and all the teams did was complain," Kramp said with a laugh. "The experiment didn't last long."

What is a shame is that we have a rule book, but a lot of umpires call their own strike zone. I'm not too sure if that is good or not, and it raises the question of why have a rule book?

Kramp agrees that umpires can positively influence young pitchers by being consistent and not changing the strike zone during the course of the game.

"We can help develop a pitcher by being consistent and inviting him to throw it where the umpires want it," said Kramp.

In other words, if an umpire consistently is calling a pitch just below the knees a strike early on, and thepitcher starts throwing it there, then keep it there. The worst thing an umpire can do to a young kid is change the strike zone in the middle of the game.

"I agree, and I tell young umpires all the time to call more strikes," said veteran umpire Jocko Svoboda, who has been at the craft about 40 years.

"If it's close, give it to the pitcher to keep hitters from going up there looking for a walk."

"If the umpire is calling it close, that makes a hitter swing when he is up there and not go up looking to walk," said Mayo Juniors 16-and-under coach Tut O'Hara. "To go somewhere in this game, you have to be a pitcher or be able to swing the bat.

"When umpires don't call strikes and guys go up there not being aggressive and not swinging, that does little for both."

O'Hara is 100 percent correct, and one wonders how many more good hitters would be developed in our county if themen in blue called more strikes. And the pitching prospects would increase, as well. Pitching and hitting go hand-in-hand.

Kids don't develop in Little League and up through their teen years if they are accustomed to going up there looking for a walk. There are coaches who teach kids not to be aggressive and to take pitches because the umpire is not going to call strikes.

Why swing on 2-0 or 3-1 if the umpire is not going to call a strike unless it's right down the middle?

This summer, I've watched a lot of outstanding umpiring by the likes of Jim Stromberg (one of the top high school umpires in the metro area), the father/son duo from Baltimore City in Tommy and Brooks Kerr, Larry Smith, Les Blizzard, and up-and-coming young umpires JerryCappadona and Matt Griffith.

Cappadona, or "Cappy," knows the game, has good judgment and a great demeanor that should take him a longway. He's only a second-year man, but Kramp said, "Cappy is outstanding."

Griffith is just a high school junior at Glen Burnie who began umpiring with his dad, Dave, a couple of years ago in the Linthicum-Ferndale program. Dave currently is out with a bad knee, but Matt worked a lot of the Linthicum-Ferndale Tournament games in several agegroups and he's so professional and mature that you would lose a betthat he's just a high schooler.

Something these two young umpiresdo, and I hope continue doing, is call strikes. And their strike zone is consistent. That's what it's all about and why, as two rookie types, they've earned instant respect from everyone who has seen them work.

Actually, most of Kramp's guys do a superb job, and without asking for an arm and a leg in payment.

For instance, umpires in Howard County working 16-and-under games get $29 per game, while the Anne Arundel guys receive $21. Prince George's County umpires get about$36.

Moving up to 18-and-under, our local guys get $22 a game, asopposed to $29 in Howard.

"We are the lowest paid. Our prices go up $1 every two years, that's all," said Kramp. "As long as I'm in charge, that's the way it's going to be because I don't want us to price teams out of their leagues.

"We understand how much money it costs these days to run a summer team and don't want to make our fees too high for them."

With that kind of attitude, it's easy to understand why things run smoothly in our county. And it offers hope that those right arms will go up more often to signal strikes.

At least, talk about it, guys, and ask yourselves, "Should I be calling more strikes?"

Most coaches would want you to.

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