SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. >> Ryan Gibson remembers buying clothes from the local Salvation Army to put together his first umpire uniform when he was about 14 years old. Jeff Pruitt recalls going to thrift stores to buy gray pants and a blue, button-down shirt.
Now, they’re both part of the 16-member umpire crew at the Little League World Series, a group with more than 350 years of experience combined. The umpires play a big role in making the games run smoothly, but they have a tough road before they end up in South Williamsport — and they do all the work on a volunteer basis.
First, they need a recommendation from the local district administrator of Little League to work in a regional tournament.
The umpires volunteering at the regional level are then evaluated and given one of two responses — one being a recommendation to work another regional event, in which case the ump in question keeps working and tries again later, and the other being that the umpire is recommended for a World Series assignment.
Even within that level, there are different meanings to term “World Series.” Little League actually runs seven different baseball and softball tournaments that carry the “World Series” title, such as the the Senior League Baseball World Series and the Little League Softball World Series.
But the most famous of the competitions, the one in South Williamsport, is technically the Little League Baseball World Series.
While an umpire can work in a World Series assignment once every four years, being selected for the Little League Baseball World Series can only happen once.
“It’s a long journey and you learn a lot,” said Troy Lare of Hermon, Maine. “Every step you take teaches and gets you to the point where you need to be, to be here.
“And when you find out you’re here, your heart stops for about 10 to 15 minutes and then you get back to life and get ready to come.”
The umpires need to practice their craft just like any professional. Attending clinics is a way to stay updated on all of the rules and regulations, but a lot of development comes from being observant and studying.
“We watch film on our mechanics to improve,” said Danny Gill of Lake Wales, Florida. “Just like a hitter or a fielder, you tend to pick up bad habits and you’ve got to get yourself back to where you need to be.”
Wayne Kurtz of Alberta, Canada, said he also watches umps at higher levels.
“When you watch a Major League Baseball game, sometimes you see how Major League Baseball players perform their job on the field,” Kurtz said. “Baseball players will watch baseball players. It’s funny because then an umpire will watch an umpire on TV, too.”
As might be expected, people on the LLWS crew started out as players.
“I played baseball when I was younger,” Kurtz said. “I just enjoyed the game so much that I decided I would become an umpire. I set a goal for myself and that was to someday get to Williamsport and, 15 years later, I’m here.”
In an organization that counts more than 1 million adult volunteers in all roles, it takes a lot of love of baseball and dedication to make it happen.
Pruitt of East Bethel, Michigan, remembers calling a Little League doubleheader about 25 years ago, before both of his kids were born.
Gibson of Brownstown, Michigan, joked that Pruitt was “dating himself” throughout the interview.
“You’re only as old as you feel,” Pruitt responded. “I have just as much fun as the kids. I’ll quit umpiring when I quit having fun out there.”