It’s four o’clock on a late March afternoon, and ordinarily, local umpires such as Dave Fuhrman and Ron Bacha would be at a local diamond to officiate high school baseball or softball.
But in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, these aren’t ordinary times for the world and athletics.
Schools across Pennsylvania are closed until at least mid-April due to a pair of orders from Governor Tom Wolf, the first to begin a school closure and the second to extend it until at least after Easter. With those closures came the postponement –– and likely cancelation –– of athletic events during that span.
In fact, whether or not the PIAA finishes its winter championships (basketball and Class AA swimming and diving still weren’t complete) or the spring season as a whole seems to become more and more unlikely with each day, leaving athletes, coaches and officials all in the dark.
“The biggest thing is not knowing if we’re going to get a season in,” said Fuhrman, a local softball umpire who’s worked games for about 20 years. “Obviously, if we do get anything in, it’ll be abbreviated. I think just the unknown is what’s hard to deal with.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by just about everybody involved in athletics in the state.
For his part, Fuhrman was set to umpire his first softball game of the new season this afternoon and a total of about 25 this year. With his extra free time, Fuhrman is studying the rule book to stay sharp –– something he encourages fellow umpires to do right now.
The changes to daily life aren’t just about games, either. Umpires are required to attend at least six chapter meetings, but those have all been postponed as well. In all likelihood, that meeting requirement will have to be adjusted should play for the 2020 season ever begin.
Fuhrman fulfilled one of those meetings by passing an online rules test that requires achieving at least an 80 percent, but eventually meetings will need to resume.
The issue is figuring out when.
“It’s just kind of a wait-and-see approach, because none of our meetings can take place while school’s out,” Fuhrman noted.
Added Bacha, “We can’t have the meetings. There’s 20-30 of us (in the local chapter), and Governor Wolf doesn’t want us meeting as a group. We usually met on Sundays.”
And, of course, there’s the financial impact of losing out on games, too. According to Bacha, umpires make $65 per game. For someone who works about as many games as Fuhrman, that’s $1,625 over a season that lasts from late March until early June, and that total is even higher for officials working more games.
“It’s kind of like a part-time job. I just use it for play money, being retired,” Fuhrman said. “But I’m sure some guys relied on it as a second income, so they’re going to lose out on that.”
The good news, he says, is that most umpires are like him: either retired or already in good financial shape and just working games as a little side job.
“You can’t survive on being a high school umpire, so it may put a little strain on people, but certainly anybody that’s an umpire isn’t doing it for the money,” Fuhrman said. “They’re doing it for the love of the game and to give back and help kids. Most of the guys that are umpiring are either retired or financially set, and they’re just doing it as a little side cash.”
Whether that side cash ever comes in this year remains to be seen. Bacha said he’s experienced plenty of wet seasons where games continuously were postponed due to rain, but that the current coronavirus situation is unlike anything he’s experienced in his 34 years of umpiring.
And, for Bacha personally, the impact is two-fold, as he works as the assigner for local umpires, too.
“I probably work about two to three hours on (assigning) each day, plus a couple more when I’m out umpiring,” he noted.
That work will get hectic if and when the 2020 season begins, as any games postponed through April 10 will get rescheduled or outright canceled –– and that’s after teams get at least a few practices in before playing in sanctioned games.
Bacha says he doubts a 2020 season will even get played, but added that if it does happen, a lot of teams will opt for double-headers to squeeze games into a condensed schedule.
“It’s sad, really sad. I hope it ends, but it’s just hard to say,” Bacha said of the situation. “Just listening to the athletic directors I’ve talked to, if we have sports, it’s going to be a real short season.”