It's not unusual for a youth league baseball game to end in tears. Learning to deal with the disappointment of losing is as much a part of the game as pitching and hitting.
But on a recent night on a Lowcountry ballfield, it wasn't a player who cried after the game.
It was the umpire. A teenage umpire.
“I felt so sorry for him,” said the mother of one of the players at that Mount Pleasant Recreation Department game. “He was in tears as he took off his equipment after the game, because one of the coaches had given him such a hard time during the game.”
In Mount Pleasant and in youth leagues across the Lowcountry, teenage umpires are vital to youth baseball.
“We wouldn't have enough umpires to work all our games without them,” said Karl Ankerson, the athletic coordinator for Mount Pleasant Rec.
In Mount Pleasant, teenagers must be 15 to umpire youth league games, and are paid $25 to $30 per game, usually working two games a night. They undergo training sessions on baseball rules and umpiring techniques, and generally start in the younger leagues and work their way up.
“It's pretty good money,” said 16-year-old James Croft, who's been umpiring for two years.
But there are nights when Croft and his fellow teen umps wonder if the money is worth it. Dealing with the grown-ups — the coaches and parents in the stands — is the biggest challenge they face.
“These coaches are competitive,” said Croft, a sophomore at Wando High School. “They want to win the game, and they will do whatever they can to win.”
Joseph Brockway, a Wando senior who has been umpiring for three years, once had to throw a coach out of a game.
“Most of the coaches are calm and laid-back,” said Brockway, 18. “But every now and then, you get one who likes to argue.”
As Major League Baseball umps have proven in recent weeks, even seemingly obvious calls can be confounding. In youth baseball, where young players are just learning the rules and conventions of the game, any number of strange plays can happen.
“Once, this coach was arguing that the ball was past the plate when the batter swung, so it shouldn't be a strike.” Brockway said. “He kept complaining about it, yelling at me from the dugout and disturbing the game. He just wouldn't let it go, so I finally had to toss him.”
Handling the parents in the stands can be just as much fun.
“We can deal with coaches and talk to them,” said three-year veteran ump Joseph Riggs, 17 and a senior at Academic Magnet High School. “But sometimes the fans make the worst trouble, because we are not allowed to talk to them. If a fan is out of order, we can't really tell them to settle down.
“We have to go through the coach to get the fans to calm down, and that doesn't always work.”
Riggs recalled a game he had to work by himself when a coach blew up after a controversial play.
“The fans started getting into it, and feelings got pretty tense,” he said. “That messed with my mind a little bit and got me shaken up.”
Despite those stories, all three teen umps describe the job as “fun.”
“Just being around baseball is fun,” said Croft, who plays summer ball and has played for Wando. “It's my passion, and I love it.”
Riggs, who will go to Clemson this fall, said he's learned a lot behind the mask.
“It's helped me develop more patience,” he said. “Instead of doing what your emotions tell you to do, it helps you step back and think situations through. It's interesting how much it pops up with school and with other jobs.”
If nothing else, the teenage umpires learn how to handle on-the-job critiques.
“No matter what call you make,” said Brockway, a future Coastal Carolina student, “one side isn't going to like it. But you get used to it. It's not the worst thing ever.”