WINDHAM – The first time it felt like naked coercion rather than volunteerism. Dennis Whall could cross the line that separates fans from participants and either coach his daughter’s Little League softball team that day or be the game’s umpire.

Since he was one of only two adults at the field before the game, Whall got his choice. He didn’t want to make the decisions for a team of girls. Umpiring had to be simpler.

He couldn’t get through his first game without the opposing coach taking advantage of Whall’s rudimentary knowledge of the Little League rulebook. Instead of being made to feel the fool and walk away, Whall read and re-read the rules and returned.

Saturday he was one of several instructors at the State O’Maine Little League Umpires Clinic at Windham High. He’s been at this for some 30 years. Little League does not pay its umpires. The rewards are a good cup of coffee at the concession stand and the good company. The bad company of over-wrought coaches and abusive parents is exaggerated, Whall says. Then he smiles.

“I’m 60 years old. This has been paying me back in other ways.”

You can’t believe that. Youth hockey coaches are ambushed in arena corridors or parking lots. Basketball officials find spittle in their hair or rub it from cheeks. It’s no wonder the ranks of men and women officiating youth sports are bleeding.

Paychecks can act as a salve. Where do Little League volunteer umps turn after a hyperventilating mom or dad screams that the ump just destroyed their 10-year-old’s baseball career with that called third strike?

Katie Clark is all of 14 and a Westbrook High freshman. She’s athletic and attentive and will umpire her first game when Westbrook Little League opens its season next week.

Nervous? You bet, despite registering for the clinic and calling games at Frozen Ropes in Portland. Veteran umpire Dean Goyette of Westbrook has been Clark’s mentor, teaching and encouraging.

“I want to give back to the community,” she said. “I want to be involved.”

Just like that. Who puts these ideas into teenager’s heads? Goyette, apparently. A few others. Thank you.

Ben Savage is 18 and a senior at South Portland High. He started at 14. “I was really nervous when I worked my first game. The coaches were so much older. I knew a lot of the players because they were close to my age. That was different.”

Just 18 and he’s already been challenged by managers contesting his call. “I’ve told a manager to go back to his bench and we can talk about this between innings. He wasn’t very interested in moving.”

Eventually, using an even tone and subtle body language, Savage defused the situation and got the manager going in the right direction. That day he worked for his concession-stand hot dog.

Clark and Savage were among 140 or so umpires at the two-day clinic. That number is a spike, said Mike Parker, who with his wife, Helen, and other family members helps run the clinic. “We’ve had as few as 80,” said Mike Parker. “I can’t tell you why we’re seeing more.”

More is very good. In South Portland, there was an appeal to boost the number of Little League umpires. “If we get the 10 or 12 who say they’ll help, we’re good,” said Richard Rottkov. Then real life intervenes and a dozen can melt down real quick.

Being a Little League umpire can be perceived as one of the worst jobs in sports. I suggested to Rottkov that maybe 90 percent of Little League games are played without incident or interactions between umpires and fans.

“I don’t know,” sighed Rottkov. “It’s more like 60 to 70 percent of the games have no problems. We’ve had some issues with a parent or two.”

“People think we’re on power trips,” said Whall, of York. “We’re not. I want to make this a level playing field. I want to give you your time in the sun.”

When that happens, Whall, Clark, Savage and the thousands of others who work Little League games get the compensation you stick in your heart, not your pocket. Remember that when the season opens. 

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

[email protected]