BY JEREMY HOECK Yankton Press and Dakotan To see photos click here
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of our summer-long ‘Behind The Mask’ series following baseball and softball umpires, and the issues they face
Larry Rottunda has an admission.
He was a know-it-all.
While watching his daughter play a high school softball game a quarter century ago out in Illinois, Rottunda found himself frustrated with the home plate umpire.
“I remember thinking, ‘I could do better than that,’” he said.
More than a passing thought from an irked softball parent, it became a personal challenge to Rottunda: Do something about it.
So he did.
“That’s when the education began,” Rottunda said.
Rottunda, who now lives on a farm northwest of Irene, eventually took the steps necessary to become certified to umpire youth baseball and softball games out in Illinois. Rather than complain about umpires, he decided to become one.
What he learned opened his eyes.
“First of all, you have to know the rules, and then know how to apply them,” Rottunda said. “Then you have to learn positioning and where to place yourself.
“It’s not easy to do.”
For an umpire — or even a basketball official — to really become comfortable in their craft, it takes a good five years, according to Rottunda.
“I found out how hard it is,” he said Sunday afternoon, following his final game at the Yankton Girls Softball Association Invitational at Sertoma Park.
It’s been a 25-year lesson that Rottunda said he didn’t expect.
He’s seen both sides of the game.
He’s been a parent from the bleachers and an umpire out on the diamond.
While many umpires have also had children play softball or baseball, Rottunda’s perspective is certainly unique, he said while packing up Sunday afternoon.
Rottunda had been asked to help out during the weekend tournament that saw a handful of teams play in five divisions at eight diamonds — six at Sertoma Park and two at the Summit complex.
Following his last game of the day on Sunday, Rottunda walked from his field over to a picnic shelter beyond the outfield fence of another field. It’s the unofficial umpire headquarters. It’s a place for umpires — male and female, and of all ages — to rest and eat and change between games.
It’s in that shelter where Rottunda reflects on his journey from frustrated parent to veteran umpire.
“Age is undefeated,” he said, with a smile. “You get older and your skills can deteriorate, so you have to adjust.”
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Jacob Carda never envisioned himself working a youth softball game.
Softball, not really.
“I hadn’t thought about it,” Carda said Sunday afternoon from the picnic shelter, where a few other umpires were changing and relaxing between games.
Carda, a 17-year-old from Tabor and impending senior at Bon Homme High School, began working little league and other youth baseball games last summer.
“Whenever I was doing those little league games, I really liked it,” Carda said, “and I wanted to do more.”
Carda’s father works with a softball umpire from Yankton, and the word was passed on that Carda may enjoy working softball game.
Sure enough, he has.
“I just love being out there and having fun, and meeting new people,” Carda said.
Having played sports himself, his experiences behind the plate or on the bases has given Carda a new appreciation — and a new perspective — for what umpires endure.
“It’s a lot different,” Carda said. “There are so many different rules. I was used to baseball rules, but once I learned the rules of softball, I liked the sport even more.”
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For three decades, Dave Kokesh has been on a softball diamond.
In one way or another.
He’s been a player. He’s been an umpire.
“It keeps you in the game,” Kokesh said Sunday afternoon, as he stood near the umpire shelter between games.
Kokesh had previously played on an adult men’s league softball team for years, but that team disbanded — “It’s down to just umpiring now,” he said, with a smile.
And it’s a side gig that keeps him busy, especially during a tournament.
Other regional towns in South Dakota also hosted softball tournaments last weekend, so the pool of available umpires was even smaller, according to Kokesh. That means certain umpires will work 6-7 games in a row on a given day — Kokesh also pointed out that he’s worked 10 straight games at an annual tournament in Rapid City on many occasions.
“It can be taxing,” he said.
That’s why it’s especially important for local organizations to recruit and retain new umpires, Kokesh added.
“It’s just like high school basketball, retention is the key,” Kokesh said. “You’ll have new guys that will come into it but get tired of some of the feedback and realize it’s not for them.”
While the feedback from the bleachers and dugouts is certainly part of the game, it’s not as bad in this area as it may be in others, Kokesh added.
It just comes with the territory of doing something you enjoy.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s fun,” Kokesh said before leaving for his next game.
“There are those times when it’s just not going well or you’re not having a bad day, but overall, I love this.”
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Jill Orwig isn’t too far from where she plays college softball.
Just across 19th street, on the northeast turfed-field at Sertoma Park. That’s where Orwig, a Norfolk, Nebraska native, plays her home games for Mount Marty College.
On Sunday afternoon, though, she’s wearing a different shade of blue: As an umpire.
Orwig, you see, has been an umpire since age 14, and had been asked by a fellow umpire — one who works Mount Marty’s conference games — if she’d be willing to help out with the YGSA Invitational.
“I said, ‘Sure, count me in,’” Orwig said, between innings of a U-12 game at one of the four diamonds at Sertoma Park.
“I’m a college student, so I could use the money,” she said, with a smile.
That’s not, of course, Orwig’s main motivator for umpiring youth softball games during the summer.
No, she said she enjoys watching the players have fun and seeing how the game has changed since she played at that level.
“I’m done with summer ball, so it’s cool to see the younger girls and how much they love it,” Orwig said. “I played because I loved it, and you can tell which ones really do too.”