Teagan Smith knows Melaleuca Field well, but the ballpark looked foreign to him last Thursday.
Smith umpired an Idaho Falls Chukars game for the first time in his 10-year umpiring career.
His experience at Melaleuca Field is exclusive to high school games, which might feature 100 fans on a good night. The attendance at last Thursday’s game between the Chukars and Helena Brewers was 3,177.
The mix of a large crowd and professional stakes led to a bundle of nerves for Smith, who was filling in for the injured Jacob Botek. But the butterflies fluttered away once the game got rolling.
“It’s just baseball,” Smith said.
Smith was one of three local umpires who picked up Botek’s slack during the Chukars’ most recent homestand. Idaho Falls general manager Kevin Greene is tasked with finding replacement umpires. Conflicting schedules and low pay sometimes make that job difficult.
On the rare occasions when Greene needs to find a replacement umpire, he turns to Brent Martin. Martin is the District 6 commissioner for umpires and rules interpreter, and he has filled in at Chukars games for years. Martin declined to umpire last week due to a bad knee, so he recommended Smith and Brad Hadley to Greene.
Hadley worked with Pioneer League umpire Conner Culhane on Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. But neither Hadley nor Smith could work Friday’s game due to their previous commitments as umpires for American Legion baseball games. That left Greene in a bind.
“I called the (Pioneer) League president and said, ‘I’ve got no one,’ ” Greene said. “He said, ‘Kevin, you’ve gotta find someone.’”
Greene eventually got Chris Sundvold to fill in.
Players and coaches know the replacement umpires are not professionals, but the umpires didn’t poor treatment from the teams. And Smith, Hadley and Sundvold umpired relatively clean games. It’s just baseball, after all.
The only real issue is finding umpires, and scheduling is not the only conflicting factor.
The Pioneer League pays replacement umpires $75 per game, according to league president Jim McCurdy. Martin said umpires get paid about $75 for Legion games, and that number spikes to $120 for doubleheaders. Barring extra innings, Legion games last seven innings, and mercy rules can reduce game times even more. Every Pioneer League game goes at least nine innings, and umpires are required to show up an hour before first pitch.
“You should be getting $100, minimum, for a professional baseball game,” Martin said. “We don’t want to bleed them dry, but we think we should be compensated at least to the high school level or better.”
Umpires can make more than $75 for Pioneer League games, but the extra cash comes out of the team’s wallet, Greene said, and there’s only so much room in the budget. McCurdy said increased pay for replacement umps has not been discussed in recent league meetings.
Hadley doesn’t mind the meager pay. For one, the opportunities for local umpires to work Chukars games are so rare that the money they receive hardly affects their total income. Martin, for instance, hasn’t umped a Chukars game since 2014.
Hadley also considers it a privilege to work Chukars games.
“It’s fun to say that you’ve umped a (professional) game, even though it’s minor league,” he said. “I’m not too worried about the pay because it’s not that big of a deal.”