By Susan Flynn
Mike Orlando has the power to call your daughter safe at home and your son out on strikes. He’s the stoic guy behind home plate, with an up-close view of the game that he loves and the grown-ups who sometimes act in ways that he doesn’t.
Orlando, 26, of Peabody, Massachusetts, has worked as an umpire for 15 years. As Little League season gets into full swing across Massachusetts this month, he will officiate anywhere from five to six games a week.
A former Little Leaguer himself, Orlando is a certified member of the Massachusetts Baseball Umpire Association and harbors a dream to one day work the Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA. Last year, his hometown team – Peabody West – earned the rare chance to compete on this national stage.
Along with Little League, Orlando also umpires high school, Babe Ruth and AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) baseball. Come winter, he laces up his skates to referee hockey games.
His love of baseball – pure and simple – is what motivates his return every spring. He also enjoys the teachable moments that come up in a game. It’s a different kind of mentoring, he says.
But Orlando also knows what it feels like to be berated by parents and coaches. He sees how rattled a player can get when a parent and a coach offer conflicting advice. As most fans can attest, the behavior all around the Little League diamonds doesn’t always sparkle.
When not working as an umpire, Orlando teaches Spanish at St. John’s Preparatory School in Danvers, MA. To unwind after his real and part-time jobs, he likes to watch the Boston Red Sox – and their umpires.
“It’s funny. I’ll be at a (Red) Sox game and there’ll be a controversial call and my friends will ask me, ‘You’re an umpire. What do you think?’” says Orlando. “Very infrequently do I go against what the umpire has to say.”
Here’s more about Orlando and his view from behind home plate.
1. You umpire Little League, Babe Ruth, AAU and high school baseball games. Where is the intensity the greatest?
I would have to say I’ve had the most intense moments at the Little League level during the Williamsport tourney. I just think there is a feeling of, ‘Wouldn’t this be wonderful if we could do this?’ I mean everybody knows about the Little League World Series. I think there is a lot of vicarious living through your kids. Parents wishing they could do it again. I like working the high school games, but I think Little League is the most authentic, true-to-heart baseball experience.
2. What do you wish parents would do differently at games?
Our goal as umpires is to get it right. But let’s face it, the calls are never 100 percent. For games, we are trained to read (the play), pause and then react. I think it would be good if parents did the same thing. Read, pause and then react. If kids see parents acting as buffoons, they are going to only mimic what they see. If it’s not nipped at that Little League level, they will develop an attitude that they are always right. That’s only a learned behavior from the parents.
The other thing I would say is that when kids are pitching and hitting, don’t be in their ears. Let the coaches do that. They can’t listen to two people at once. I have seen a lot pf parents make a lot of scenes, a lot of yelling. I’ve had kids come up to me and say, “Did I really make that much of a screw-up?”
3. How do you handle parents who criticize you from behind the backstop?
At any umpiring clinic, you are taught to never mingle with the parents. I just ignore it. We certainly don’t jab back and forth. That’s unprofessional. If you have a parent who is really out of control, then you go to the coach. I have never had a blowout with a parent. I’ve had parents approach me as I’m walking to my car, but I always keeping walking because when the day’s over, it’s still only a game.
The coaches are different. Usually once a season, I’ve had to eject a coach. They get caught up in the heat of the moment. They scream and they slip up on the language. But nine times out of 10, the coaches come back and apologize for their bad behavior. I don’t hold a grudge against people.
4. How tough is it for a 12- or 13-year-old kid to umpire?
You can clearly see some coaches trying to influence the young teenage [umpires]. They will make the call before the umpire does, that sort of thing. I always tell the young umpires to go with your gut. But you also need to know the rules. Kids who want to umpire have to be willing to do their homework – read and re-read rules, watch games from the umpire’s perspective, and just get out on the field and give it a shot. The more confident you are, the more confident [the coaches and players] will be in you. I think it’s a good part-time gig for a teenager.
5. What – if anything – should a parent do if they think an umpire is missing the mark on an ongoing basis?
If a parent feels that an umpire is off base with calls, one thing a parent could do is at the end of the game, after the umpire leaves the field, ask for a rule interpretation or a more detailed explanation. It’s all in how you present yourself and in the umpire’s willingness to answer you. Be kind.
Susan Flynn is associate editor of the Boston Parents Paper, a Dominion Parenting Media magazine. Updated August 2012