Australia’s best softball players have put up some impressive performances in North America recently. But they are not the only ones on the diamond to have made an impression.
Like the players, Australian umpires are among the best in the world. So it was no surprise that these umpires were selected for major international events.
And umpires also have some interesting stories to tell about their time on the international stage and the hard work that goes into getting there.
Jason Carter (Victoria)
It’s hard to imagine two softball venues any more different than Whitehorse, in the remote Yukon province of Canada, and Prague in the Czech Republic.
But Jason Carter has umpired in both places and thinks both are great. He has recently returned from Whitehorse after umpiring at the WBSC Men’s Softball World Championship.
“Whitehorse is a small town where it is daylight for 20 hours of the day in summer,” he says. “It’s a world-class facility. The two main diamonds are manicured. There are no lights, because they don’t need them.”
Two years earlier, Carter was in Prague as part of an exchange program and umpired at a European men’s and women’s championship tournament.
“Umpiring is basically the same wherever you go, but there are different umpiring mechanics in Europe,” he says. “Over there, base umpires don’t run out on fly balls like we do here and in other places. That took a bit of getting used to.”
But wherever he umpires, Carter says he learns something new. “When you are dealing with players and coaches who don’t speak English, you have to change your behaviour to meet the requirements. Making calls is the same, but sometimes it’s a challenge to explain them.”
Carter is keen to continue umpiring at international events. “I’ve never done an open women’s world championship, so I’d like to do that. And then there’s the Olympics, which would be the pinnacle. It may be a pipe dream, because it’s so competitive, but I’d love the challenge.”
Part of that challenge is finding ways to improve. “Self-assessment is important. After each game you ask yourself, what did I do well, what can I do better? If you’re umpiring games involving the best players in the world, you have to keep improving.”
David Casey (Queensland)
At the Canada Cup last month, David Casey found himself umpiring at second base in the preliminary final game between the Aussie Spirit and Venezuela.
While such a scenario might raise eyebrows in some sports, there were no such issues among tournament organisers or for Casey himself.
“I just call it as I see it,” he says. “I know I have enough integrity that I’m not going to favour anyone.”
Neither was he fazed by potential issues trying to explain decisions to players or coaches who don’t speak English. “Softball has a universal language,” he says. “There may be issues sometimes, and the complexity of language may have to be amended. But most of the non-English speaking teams have someone on the team who is bilingual. It may take a bit longer than usual to explain a point, but we end up getting there.”
Casey’s ability as an umpire has taken him to many places, but never previously to Japan. That all changes this week when he ventures to Takasaki for the Japan Cup, an international tournament in which the Aussie Spirit will take on powerhouse softball nations Japan, the USA and Canada.
Having been involved in softball for more than 30 years, starting as a player in his teens, Casey took up umpiring about 15 years ago and hasn’t looked back. “Back then all the players at my association had umpire commitments, meaning that all players also had to umpire. About 15 years ago I decided to take it more seriously and see where it could take me.”
As players tend to do, he has set himself goals as an umpire. “I want to gain further international experience and I have set goals that I aim to achieve over the next few years,” he says.
Warren Duff (WA)
It’s 18,155 km from Perth to Clearwater, Florida. Has anyone ever travelled so far to umpire in a softball tournament?
Warren Duff has.
Duff has recently returned from the WBSC Junior Women’s Softball World Championship in Florida. It was the fourth time in the past 12 months that he has umpired internationally, with Canada, New Zealand and Japan trips also under his belt.
The fact that he has a young family does not deter Duff from the rigours of travel. In fact, his family went with him to Florida, where they managed to fit in a holiday around his umpiring commitments.
“My wife was on maternity leave and it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he says. “Travelling to umpire games doesn’t bother me, it’s the nature of the beast.”
Umpiring abroad has its challenges, and Duff has learned to adapt depending on the location. “There are definitely cultural differences,” he says. “In Japan it’s regimented to the minute. Very formal, like it’s choreographed. They have great respect for the game.
“But in somewhere like Canada it’s much more relaxed. You just have to show up and get the job done.”
Duff does not believe that having a young family will hinder his ambitions to umpire at more high-level international events. “I’m lucky to have great family support. It’s all about finding a balance between family, work and softball.”
Leigh Evans (Victoria)
Leigh Evans believes there is more to umpiring than just knowing the rules.
To Evans, it’s also important to understand how the game is played and to know each participant’s role in the game, whether they are coaches, players or administrators.
“You need to understand your role as an umpire,” he says.
“Work hard to improve, work on timing and concentration, be true to yourself, seek feedback from mentors and discuss game situations with your crew to improve not only your game but the crew’s game.”
Evans is one of Australia’s most experienced umpires. He has umpired in five World Championships and is a member of the Softball Australia Hall of Fame. He is also Softball Australia’s Umpire in Chief – Technical, a role that sees him heavily involved in working with players, coaches and administrators at state and national level.
Evans recently returned from the Men’s World Championship in Whitehorse, Yukon. But with the Aussie Steelers making it through to the final, he was unable to umpire in the playoff games.
“At World Championships with 21 umpires, to give a completely neutral outlook, you do not umpire your own country. On the upside, the game is all about the teams and the players, and watching Australia almost take the Gold Medal home was very exciting.”
Leanne Gearside (NSW)
On her first umpiring venture to the USA, Gearside was thrown into the deep end.
Leaving an Australian winter, she and her fellow umpires found themselves in the searing heat of Oklahoma City at the World Cup of Softball. “The weather was extremely hot, but we were well looked after,” she says.
A highlight was when she was appointed to umpire at first base in the World Cup bronze medal playoff game between Australia and Canada.
At the Canada Cup, Gearside found herself umpiring in the same crew as David Casey in the Australia-Venezuela game. While she found it unusual to be umpiring in games involving Australia, Gearside did not have a problem with it. “It would never happen here, even at state level,” she says. “But it wasn’t a problem. You just have to be neutral.”
Gearside has been umpiring for about 20 years, but she hasn’t stopped learning. “Over there I learned some things, and other umpires learned some things off me. When you go to a higher level you have a chance to improve your skills.”
Gearside hopes that improvement will lead to more big international events in the future. “The Olympics are the ultimate goal,” she says. “Everyone would like to be a part of that.”
Jay Gibson (NSW)
As a youngster, it didn’t take Jay Gibson long to realise that he would never be a superstar as a softball player. “I was hopeless,” he recalls.
At age 12 he tried his hand at umpiring, picking up some handy pocket money – and was hooked.
So began a career that has seen Gibson travel many thousands of kilometres from his home in Lismore to Sydney for events and to improve his qualifications.
“I have picked up a lot of frequent flyer miles,” he says. “After a day in Sydney, the other umpires would take an hour to get home. I’d take an hour just to get to the airport for the flight home, via Gold Coast.”
Not that he’s complaining. “I’ve loved every moment of it. I’ve made some amazing friends and umpired with some great people.”
The recent venture to Florida for the WBSC Junior Women’s Softball World Championship was Gibson’s first international tournament, but he hopes it won’t be his last. “It was phenomenal, an amazing experience,” he says. “I’d love to do more of it.”
That ambition includes the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but Gibson is not taking anything for granted. “It’s been a goal of mine for years, but there’s a long way to go. There are some amazing umpires in Australia and it’s going to be competitive.”
Trevor Murphy (Victoria)
The venues may change, but just about everything else stays the same for Trevor Murphy.
Murphy, who has umpired at the World Cup in Oklahoma City and the Challenge Cup in Auckland this year, says the umpiring community is the same everywhere.
“It’s like catching up with old friends or family,” he says. “Even if you go to a tournament not knowing anyone, you soon become friends.
“There’s a culture of inclusiveness among umpires. Everybody is welcomed in and it’s very rare to have someone who is considered an outsider.”
At the World Cup he was the first base umpire for an Aussie Spirit game, but was not concerned about perceptions of bias. “I’ve never had anyone approach me about it and never been accused of it, so I have no problem doing games involving Australia.”
Despite his international credentials, Murphy says he is still learning. “Every tournament I learn something different. There’s always something to bring back, lessons that you can use in training or in the future.”
Having left the air force after a 34-year career, Murphy has kept busy, both as a military reservist and by becoming more involved in softball umpiring. He still plays Masters softball and is the State Director of Umpiring in Victoria.
He enjoys travelling and hopes to combine that with softball umpiring. “As long as my body holds out I’ll continue to umpire and apply for positions at international events.”