UPDATE: At the biggest softball events on the world stage in 2018, it’s not only the players who will be showcasing their skills.
Three Australian umpires will be involved at the highest level this year after the World Baseball Softball Confederation selected officials for this year’s World Championships.
ACT-based umpire Kyira Cox will officiate at the XVI Women’s Softball World Championship in Chiba, Japan from August 2-12.
Victorian Trevor Murphy has been appointed to umpire at the XII Junior Men’s Softball World Championship in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Canada from July 7-15.
And Jason Carter, another Victorian umpire who was originally named as an alternate, has already received the news he was hoping for — he has been upgraded from alternate to definite and will be joining Cox in Japan.
For Cox, 34, Softball Australia’s National Umpire in Chief – Operations, the appointment continues a career that started after she switched from playing softball to umpiring in 2008.
Umpiring games in foreign countries can be a vastly different experience to umpiring in Australia, as Cox has learned in the past.
“The game itself is the same,” she says. “But umpiring internationally you do not have the comfort of knowing the grounds inside and out. You need to learn — and fast — the differences of a new diamond, your footing, distances etc.”
There’s also the language issue, which can cause problems. “Most definitely. I was the plate umpire on a game between Japan and France,” Cox recalls. “I had an interpreter for Japan and thankfully an English-speaking coach for France, but my umpiring crew were all Spanish-speaking umpires with various level of English.
“Our pre-game meeting was interesting. You have to think of different ways to communicate other than through the spoken word, using drawings, non-verbal communication and hope that your very limited Spanish skills gets you through.”
Communicating with non-English-speaking players is not so difficult, Cox says. “Thankfully the signals we use as umpires are worldwide. Everyone knows safe, out, strike, obstruction and illegal pitch signals, so communicating the game itself is quite easy.
“Most teams that have minimal English will have a translator or a player that is able to articulate their questions, but games can be delayed due to language barriers. I have also found that sometimes a call that should be questioned or protested will not be due to the language barrier.”
Unlike most sports, softball umpires can be called upon to control men’s and women’s games. “The men and women play a very different style of game,” Cox says. “The women in general will go to a short game quicker than the men and will work to get runners into scoring position, where the men will generally hit longer to move their runners around.
“You definitely need to be on top of your game with both genders, but the men tend to turn more double plays, push for extra bases and the pure speed in which the men throw and run is amazing. There is no time to switch off in either game.”
At international events, umpires will usually work two or three games a day. And when she’s not umpiring, chances are Cox will be watching a game. “I am a softball nerd, always watching games when I’m not on and have done throughout my entire career. Every game you have an opportunity to learn and ask questions.”
Umpires have to make a big commitment, with no financial reward. Cox, a WBSC Level 8 umpire, is grateful to have an understanding employer. “Thankfully, working for the Australian Sports Commission, they are very understanding of my commitment to my chosen sport and getting time off for a World Championship is somewhat easier than a national championship, but financially it is a challenge.
“I have been funding myself since I started working at 15 years of age so I could continue to be involved in the sport I love.
“I have missed a lot of time with my family and friends over the years to be at softball, but thankfully they understand and support me through the good and the bad.
“I would like to thank everyone for their support over the years and let them know that I would not be where I am today without the continued support and feedback I have received.”
Trevor Murphy, who has been umpiring since 2010, is Victoria’s State Director of Umpiring and a WBSC Level 6 umpire since February 2014. His most recent overseas umpiring assignment was the World Cup of Softball in Oklahoma City last year.
At age 65, Murphy could be forgiven for easing back a bit and avoiding the demands of umpiring at international level. But he shows no signs of wanting to do that.
Technology has come to the rescue when he encounters language difficulties. “Google Translate comes in very handy,” he says. “But I have an awareness that there could be issues so I try to learn a little bit of the local language when I am overseas.
“With other international umpires, I try to use as few words as possible if there are language issues.
“With players, it’s more about gestures. If you stay calm and explain through gestures, players can tell what message you are trying to get across, and that helps ease the pain.”
Murphy says umpires have to adjust when switching between women’s and men’s games. “Fundamentally the game is the same, but the temperament of the players can be very different, and we need to be aware of that.”
Jason Carter, 47, played softball from the age of 10 and switched to umpiring in 2000 after a shoulder injury. He is now a Level 7 umpire and a member of the Victorian Umpiring Committee.
When the umpiring appointments were first announced, he was listed as an alternate and told he could be called upon depending on the game schedule. But only a few days later, he learned he would be in Japan in August.
“I don’t know what happened to change my status,” Carter says. “But I’m very pleased that it did.
“It will be a great experience, and to be able to share that experience with Kyira will make it even better.”
Carter has never been to Japan, but he has heard from others how different the atmosphere at softball games can be compared with Australia.
“The crowds are bigger and noisier, but that adds to the atmosphere and pumps you up,” he says.
Could all that noise and fan activity be a distraction to an umpire officiating in Japan for the first time? Carter doesn’t think so.
“Crowds don’t bother me. They’re not part of the game. Everything I have to worry about happens in front of the net, not behind it.”