Calumet Army veteran answers call to umpiring

Pushing effort to establish Copper Country officiating organization

Michael Leer, of Calumet, umpires an American Legion baseball game between Copper Country and Marquette on July 7, 2022, in Houghton, Mich. (Eddie O’Neill/The Daily Mining Gazette)

When US Army veteran Michael Leer heard through the grapevine a few years back that there was a shortage of umpires on area softball and baseball fields, he answered the call.

Leer, a 38-year-old Calumet native was no stranger to officiating. He was a local hockey referee for many years. Softball and baseball, however, were a little different.

“I remember that first day well,” said Leer. “It was a Hancock High School softball game just last year, and it was baptism by fire. “Jim Weiler was behind the plate, and I was in the field doing the bases. A game later he showed me what to look for behind the plate, and that was my crash course.”

Leer said he liked the “umping scene” but needed more training.

“In USA Hockey you have to go to a seminar every year,” he said. “Here (in baseball and softball) it was roll your own, and so I was looking for any kind of training to learn more.”

An online search around that time led him to the Wounded Warrior Umpiring Academy. However, he was too late to apply for the 10-day seminar headquartered in Carlisle, PA. This year, though, he made it and is more eager to share what he’s learned.

Leer is a 2002 Calumet High School graduate. With his parent’s permission, he enlisted in the Army just before 9/11 and did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan before being discharged in 2010.

“In the eyes of the military, I am 100% disabled,” he said. “I’ve been hit by a few IED (improvised explosive devises) and have brain injuries among a myriad of other health and mental issues.”

The Wounded Warrior Umpiring Academy took place in mid-June.

Leer said it was a great opportunity for him and about 25 other veterans – with varying officiating experience from beginner to veteran.

“Classroom work was in the morning and then we would practice on the field at a nearby complex in the afternoons,” he said.

One of the many takeaways Leer said was the importance of being in position before making a call.

“They taught us angle is more important than distance,” he said. “The instructors used the analogy of an old camera. You want to see the play and be as steady and still as possible when it happens. A good angle 500 feet away is better than a bad angle five feet away.”

He said the last two day of camp were spent actually umpiring a youth tournament with instant feedback on technique in between innings by the Academy’s leaders.

“I was told I needed to work on my positioning and timing,” Leer said.

Baseball (umping) is different from hockey in that you can take your time. It’s actually more important to take your time and watch the whole play before making the call. ‘Pause, read and react’ is the mantra. The feedback from these games was awesome.”

Not only was Leer’s umpiring education, food, board and his travel expenses paid for by the Wounded Warrior project, but he returned home to the Copper Country with a bag full of new protective gear and tailored-umpiring clothes as well as a renewed spirit to regulate the game here locally.

Leer said that one of his frustrations in the local baseball and softball umpiring scene is the lack of organization.

“Unlike hockey, there is no governing body here in our area,” he said. “When you don’t have an umpire association, no dues to pay, no seminar to attend and no standards to be held to, then it is hard to recruit people. Right now, they (umps) show up, make as little waves as possible to get paid, and go home. We don’t have a larger organization that tracks ejections and holds players to sportsmanship standards.”

He said he wants to establish an umpiring academy or officiating association in the Copper Country. While some folks have voiced interest in this, Leer said this is as about as far as it has gotten.

“Without that support it’s difficult to convince people to come out and try umping or learning what it is all about, I think in the end it is the kids who suffer,” he said. “If we as parents and officials do not show respect for the game of baseball or softball, how can we expect our kids to do the same.”


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