MUSKOGEE, Okla. — Jeff Murray was crouching in his umpire blue and grey during a regional tournament at Norman High, when former Midwest City star Vernon Maxwell hit a home run that Murray jokes still hasn’t landed.
That was back in the 1990s. Murray’s love for those moments, and his desire to make the right call, are reasons why he became a sports official more than 30 years ago.
But part-time umpires and officials like him also rely on the work for supplemental income. That money will be subtracted from their budgets for the foreseeable future until Oklahoma schools resume as normal.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the state’s department of education shuttered school buildings for the remainder of the academic year, virtually wiping out the high school spring sports season that would have helped keep money in part-time officials’ pockets.
Varsity baseball games pay $70 each, Murray said, and if umps sign up for junior varsity games the same night they could pick up an extra $50. With a big shortage statewide of officials, experienced people could call as many games as they wanted.
Murray made up to $500 per week umpiring baseball, which covered his daughter’s annual travel in her competitive volleyball league.
“We love the game,” Murray said. “We love the athletes, we love the coaches.
“But I’m losing money for spring baseball. My friends working [college games] are losing even more.”
Bruce Troxell worked as a high school coach and administrator in southwest and central Oklahoma for more than 30 years. He also became a game official, and through that network he earned extra income by scheduling officials for 25 different high schools.
Norman High, Norman North and Noble are among schools that pay Troxell a lump $250 fee to schedule an entire season’s worth of umpires for their freshman, junior varsity and varsity baseball programs. Those schools are currently renegotiating Troxell’s fee, since his work was completed months ago.
It is being sorted out fairly, Troxell said. He understands that gate fees for sporting events help schools pay him, and there will be no fees this spring.
“It’s hard for everyone right now,” Troxell said. “The schools have it hard. Their income from the gates isn’t there.”
He is thankful for his other revenue streams. Troxell collects teaching retirement and works as a recruiting director for Waffle House. But he and others’ budgets are still built around money made by officiating.
“That $4,000 to $5,000 goes a long way toward whatever you need, for anything,” Troxell said.
When the COVID-19 crisis began quickly expanding, National Association of Sports Officials (NASO) president and founder Barry Mano initiated a government lobbying effort with umpires and officials in mind. NASO wants them to be compensated under the landmark $2 trillion Coronavirus Stimulus Relief Bill, which is expected to be enacted.
The association's legal counsel was still combing through the bill Wednesday afternoon to see if umpires and officials fit into the stimulus package. NASO lobbied through a connection to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office, Mano said, and in the lead-up to the bill's vote, the association asked members to voice concerns to their local lawmakers.
“When there’s no games, there’s no assignments. All of that income is totally wiped out,” Mano said. “Coupled with being sheltered in place, and in many cases not being able to work, it has a devastating affect.
“If they’re thinking about [helping] independent contractors, they should be thinking about our men and women too. Some folks are losing $8,000 to $10,000 because the seasons are gone. It’s significant when you’re trying to pay mortgages and put food on the table.
“The vast majority of people do this as a sideline, but it’s a very important sideline.”
Follow me @Tpalmateer83