The world of umpiring can be a difficult place, but for first-year guys like Ocoee High graduate Jarred Neal, it’s a path back to the sport he loves.
The pinging sound of a metal bat meeting leather rings out.
As the baseball screams its way toward the shortstop, first base umpire Jarred Neal gets into position just past the bag.
Neal keeps his eyes hawkishly focused at first, as the runner and ball approaches the bag at full speed — they meet almost simultaneously.
In the span of a nanosecond he has to make the call — was he out or safe? Without hesitation Neal shouts “Out!” with an emphatic tone while signaling the play’s outcome with a clenched fist. The call was right, but that’s just some of the responsibility that comes with wearing the blue shirt.
“My whole goal isn’t to just be out here and make the right calls — my goal is to be out here and do everything correctly,” Neal said. “I don’t want to miss anything. You can’t wait — you really have to be a part of the game and in it.”
That kind of love for the game and that mentality to get the job done — despite all the grief that umpires are put through on a regular basis — is required to do things correctly as an umpire. With that in mind, it’s hard to believe that just last year Neal wanted nothing at all to do with baseball.
WHOLE NEW WORLD
Being a part of the baseball community was something that Neal was born into as the son of a high-school coach.
Growing up he watched his dad take to the dugout, and as he got older he saw his older brother play at the University of West Florida before getting drafted and eventually making his way into coaching.
Meanwhile, his older sister ended up going into coaching after playing at the University of Central Florida, and his younger sister just finished up an incredible career at UCF.
Then there was Neal — who split his time pitching at West Orange, Apopka and finally at Ocoee, from which he graduated in 2014. From there he bounced around three different junior colleges and also played for the Winter Garden Squeeze.
But then, two years ago at the age of 21, Neal realized something: He wasn’t going to go far as a player, and the only other option at the time was to go into coaching — something he had no desire to do.
“I didn’t want to be a coach like my dad, because my dad is a high-school baseball coach and I know what a high-school baseball coach makes at the end of the year. … I don’t want to work at a high school, that’s not my goal,” Neal said. “Now don’t get me wrong, I could do it and I’m sure I could find a way for somebody to give me an opportunity, but do I really want have my career in the stake of kids? And that’s where I drew the line.”
What followed the epiphany was a year of exile from the sport he grew up loving while he worked delivering medical supplies — though after a while he started to miss being on the field. Luckily for Neal, fate intervened.
On a grocery run to pick up chicken back in October, Neal ran into a man who turned out to be the FHSAA assigner for Orange and Seminole counties, and that’s where Neal was introduced to the world of umpiring.
“He sent me to a clinic with his group, and I kind (of) knew the game, so I knew what I was looking for,” Neal said. “I had success, and as I continued I found more success and confidence, and then I started getting better training from different umpires. Everything they’d tell me — I kind of just say, ‘Ok, if you tell me that, I’m going to do it every time.’”
A NEED FOR A FEW GOOD MEN
Out in Sanford this past weekend, Neal was one of a handful of young umpires — in the sea of mostly veteran guys — officiating a Perfect Game Tournament.
And it’s good to have those veteran guys around to show younger umpires the ropes, but there has been an issue over the last few years when it comes to drawing in people.
No one knows that more than Adam Bates, the general manager of the Winter Garden Squeeze and umpire assignor for American Sports Officials — the organization that also oversees officiating for Winter Garden, Windermere and Dr. Phillips little leagues, alongside eight other leagues in Central Florida.
“My whole goal isn’t to just be out here and make the right calls — my goal is to be out here and do everything correctly.”
— Jarred Neal
“The need — I don’t like using the word catastrophic — but it’s a catastrophe,” Bates said. “It’s just high demand.
“But if I get them ready here, you don’t want to lose them — but if life takes them in another direction, then that means you’ve helped out an assigner in another part of the country,” he said.
And that need extends past just people who are bored and have nothing to do — there has to be a dedication and love for the game.
Though if you ask a coach or player, the biggest desires are are simple.
“As a coach, I would like to have them allow me to have a voice,” said David Ocasio, who coaches baseball in the Winter Garden Little League. “It’s not necessary that I’m going to argue with you, but I need to show my team that I’m behind them. It’s a partnership here.”
When you take into account all the varying aspects of umping, it’s not a job made for everyone. That said, for budding umpires like Neal it’s a possible road to something that could lead to something bigger.
“Obviously I’m just going to see where the road takes me, to start,” Neal said. “I’ve heard of these bigger camps that I would like to get in — and all these clinics — just to see how far I can make it up (the ladder).”