Chattanooga-area teams feel pinch as umpire shortage threatens baseball’s future

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The national pastime is facing a national crisis, the ramifications of which are already being felt in the greater Chattanooga area.

While the upper levels of baseball are thriving as the COVID-19 pandemic begins to fade away, high school and younger players are beginning to experience the effects of an umpire shortage that threatens the health of the sport.

The numbers locally speak to the issue. Simply put, there are fewer umpires available to work and many more games needing to be covered.

“Due to work conflicts, health concerns, injuries and recruiting and retention issues, we are working with just around 40 full-time umpires this season,” said veteran umpire Scott Glass, president of the executive board as well as secretary and treasurer for the River City Umpires Association, which covers all middle and high school baseball games for Hamilton County.

“Usually we have around 65 for a full season and would like to have up to 80. We also cover games in Rhea County and some in Bradley County.”

Scott Gilbert, head of the association that works games for 14 high schools and 10 middle schools in northwest Georgia, said his group has lost nearly a third of its members over the years.

“We have about 35 in our group right now,” Gilbert said. “Over the last couple of years we’ve had as many as 45. With COVID and some guys retiring we’ve lost a few, and it’s tough trying to cover 24 schools.

“We would like to have double what we have. Sixteen or 17 years ago we had like 50, but with those 50 we had only 18 schools to cover, so you can see the problem.”

That problem, which isn’t a new one, is rearing its head most notably at the lower levels. Whitfield County had to cancel its middle school season due to a lack of umpires, and other schools have had to postpone or cancel games. It gets worse when inclement weather, not an infrequent occurrence for spring sports, forces games to be rescheduled.

While competition involving teams outside of…