Most of kids involved in South Whidbey Little League prepared for the 2019 season by tossing the ball around in the backyard or playing a few innings of sandlot ball. The adult volunteers started shuffling paper.
Jim Honold got ready by attending umpiring school.
Honold began his umpiring career just last year when he realized that the local Little League, in which his two sons play, had a shortage officials.
He volunteered and fell in love with the gig, and South Whidbey Little League fell in love with him.
“His genuine personality and kindness along with professionalism on the field is magnetic,” said Olivia Batchelor, league player agent.
Honold noted that he “never really looked at the game through an umpire’s eyes.”
“It’s pretty cerebral,” he said.”I’m a lifelong student of baseball, so umping is a chance to further my understanding of the game. I am fascinated by the complexity of the game.”
That fascination and quest for knowledge led to a month-long session beginning Jan. 2 in Ormond Beach, Fla., at the Hunter Wendelstedt Major League Umpire Training School, the “Harvard of umpiring schools,” according to Honold.
Most attend the school with hopes of umpiring professional baseball. About only 20 of the 100 attending get invitations from professional leagues, and most of those have attended camp for multiple years to sharpen their skills. The majority of the students are in the 18-25 age range with several years of umpiring experience and dreams of reaching the major leagues.
Honold, at 45, had a different goal: “To learn all I could and soak it up, then return to share what I learned with the community on Whidbey…I didn’t want to change careers or leave my family for six months out of every year (as a professional umpire).”
Honold runs a custom ironwork business, MOD Studio.
At camp, Honold kept pace with the youngsters hustling for professional umpiring jobs and received one of only six Golden Mask awards presented for excellence. Based on his performance, he was offered a job in the West Coast League, which he declined.
Honold said the camp was highly competitive but the students formed “a brotherhood.”
“We counted on each other, studied together and respected each other,” he said.
The students attended the school six days a week, and a typical day began a 6 a.m. with breakfast, followed by studying. They met for classroom work, which often included exams (25 in all), from 9-11:30 a.m.
After classwork, the students went to the field to work on their voices and mechanics, followed by demonstrations, which they then emulated.
Next came cage work to hone skills on calling balls and strikes or “control games,” where the students were presented with “impossible situations.”
“For example, I may be plate umpire and the instructors would set up a single play that included a balk, catcher’s interference, an obstruction call and an overthrow at first base,” Honold said. “I would have to award runners bases according to the rules. At first it was quite overwhelming, head-spinning, but once you really start to break it down, it starts to make sense.”
Later in camp, the students umpired live innings, receiving heavy evaluation.
Overall, Honold said he learned umpires “set the tone for the entire game.”
“Umpires are the authority on the field; however, they need to be approachable, yet firm,” he said. “They bring a certain energy to the field that affects the game.”
Honold now wants to affect the game in a positive manner on Whidbey Island.
“(I want to) support my kids and their love of baseball, train new umpires, perhaps coach,” he said.
To South Whidbey Little League coach Steve Zarifis, Honold represents “what is best in a community of volunteers.”
“His enthusiasm and contagious positive attitude is a key factor for the kids’ enjoyment with Little League,” he added.
Currently, Honold is the Umpire in Chief for South Whidbey Little League, which “means I’m the local rules guy and assign umps for their games.”
Honold works about four games a week.
South Whidbey Little League President Carissa Moore said, “He has become such a huge asset to us in such a short amount of time. He came to the board last year wanting to be an umpire; we needed an umpire in chief, and he jumped in with both feet.
“He is a pleasure to have behind the plate because he always is having fun and has a smile for you. He has taken a huge load off of my shoulders by taking over scheduling umpires for our home games and making sure things are being communicated between everyone. I was nervous to step into the role of president, but with Jim helping take over the umpires, it has been a huge relief. I honestly don’t think we as a league will ever want him to leave.”
Honold’s passion for the game was evident when his sons starting playing Little League, according to Batchelor.
“After the first season, the boys fell in love with baseball, and Jim and his wife wanted to keep the fun going, so they set up summer nights at the park for any and all kids who wanted to keep playing after the season was over,” Batchelor said.
She added that the league is “ecstatic” Honold took the time and initiative to go to umpire school.
Batchelor noted that most leagues have only one umpire for each game, but SWLL generally has two because head umpire Honold has “made it happen.”
Honold plans to attend umpiring school again next year.
“‘You can’t hide a good umpire and you can’t hide a bad umpire’ is a quote that stuck with me from umpire school,” he said. “You can’t fake it.”
“Every umpire I’ve ever known works hard and wants to get it right,” he added. “Give them a break when they get 99 calls right and one stands out as a blown call. Most umps are pretty darn good.”
And some, like Honold, want to get even better.