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Houston umps take part in inaugural camp

Houston umps take part in inaugural camp

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It isn't every day that high school umpires get a chance to get instruction from former longtime Major League umpires turned supervisors like Charlie Reliford or Randy Marsh.

But that's exactly the opportunity that 133 Houston-area umpires got last Sunday afternoon when they battled the stifling heat to participate in the inaugural umpire camp at the new Houston Urban Youth Academy.

A heat index of nearly 100 degrees couldn't deter neither student nor teacher on this day as no one seemed to mind the heat, according to former Dodgers trainer Charlie Strasser, who now works with the Houston chapter of the Texas Association of Sports Officials and helped arrange the event.

"I didn't hear anyone complaining about the heat," Strasser said. "You don't get an opportunity like that very often, when you get the professional umpires to come do it for free. We put a lot of substance in a short period of time for them to absorb."

The attendees' experience level ranged from Little League to junior college, but the quality of their experience was the same, Strasser said.

"I watched the staff work and they were outstanding," he said. "There was a lot of hands-on things. It wasn't like some camps where the numbers make that hard. They were with them on the field, working hands-on. They were in the cage area, working on their stance. On another field, working on two-man crew mechanics, on another field, working on game management. It was outstanding."

The instruction really did run the gamut, said umpire supervisor Rich Rieker, who heads up the umpires' camp efforts. From ball and strike work, to plays at first and the plate, how to deal with irate players and even a tutorial from Major League Baseball's director of umpire medical services Mark Letendre on how to stay healthy and hydrated, all helped simulate any situation an umpire might experience.

The camp follows in the footsteps of similar ones held in Los Angeles at the Compton Urban Youth Academy, where the group has held sessions of this kind for the last four years. In the past 3 1/2 years, Rieker estimates the umpires have trained nearly 1,200 people.

As former professional umpires themselves, the group feels a sense of duty to pass on the skills to improve the quality of games everywhere.

"We have an obligation to do it," Rieker said. "If we're going to utilize these beautiful Urban Youth Facilities, then we have to train the umpires to staff the games."

Beyond the call of duty, there's a personal element to it for the umpires also. Many of them former umpires and instructors themselves, they relish the chance to get their hands dirty again.

"They love teaching," Rieker said. "So much of what we do is management with our umpires, dealing with situations after they've happened. With the training of umpires, we love being proactive. Almost all of our supervisors have taught at umpire school. It sort of takes us back to our roots and we like helping people get better at their game."

And early returns say the attending umpires did just that, with many already asking when the next camp will be.

"Everything has been glowing," Strassar said of the response. "The emails and everything that I've gotten have been great. They all say they're really going to take what they've learned and put into their game."

That's music to the professionals' ears. "That's what our goal was all about, improving the umpires at all levels," Rieker said. "We had umpires at all of those levels. You can always improve, when you can pick up one or two little things and work on."

Bailey Stephens is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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