Sports

He calls them as he sees them. Now this Tri-Cities sports official calls on others to join in

New sports official academy is the first of its kind in the Tri-Cities

Gregg Mitchell has been a sports official for 30 years for numerous sporting events including college baseball and basketball. He started the CJ Mitchell Sports Officials Academy to recruit and offset the lack of officials available.
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Gregg Mitchell has been a sports official for 30 years for numerous sporting events including college baseball and basketball. He started the CJ Mitchell Sports Officials Academy to recruit and offset the lack of officials available.

Greg Mitchell can remember back in 1969 when his father, the late CJ Mitchell, would take him to Seattle Pilots games at the old Sicks Stadium.

“But he really didn’t go there to watch the players,” said Mitchell. “He went there to watch the umpires work the Pilots games.”

Mitchell said his father was always working on how to be a better sports official.

It rubbed off on the son.

Greg Mitchell has been a sports official for over 30 years, doing baseball, basketball and football games, working WIAA state championships, NAIA college baseball and numerous large sporting events.

The 1971 Richland High School graduate got started in sports officiating when CJ needed him to work games. Greg reluctantly did it at first. But he came to love it.

Now, he wants to find more people to officiate sports.

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Greg Mitchell officiates a high school baseball game at La Pierre Field on Friday in Kennewick. Mitchell has been a sports official for over 30 years and has started the CJ Mitchell Sports Officials Academy. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

In March, he officially started the CJ Mitchell Sports Officials Academy, for officials in baseball, basketball, football and soccer.

The academy’s goal?

To create a game-ready pipeline of competent officials in direct support of existing officials associations. And it’s purpose is to provide introductory, intermediate and advanced instruction on officiating mechanics, game management, rules education and proper application in game situations.

Academy students can sign up through the website www.cjmso.academy, and registration costs $150.

The proposed curriculum includes a predetermined set of hours combined of classroom study and testing, with on the field/court instruction based on a modified approach currently used at professional schools and camps, with expert, experienced instructor input. In addition, there will be a regular review and critique of the training process by current officials and invited experts.

When the 10-week course is completed, academy graduates will receive a certificate and will be referred to the respective sport’s local association for game assignments and continued training.

“We don’t assign games,” cautions Mitchell. “Most of these sports have 10 chapters in their rule books. We do a chapter a week. It’s a 90-minute class once a week.” It involves a number of sports. “This is mainly targeting football, baseball and basketball,” said Mitchell. “And we know some people who know soccer.”

The idea of an academy started a few years back. It was a conversation Greg had with CJ in the driveway about someday starting a sports officials academy.

CJ Mitchell passed away in 2016. But Greg Mitchell has realized their dream of starting a sports officials academy, which has 501(c)3 status as a nonprofit.

“We’re not doing it for the money,” said Mitchell. “We’re actually seeking donations. We want a budget for 10 scholarships.” And those donations would also go to guest instructors.

“If we want to get a guy like (national-caliber baseball umpire) Randy Sutton to come speak at the academy,” said Mitchell. “He’s already donating his time. We should be able to pay for his hotel room and meals while he’s here.”

The officiating numbers

For a region with close to 300,000 people, the Tri-Cities’ number of officials doesn’t look large.

According to Mitchell, the Tri-Cities Sports Officials Association had 56 football officials in 2018. That’s down from 70 in 2014. They have to cover 380 high school and middle school games each season.

“A couple of weeks this past fall we had games where we had a 2-man, a 1-man and a no-man crew (for middle school). It’s only going to get worse,” said Mitchell.

The problem is that almost every school district keeps adding new middle schools. With that comes more sports teams and more contests.

“That’s the bigger issue: the bulk of the games we cover is middle school,” said Mitchell. “Every year we’ve seen this area add another middle school. Now we’ve absorbed Hermiston. This a local, regional and national problem.”

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Greg Mitchell is the umpire at a high school baseball game at La Pierre Fields in Kennewick. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

Area baseball has its own problems too.

Right now, the KPR Association baseball official numbers are at 45, the lowest numbers in the past five years, with more schools opened and more opening soon.

Those officials have to cover 840 high school and middle school contests this spring. Middle school contests typically start at 4 p.m.

That’s another problem.

“We have jobs too. Sometimes those games are tough to get to,” said Mitchell.

Throw in the fact that nine umpires also work college baseball around the Northwest, and on some days those officials numbers look even worse.

Basketball might be in a slightly better position. The local association has 155 officials to cover 1,500 games. That includes high school and middle school, both boys and girls.

“But on a heavy night, 135 officials are needed of the actual officials available,” said Mitchell.

That doesn’t take into account softball and soccer, which could use some more help.

The football situation

Jim Ryder, the Tri-Cities football officials assignor, had this to say: “In 2018, seven of the 10 weeks of varsity regular season play, we were using all or almost every available official.”

But Ryder says the Tri-Cities association is in better shape than most others in the region.

“We often send a crew to help cover their games,” Ryder said.

In fact, in 2018 the Tri-Cities association covered eight games for other associations.

“But we needed help from another association for one game on a Friday night,” said Ryder. “The problem is the mentality that the varsity games must be played on Friday nights. It is, after all, part of the culture.”

But Ryder said just one or two games moved to a Thursday or Saturday night would relieve a lot of pressure.

He said he started officiating Tri-City area football games 32 years ago. He never did varsity contests his first few years. By his third season, he was able to do three varsity games.

“We had more time to train and develop our skills,” he said. He cautions, however, that this was before Southridge, Chiawana, Tri-Cities Prep and Liberty Christian were built.

It’s a common fact that 80 percent of officials won’t make it through their third year.

Those are national numbers. The reasons?

Among them: time commitment, work obligations, new officials being overwhelmed with the vast amount of rules and mechanics they must learn, unrealistic expectations of how quickly they should advance, family commitments, and the high costs of the equipment they must purchase.

But the No. 1 reason officials don’t stick with it? “Sportsmanship of the players, parents and or the coaches,” Ryder said.

Ryder’s top concern, though, is the aging out of officials and the lack of newcomers. “The average age for officials is getting older and how the associations will be hit hard when those members start retiring.” A possible solution That’s why an academy could be the answer.

“The reaction has been very positive from officials and coaches,” said Mitchell. “We grow athletes and coaches. I see this as an opportunity to jump into that void for growing officials.”

He said he has the support to use CBC and Richland Community classrooms.

“And we’ve got verbal commitments from the school districts for support,” Mitchell added.

It is a problem that needs to be fixed.

“A year-round academy has to be able to meet most demands,” said Mitchell. “Everything to this point has been totally reactionary.” And he wants academy students to hear both sides of the equation. “I want them to know how tough it’s been for a first-year or second-year guy,” he said. “But it allows them to stay in touch with the sport.”

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Greg Mitchell puts on his umpire chest protector outside of La Pierre Field in Kennewick before he officiates a high school baseball game in Kennewick. Mitchell has been a sports official for over 30 years and has started the CJ Mitchell Sports Officials Academy. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-CIty Herald

Officiating will test a person too.

“You’re gonna find out the love you have for a sport in a tough way,” Mitchell said. “Like working an American Legion baseball doubleheader in the summer, that starts at 5:30 p.m., on a 100-degree day. It might get a delayed start and the doubleheader goes until 11:30 p.m., and you’ve got to get up and go to work at 3:30 in the morning. That’ll test you.”

But Mitchell also remembers the day his dad asked him to umpire a middle school baseball game for the first time. Greg protested. But CJ said, “It’s better than them having nobody.” That’s always stuck with him. And that’s why he wants to help the officiating numbers with this academy. “This,” he said, “is something to give back.”

NOTE: To register, go to www.cjmso.academy, or contact Greg Mitchell at 509-942-8952.

Jeff Morrow is a former sports editor for the Herald.
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