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Future is filled with questions for on-field high school officials

Amy and Matt Gaitane work as high school umpires in softball and baseball, and they officiate in other sports as well.
Amy and Matt Gaitane work as high school umpires in softball and baseball, and they officiate in other sports as well.Barry Chin/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

In his nearly 30 years as an official, games have been a central part of Matt Gaitane’s life. He works as a college baseball umpire in six Division 1 conferences and at the high school level as well. He assigns umpires for high school softball games. In the fall, he officiates field hockey and football. And he teaches calculus at New Bedford High School.

“I’m busy around the clock,” Gaitane said. “One of the reasons why I enjoy doing it is there’s different transitions throughout the day that you look forward to. First part of your day, you’re teaching. A lot of cases after you’re done with school, you’re going out to do a ballgame. You come home late at night, spend time with your family, get some schoolwork done. You try to just repeat that the next day.”

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In 1997, Gaitane’s wife, Amy, started officiating field hockey games. In 2003, she added softball. The couple have a 13-year-old son who plays for a travel AAU baseball team, and a 5-year-old daughter.

Sports give their life a distinct rhythm.

“We are a seven-day-a-week baseball/softball family,” Amy said. “Not really any breaks.”

The hiatus of sports due to the coronavirus pandemic has been as jarring for officials as it has for players and coaches at all levels around the country. And there are just as many questions for them about what the future looks like.

Like many officials, Matt Gaitane spent the winter studying to prepare for the spring season, only to have the pandemic put athletics on hold. Lost seasons have created a void for the players; for officials, there has also been a loss of income.

For a weekend series umpiring college baseball, Gaitane typically earns $1,000-$1,200.

“You have five or six of those, just do the math,” he said. “You’re losing six or seven grand.”

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In addition to the financial toll, the time away has been depressing

“It’s affecting everybody," he added. "Obviously, not having games to work gives people a lot of down time, feeds into your mental health because you’re not as busy.

"A bigger point that I’ve been hearing is that the mental health of people has really been an issue because of so much down time. Not being able to interact with your brother and sister officials, coaches, the kids, and people you get to know in this business over a period of years.”

And what does the future hold? Spring sports were canceled, summer sports are in limbo, and the fall is uncertain.

“That’s something that comes up all the time, whether we’re going to play or not,” Gaitane said. “People are anxious at this point to get back to normal and get out there and start working again.”

It’s impossible to forecast.

On the baseball diamond, the Cape Cod League and New England Collegiate League canceled their seasons. But the Futures Collegiate Baseball League is still considering playing, with a July start and a schedule running through August, limiting the rosters to local players. The Boston Park League is also considering starting in July and playing a 21-game schedule, depending on whether conditions are safe and fields are available.

“Talking with [a high school] athletic director the other day, he said it best,” Gaitane said. “He said: ‘Kids need something to look forward to. Safety’s important, but I think we, as a society, we need to try to get back to some normalcy. People need something to look forward to.' ”

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When officials do return to the field, the way they do their job inevitably will be different. Masks and gloves will be a necessity. Amy Gaitane envisioned not only officials but players wearing masks, on the field and in the dugout.

“To me, that’s not really playing a sport,” she said. “You won’t be able to play to the best of your ability with that mask being on. But if that’s a way that they can play, then I say go for it. Get these kids out there.”

For umpires, the act of calling balls and strikes may have to be altered for social distancing purposes. Rather than calling pitches from behind the plate, where they’re hunched over the catcher’s shoulder, umpires would have to move behind the mound.

“I’ve seen it at a lower level,” Amy said. “I’ve never had to do anything like that. A strike’s a strike, a ball’s a ball. So that wouldn’t be too bad calling. I just think it would be awkward standing behind a pitcher and calling a ball a strike.”

Making those considerations will be a necessary part of the adjustment.

"I could conceivably see where the plate umpire calls balls and strikes from behind the pitcher so you’re practicing social distancing,” Matt said. “Obviously you can’t be shaking players’ hands. Players have to keep distance between themselves and other players and umpires. We as umpires have to keep our distance between the players and coaches as well.”

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Paul Halloran has officiated college and high school basketball games for nearly 30 years and assigns officials for more than 1,900 high school games as a member of the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials. . With winter sports being so far on the horizon, there haven’t been conversations about what the games might look like.

Halloran hasn’t been informed of any new guidelines such as wearing masks or gloves. But he assumes officials will be required to abide by the same ones as players.

“If they’re going to have the players wear them, then I would assume that would be the end of discussion,” he said. “I wouldn’t imagine them treating the officials any different than the players as far as those types of precautions.”

While there’s an urge to return as soon as possible, safety remains a priority. Many officials fall in an age range that leaves them more susceptible to the virus.

Of the 375 officials on Halloran’s staff, he estimated that 25 percent of them are over 60.

“I believe when it comes to that, everyone’s going to have to make their own decision,” Halloran said. “Because assuming we’re going to be living in a society where there’s going to be some risk for some time — whether it’s going to a restaurant or officiating a basketball game — I think people are going to have to make their own decision about what risks their willing to incur.

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Noting that the average age of MIAA high school officials is 56, Matt Gaitane said the issue is a “major concern.”

Steven Keyes, president of the Massachusetts Track and Field Officials Association, echoed the concern when he considered the number of people he often sees in close quarters at indoor track meets at the Reggie Lewis Center.

“There’s going to be a little bit of hesitation in some of our older officials,” he said. “That was brought up by somebody in the coaches association. How are some of our officials going to feel about going out and doing these events again?”

The most Matt Gaitane and other officials can do with the down time is stay sharp by watching online instruction videos, following social media accounts dedicated to explaining rules and plays, and participating in Zoom meetings with other officials for study and practice sessions.

“The hit that people felt eight weeks ago, when we all lost our schedules and you lose all that income week to week — a lot of people were really upset over it,” he said.

“It’s really difficult to fathom and to deal with on a daily basis. I know some people who depend on this and are getting very impatient. I think all of us are affected us from a mental-health standpoint in some capacity because when something’s taken away from you that you enjoy doing, it can be very difficult to cope with.”

Matt Gaitane (right) and his wife, Amy, realize that there will be adjustments going forward as officials, including the likelihood of wearing masks while working games
Matt Gaitane (right) and his wife, Amy, realize that there will be adjustments going forward as officials, including the likelihood of wearing masks while working gamesBarry Chin/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe



Julian Benbow can be reached at julian.benbow@globe.com.