From Player to Umpire: Exploring the Path Less Taken

In this edition of "@ the Plate," we walk back through the career of international umpire Mark Porteous. The former player turned umpire, shares his inspiring journey in the world of softball officiating. From his initial introduction to umpiring as a way to make extra money during his playing career to officiating at international events and the Olympic Games, Porteous offers valuable insights into the passion, challenges, and unique experiences that come with being an umpire.

What led you to take up umpiring?
Being involved with the sport has always been a passion. During my playing career, I spent seasons playing in Prescott, Arizona and Vancouver, Canada. It was in both those locations that I was introduced to umpiring to make a little bit of money on the side.  When I finished my playing career I initially went into coaching. Firstly, with the Northcote Premiers and subsequently as an assistant coach with North Harbour. About the same time my two daughters were starting out playing tee ball and I was also coaching them. As a lot of parent coaches will know they are often called on to umpire their kid’s games. This reignited the enjoyment I had previously umpiring in North America, and I decided to go down this path rather than coaching, to stay involved. Initially, it was just local league games but one weekend Bill Smith, who was NZ Chief Umpire at the time asked if I would like to attend the National Fastpitch champs. It was there that I found out that I really had a lot to learn but the standard of the top-level competition really piqued my interest and I decided then to take a more active role in umpiring. That was in 2007. I attained my international accreditation in 2011 and attended my first World event in Argentina in 2012.

What is the most challenging call you have ever had to make and why?
One of the most challenging calls that any umpire has to make is to eject a player or coach from the game. Although sometimes they can make it easy! As an ex-player (and one who was known to often challenge the umpire’s decisions), I do understand what the heat of the moment can do to players and coaches. However, that should never excuse bad or dangerous behaviour. Since I have been umpiring, I have probably ejected no more than 12-15 players or coaches and that is in nearly 1,500 games.

Can you describe the process you go through when making a split-second decision on a close play?
There are a number of factors that go into making a decision on close plays. They mostly revolve around bringing together what we call the 4 elements. These are the batter or runner, the defensive player, the ball & the base. Adding to that is making sure that I have a good angle and distance to the play. Experience is also a factor. Some of that experience for me came from being a player. However, a lot of it now comes from being involved in the games at the highest level. This is one of the hardest things that young umpires have to contend with but one where they probably get the most abuse.

Can you share any memorable or unusual situations you have encountered on the field as an umpire?
Probably the one that sticks out the most, for all the wrong reasons, is the fight that occurred between Argentina and Great Britain at the 2015 World Championships in Saskatoon. Whilst I have been involved in some altercations before (and since) this was one where there were real punches and real blood and injuries that resulted. I am pleased to say that the umpire crew handled the situation very well. There were some ejections and repercussions for the players involved. However, order was quickly restored and the game was completed without further incidents. As an aside, the video went viral very quickly and was shown in a pub in London where my daughter was living and she said “hey that’s my dad”. So, it had gone all the way from Canada to the UK before I was even back at my hotel that night!

What are some common misconceptions or misunderstandings about the role of an umpire, and how do you address them?
One thing that I don’t think players and coaches realise is how much work many umpires do. We are not only always studying the rules but we are discussing plays and situations. We attend regular clinics and are always debriefing after games. Just like players do we will sit and discuss things that may have occurred in the game. We talk about calls that we may have made and if we think we may have made an incorrect call what we could have done to improve that so that we get it right the next time. Another thing that is overlooked is the volume of games we do. Most of us are doing in the vicinity of 80 to 120 games per season, sometimes more. The time involved in that commitment is significant. We are trying to address these misconceptions with more open communication between teams and umpires. We always welcome questions and love to provide information where we can. An innovation last season was an opportunity for anyone to complete an online rules exam. That proved very popular with over 650 people taking the opportunity to learn.

Can you share any personal rituals or superstitions you undertake as an umpire?
I tend to get dressed and ready for games far too early but I don’t really have any personal rituals or superstitions. When I am participating in big games, finals, or world events I will carry an old ball/strike indicator which was my dad's. My dad passed away in 2013. He was a huge softball fan and received a Distinguished Service Award from SNZ.  I don’t use it. I just have it with me so that he is with me in those big moments.

Can you share any tips or advice for aspiring umpires who want to pursue a career in officiating?
The first thing is to contact your Local Chief Umpire. Most associations run some sort of umpiring programme. One that is proving very successful in the Northern Region is the Orange Shirt programme. This is a non-threatening introduction to the new umpire and is designed for the parent/caregiver, sibling or volunteer to be given the basics. It focuses on the most important elements that all umpires need. Balls/Strikes, Safe/Outs and Fair/Foul. Participants that are in this programme are provided with an orange shirt to differentiate them as volunteers. On the shirt it reads “I wear Orange, don’t see Red”. Once participants are comfortable with this, they can move into some other areas of the game e.g., plate & base mechanics. SNZ has designed a clear umpire pathway for those that just want to help their kid's team on a Saturday morning, right through to those that aspire to be International Umpires.


What was the most memorable moment you experienced as an official during the 2022 Olympics?
The Olympics was a memorable moment all to itself. Right from the time I received notification in January 2020 to my arrival back in NZ in July 2021 when I was required to complete two weeks of isolation in MIQ. Overall it was the most amazing tournament I have ever been involved with.  The most memorable game I did at the event was the round-robin game between Canada and Japan. The winner of that game was going to the Gold Medal game. I was on the plate and the legendary Ueno was pitching for Japan. The final score in the game was 1-0 to Japan in 8 innings. It was a fantastic game!

Were there any specific challenges or unique situations you encountered as an official at the Olympics that you hadn't experienced before?
There were several challenges with the Olympics. As I said my appointment was confirmed in January 2020. Most of the Olympic crew were then appointed to the U18 Men’s World Cup in Palmerston North in February 2020 with the objective for us to bond as an Olympic crew. Covid 19 literally hit NZ the day after the tournament was over. Then came delays and postponements of the Olympic event. Throughout this, however, the crew stayed in touch which each other with regular Zoom meetings to discuss the event but also to work on teamwork, mechanics etc. In the end, these went on for nearly 18 months before it was confirmed that the Olympics would proceed. Right up until the week before the event we had no idea as to whether or not fans would be allowed to watch the games. Ultimately they were not. The travel and Covid protocols that we all had to go through were intense. That includes regular pre-travel tests and upon arrival daily PCR tests. Social distancing was required when we were not at the park and we were confined to our hotel and the stadiums at all times. We were allowed to venture out to a convenience store 150 metres from our hotel. An app was included in our phones that traced our movements at all times.  

Can you share any behind-the-scenes insights or stories about your interactions with athletes, coaches, or other officials during the Olympic Games?
Because of the above protocols, our interactions with athletes, coaches etc. were very limited. That was unfortunate. I did get to chat with players and coaches during the games, as I always do, but unlike other international events there was no opportunity to “mingle”. I did talk to Mark Smith the Canadian Coach and reminded him that I played against him when he spent a season playing softball in Auckland. He remembered his time in NZ fondly. As our interactions were within the crew only, we formed a great bond as a group and will always have this event to look back on.

What was the most significant lesson or takeaway you learned from officiating at the Olympic Games?
Probably the scale of the event. The stakes are so high and that required the umpires to also lift their game to the highest standard. There was very little controversy in the games that were played, and they were all played in a wonderful spirit. Unfortunately, the lack of crowds diminished the atmosphere somewhat. Officiating in the bronze medal game in a 35,000-seat stadium with no one in attendance was eerie. But it did not detract from the quality of the games or the event.


What did you enjoy most about officiating at the Olympic Games?
What I enjoyed most was the bond that we formed as a crew. We all share a passion for the game that is difficult to beat. We learned a lot about each other and will continue our friendships forever. Some of us have had the opportunity to work together again at the Men’s World Cup in November and we all continue to stay in touch. 

Where to from here Mark Porteous?
Despite having officially umpired nearly 1,500 games including 125 Internationals and attending 9 WBSC International events, I have no immediate plans to slow down. Recently I was appointed as Lead Facilitator at a WBSC Certification Seminar in South Korea where I presented over a 3-day seminar followed by field assessments of 18 Softball Asia umpires looking to become internationally accredited. I found this seminar very rewarding and will hopefully be asked to continue in this role as well as participate in future WBSC Events. It is great to be able to give back at a local, national, and international level. Umpiring has taken me to Australia, South America, Canada, Europe, and Asia as well as World events held here in New Zealand. Umpiring has given me some great opportunities to remain in the game at the highest level. I want to thank SNZ as well as all my worldwide umpiring fraternity, especially Wayne Saunders in my early career, Bob Stanton on an International Level and Wiremu Tamaki now, for helping me achieve my goals.


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