COLUMBIA — What began as an opportunity for Marines to serve their communities as baseball umpires has become a chance for Columbia College students to become professional baseball officials.
Columbia College was approached by Major League Baseball and the Marines two years ago. They offered a program incorporating college coursework at the school's San Diego campus and a week at the Major League Baseball Umpire Camp in Compton, Calif.
The idea behind the program was to help Marines transition into society after being deployed overseas and to give them an incentive to start college coursework. Columbia College has a history of accommodating military students, and 18 of the school's 35 branches are on U.S. military bases.
To receive a coveted spot at the umpire camp, Marines must complete at least three courses out of a required 18 credit hours in liberal arts, with classes like the sociology of sport, intercultural communication and ethics.
The program, which opened to the civilian population in June, is no longer exclusive to the school's San Diego campus. Courses can be taken entirely online.
Terry Smith, executive vice president and dean of academic affairs at Columbia College, said the required courses "provide the human relations and interpersonal communication skills that are a foundation for officiating in any sport."
Smith was key in making the program accessible to the civilian population when he met with Rich Rieker, director of umpiring for Major League Baseball, at the 2009 All-Star Game in St. Louis.
Rieker is a St. Louis native and helps coordinate the umpire camp each year.
"Initially, the goal was to provide Marines with an avenue to find work as umpires at the high school, college and minor league levels — being fit, taking orders, making split decisions are qualities of both a good Marine and a good umpire," Rieker said.
Last year, as a Marines-only offering, the program produced its first certificates. Two Marines attended the umpiring camp, one of which was offered a scholarship to go on to a professional umpiring school.
Smith said there are about 900 Columbia College students from around the country who have completed classes that qualify them to go on to umpire camp. Of those 900, six have committed to participating in the camp this fall.
While Smith said most who pursue the certificate will officiate only at the community and club level, the coursework serves to give those officiating "a skill set that applies to the game of baseball, and one that they can also take with them into their world outside of baseball."
There are other routes one can take to becoming a major league umpire but, according to Smith, only Columbia College’s program assures a spot at the Major League Baseball Umpire Camp.
Smith said the program is "unlike any in the world" for its integration of liberal arts coursework and sports officiating, and both he and Rieker hope the program will produce new umpires with skills that will better serve players and communities.
"Whether the certificate lands you a job as a high school umpire or a professional one, it will take your umpiring to the next level," Rieker said. "The experience will be more well-rounded as it applies to the rest of your life."