Umpires, players find connections, deepen the bonds of baseball at AZ Spring Championships
by Kyle Koso
PHOENIX, AZ -- Over time, athletes ideally appreciate that it’s wise to look at the work required to play sports at a high level as not a grind or burden, but as an opportunity. The hours can be long, and the pressure of expectations can sit heavily on your shoulders, but how many others would love to have chance to take their swings?
Making the most of it all – that’s a mindset that works in the world of umpiring as well.
During the 2023 Triple Crown Arizona Spring Championships, umpire Andrew Joyner has maintained his standard policy of encouraging players and sharing laughs with families while devoting full focus and energy on the tasks at hand. It’s created a powerful feedback loop, where people have stopped Joyner, reminded him of moments in the past where they bonded and been sure to grab an updated photo or even just a fresh conversation that proves umpires should be included when you think of what makes baseball great.
“This is my happy place now. I look for the connection with the boys and the parents, talking with them,” said Joyner, 56, retired now after a career as a police officer, and who learned the game while becoming a two-time All-state pitcher in New Jersey. “Calling games at the high school or college level, different leagues all over the country, I see a lot of players. People ask me what level I like, and this here (ages 9u-14u), you just don’t know what they are going to do. It keeps me on my ‘A’ game, my partner, too.”
Joyner, who is in the New Jersey High School Hall of Fame, played minor league baseball from 1988-90 and joined the National Guard before starting his career as an officer. With 15 years under his belt, he umpires about 300 games a year.
“He’s the best partner I’ve ever had. He is on his toes; we both love the kids, he’ll talk to the parents,” said Andrew LaPlante, who might do 100 games a year together with Joyner. “He makes sure everything is all right, and we never have a problem.”
During the Arizona event, Joyner got a chance to reconnect with Brody Hall, 14, who plays for the Dominicana program based in Ogden, UT – the two had shared wide-ranging laughs and conversation when they met up in Phoenix in 2022, enough that Brody’s mother made sure to get a photo and send a long complimentary email to the event director about Joyner’s approach to his job.
“I caught two or three games with him behind the plate. We were always super-talkative, he’s an awesome guy to have behind the plate,” Hall said. “My mom was sitting back there, being really loud, she loves to get into the game … she and Andy got to talking. It was just a great experience, and when I saw him this year, I just gave him a big hug. We stayed after and got a picture, and it would be great to catch another game with him there. I hope I get the chance.
“The pitcher-catcher-umpire connection is huge. I like to make friends, and being part of that relationship and being comfortable with each other is very important to baseball. It makes the game more fun. Parents can get a bit over-reactive … the umpires are human, and even though we’re only 14 the ball is coming in at 80 mph. It’s not easy to make the calls (in real time) all the time.”
Another interaction with a player and Joyner turned up on social media during the Arizona event when the athlete remembered Joyner working a game fully six years ago, when they were all playing at the Field of Dreams event in Cooperstown, NY. Joyner had given the youngster (an 11-year-old playing up) a ball, a moment celebrated with a photo of their fist-bump, and the two re-created the moment in 2023 with a fresh photo.
Joyner’s mindset and mission to keep finding common ground isn’t going anywhere. During a 14u game during the Arizona event this week, he took a ball off his forearm when the catcher was slow to respond to a pitch – it obviously stung, but after a quick pause, he patted the catcher on the head to make sure there were no hard feelings. And after the game, he held court with fans for a solid 10 minutes, joking around and bringing a little light to the days of younger siblings who may or may not have been trapped at their brother’s game that day.
“Early on, during my playing career, one of my mentors asked me what my goals were, and he told me you have to earn it,” Joyner said. “And another mentor, he talked to me about patience and consistency – being able to wait for what you want while functioning at a steady level in order to obtain your goals. You have to put the work in.”
“You have to have a passion for it and be able to get through the bumpy roads at the beginning,” LaPlante said. “Time goes on, you get better. You have to persevere and keep learning. It’s a much happier place on the other side. There’s nothing like being an official and a kid coming up to you, five or six years later, and saying, ‘Blue! Andrew! Do you remember me? I’m 16u now, I was 11u back then!’ You can leave an impression on them.”
“I tell the kids, you’re out here to have fun. Where else would you rather be?” Joyner added. “That moment I had with Brody … he looked at me, and I know we had that mutual connection. It’s a beautiful feeling, and already at this event in a few weeks I’ve had four of those moments. That just didn’t make my day, that’s made my whole year. Anything else will be just icing on the cake.”
Learn more about Triple Crown's partnership with Officially Human: www.officiallyhuman.com.
Learn more about the Triple Crown Protect the Game initiative, where military veterans train to become youth sports officials: Protect the Game - Home.