It was one of the greatest baseball games he had ever been a part of.

Last spring, umpire Kevin Conder was working the bases at a Johnson County varsity game. Having called games for 25 years, he was working with a newer umpire, one with five years of experience, who stood behind the plate. The game went back and forth, and ended with the home team winning on a hit batsman.

“He worked the plate, he did a fantastic job,” Conder said of his colleague. “It was an intense, fantastic and fun game to work. We had to walk by the bleachers of the visiting team, and the game ended on a hit-by-pitch. The visiting team’s coach was ejected and I told (the home plate umpire) he got it right, but as we were leaving, the visiting team’s parents were barking how we’re horrible — ‘You screwed the kids over,’ ‘I hope you’re happy with yourself.’

“We get to the parking lot and we’re trying to change in the parking lot used by parents and fans. The visiting team’s parents walked as close to our vehicles as they could and hurled the same insults: ‘I hope you’re happy; hope you can sleep tonight.’ My reaction was, ‘You just watched one of the best high school games you’ll see in quite a long time, and this is how you’re going to react.’”

Conder’s experience wasn’t an isolated incident, and the treatment of umpires at high school games throughout the country has helped drive an umpire shortage. Neighboring Michigan, for example, had about 13,000 registered high school umpires before the pandemic, compared to about 8,900 in April. The situation has reared its head in Indiana, where during the last two weeks of April, more than 100 baseball games, mostly junior varsity and freshman games, were canceled. Those included more than 20 in central Indiana, said Daniel Jimenez, who works as an umpire assigner for the Indiana Umpire Association, responsible for assigning most of the games in central Indiana.

“It’s gotten to be much more, and it’s much more personal,” Conder said. “You can yell at me and say, ‘Come on, blue, that’s not a strike,’ or ‘That’s not outside,’ but it’s become more personal as far as, ‘You’re awful, you’re terrible.’ I’ve been told things by families and fans you don’t want to be used in the newspaper. During the game and postgame, as you’re leaving and going to your car, they’re much more vocal and there’s much more of getting out of your seats and coming and confronting you in your parking lot. They will drive by where your car’s parked and you’re changing and get a cheap shot in. There’s much more of that, and it’s increased dramatically in the last five to six years.”

Those confrontations have led many umpires to leave the game they love, Jimenez said.

“Due to lack of umpires, we had to cancel about 10 lower-level games (in one week). We started with 25 recruits, and five or six have stayed,” he said. “Some of them went on because of job changes, but the majority couldn’t believe the parents and how they were treated, being screamed at about every single pitch that they believe is incorrect. Over half said they don’t want to be treated that way.”

The shortage has hit the junior varsity and freshman teams the hardest. Because of a lack of umpires, Whiteland has had to get creative, having its junior varsity team play immediately after the varsity team so one pair of umpires could be used for both games. That has resulted in junior varsity games finishing after 10 p.m. with students having school the next day, said athletic director Dave Edens.

“Last spring we noticed some issues, but I don’t remember having to cancel a game,” Edens said. “I’m only in my second year as athletic director, and was a high school baseball coach. For the first time, I had freshman and junior varsity games with one umpire instead of two. Now, if we can get one umpire, It’s fantastic. We’ve had to get creative a couple of times and play a (junior varsity) game after a varsity game with the same crew of umpires.”

Indian Creek has experienced the same issues, with some of its junior varsity games, the ones that actually get played, limited to five innings following varsity games so they don’t go too late into the night.

“It’s been frustrating for the boys; they just want to play baseball,” Braves coach Steve Mirizzi said. “Obviously, the issue is coming from the crowds, from parents. For the most part, the coaches will respect the umpires and talk to them in a respectful manner, call them by their first names and talk about a question or two, but I think the issue is coming from the crowds. People on the other side of the fence will say whatever they want because a fence is between them. I think the parents or whoever is in the stands are the ones who are hurting the kids. It’s the crowds hurting the boys, who can’t play because there’s no umpires. They don’t want to deal with the parents.”

If things continue at the rate they’re going, junior varsity and freshman games will likely turn into scrimmages with coaches umpiring, Jimenez said.

“I grew up playing sports, and I understand adversity happens and there’s a competitiveness to it, and it’s one of those things that never really bothered me when I started working,” he said. “I never dealt with being physically assaulted, but now it’s happening all over the United States, and I fear one of my umpires will be assaulted at one point because of a call they make.

“I can see, in the next couple of years, JV and freshman games will be scrimmages.”

In order to avoid that fate, umpires may need to have certain protections they have in sports such as basketball and football, including being escorted to and from the field and having access to locker rooms so they don’t have to change in the parking lot with the risk of being accosted by an unruly parent.

“Of the four Johnson County high schools I’ve worked at the last two years, only one offered me a locker room, where I can go park my car, go to a locker room and no one can get to me,” Conder said. “If I’m changing my clothes at my car, it can be open season. If I’m in a locker room, no one can walk past my car and ask me if I’m happy I took that one from the kids and screwed the kids over. Item No. 2 is an escort on and off the field. I do high school basketball and football and never walked on or exited the court without a school administrator or law enforcement walking me on and off. In baseball, that rarely happens.”

Conder believes that ahletic departments need to communicate with parents and make sure there are adequate consequences for harassing umpires.

“Every baseball coach and AD should have a preseason meeting with the parents,” he said. “Just set the parameters, this is what’s acceptable and what we won’t tolerate and make sure there’s zero tolerance. If you tell them, ‘You can’t come back the rest of the season and watch your son play,’ I think that’s a deterrent.”