Virtual video, rules test and Peloton

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Ted Barrett loves baseball. To say he is missing baseball is an understatement.

He has never thrown a pitch, hit a single up the middle or let a three-hopper get under his glove and between his legs. But Barrett certainly knows more about baseball than most.

The man has been on MLB fields since 1994 and has made countless decisions during a scorching afternoon game or a nighttime thriller — all games determined by mere inches.

Ted Barrett is an umpire.

Which brings us to the question: We’ve heard from owners, we’ve heard from coaches, we’ve heard from players, we’ve also heard from stadium and arena workers — but what have the umpires and referees been up to?

Coronavirus: Postponements and cancellations in sport

Barrett’s résumé includes 23 playoff series and four World Series. So it comes as no surprise that he is waiting patiently for the season to start, whenever that is.

“Our world’s flipped upside down. Umpires are kind of walking around a little bit like lost souls because we’re supposed to be working right now and we’re not,” Barrett told ESPN. But there is a silver lining, he said: spending time with his family — including being home for Mother’s Day with his wife and mother — and his grandkids. “[We’re] trying to take advantage of the fact that we are home, too, especially those of us with young kids. This is a bonus time.”

There are crews of four umpires for each MLB game, 19 crews in all. There are also umpires who work minor league games, putting dozens of people out of work while there is no baseball.

The struggle for Barrett — and referees in other sports that would otherwise be playing right now if not for the coronavirus pandemic — is keeping both his mind and body ready to return to action at any time.

As Barrett put it: Who is going to throw a 90 mph fastball for him to assess? And better yet, who is going to catch it? That’s what spring training is for.

“So we’re trying to do things at home workouts the best we can,” he explained. “We’re trying to stay physically in shape and then mentally, so we have a virtual training going on. One of the things the league does is they send out every week a rules test. We’ll sit down with video clips, we’ll have plays and then we’ll discuss answers to questions and how we’re going to rule on this. And then we meet once a week with our supervisors as a group, and we go over that test again.”

At least Barrett is having some fun: Once a very young amateur boxer, he has been joining in on some virtual training sessions for boxing in his free time.

Virtual training is something that other leagues are using as well, including the NBA.

“We’re doing video breakdowns every week that we’re submitting to our bosses and our development advisers and going over those,” NBA referee Ben Taylor said. “We started a cool thing a couple of weeks ago where we connected with a peer from our staff. They’ll send us one of their games and we’ll send them one of our games, and they break down our game and we break down theirs.”

Taylor joined the full-time NBA staff in 2013-14 after six seasons as a referee in the NBA G League, and he also has experience as a FIBA referee. He has become dedicated to Peloton during the pandemic, and he said a lot of other NBA referees have turned to the at-home cycling station to keep physically fit as well.

“And I would say probably a good percentage of our staff has bought those. We started a group, and we will hop on certain rides altogether and compete that way and keep our fitness level ready that way,” Taylor said. Referees across the NBA also have special mobility programs they’ve been participating in.

But for as fun as it has been for him to be home, the NBA playoffs would be in full swing right now, and he and his fellow referees are ready to return. When the 2019-20 NBA season was suspended indefinitely in March, the league employed 70 officials to fill 3,690 referee assignments during the regular season.

“We all want to be back on the court, there’s no doubt about that. I have text chains and everybody talking about how it’s supposed to be playoff time already,” Taylor said.

James Capers is also enjoying film work, specifically the partner work. Capers has been refereeing games in the NBA for 25 seasons, so working with his referee partner who is in the G League has been particularly rewarding.

“It’s actually been good for me and taken me back to my CBA days. I’ve just gone back to my fundamentals. It’s taught me not to take what I have for granted,” he said, emphasizing that the conversations around refereeing have helped NBA referees become better. “Even though I don’t know when one day we will return, and it will be at the heightened part of the season. Always thinking about how I can do better instead of looking at the downside of it.”

And yes, Capers is using Peloton, too.

But perhaps no one is having a more impressive period away from live sports than Katja Koroleva, a soccer referee who officiates matches in the National Women’s Soccer League and the United Soccer League and is a video assistant referee in Major League Soccer.

Koroleva is also a physician’s assistant and has been on the front lines of the fight against the coronavirus in San Jose, California.

“I have been lucky enough to have the ability to increase my hours in the emergency departments as a physician assistant,” she told ESPN. “I have this whole other career in medicine. So I’ve been able to focus all my energy and devote my time to that.”

As much as she said she misses the personal connections and social interactions that soccer refereeing offers, she has been able to work on keeping her mind and body in tiptop shape.

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The Professional Referee Organization (PRO) and CONCACAF have provided their referees with video quizzes and group analysis, as well as physical fitness training plans, Koroleva explained. She’s communicating with both leagues on a weekly basis about how she is staying ready both mentally and physically.

Koroleva, like other full-time soccer referees, is still being paid her full salary, Howard Webb told ESPN. Webb is a referee as well as the manager of PRO. NBA referees are also still being paid in full, as are MLB umpires. All referees and umpires are in constant communication with their league offices, patiently awaiting the return of their sport.

And even though she’s eager to get back onto the soccer pitch, her mindset is one everyone could take into consideration, pandemic or not.

“I think we can get wrapped up in the fast-paced world we live in sometimes, and this has allowed for some downtime to truly understand what we are passionate about, what activities we love and the people that we enjoy spending time with,” Koroleva said.

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