Matt Sorenson was in a catcher’s crouch recently, scanning the bottom shelf in a grocery store aisle. Like taking an outside pitch to a right-handed batter, he reached to his right and grabbed an item before placing it in his shopping basket. Conversely, he reached to his left to grab another item that was stashed deep on the shelf and took extraordinary effort to grasp.
Behind Sorenson was an elderly woman, pushing a cart with latex-covered hands and wearing a face mask, trying mightily to maneuver around Sorenson. And, she wasn’t happy. She chastised Sorenson for what she believed was a violation of social distancing guidelines during the current COVID-19 pandemic, and she demanded that he immediately leave the aisle.
Sorenson sprang up from his crouch, apologized and then moved to the end of the aisle to allow her passage. Silently, he believed she had ample room to navigate the aisle and that he was providing plenty of room under social distancing guidelines. He kept that information to himself, though. That, officials know, is all a part of game management in tense situations.
“She was really upset with me and let me have it,” said Sorenson of Robbinsdale, Minnesota. “I’ve been chewed out before, but not when I’ve been the catcher. That was certainly interesting.”
As a longtime high school and college umpire, Sorenson is used to being in proximity to a baseball catcher. The irony of the grocery store incident makes him chuckle slightly, but it can’t mask the frustration of his livelihood disappearing amid the sweeping pandemic that is forcing the closure of in-building learning for students and the cancellation of collegiate and high school spring athletic seasons.
Sorenson, who officiates football, basketball and baseball fulltime, was spending March in Florida to officiate 30 college games before heading north to continue his collegiate season, and he was looking forward to the opening of the Minnesota State High School League season. But on March 12, 10 games into his Florida schedule, Sorenson, along with other umpiring crews and competing teams at the complex, were told to evacuate the premises. All games were postponed in the wake of the virus.
“I was so pumped and excited to be working in Florida; it is so cool down there,” he said. “The vibe from everyone is so awesome and there is so much energy around the start of a new season. In a heartbeat, that all disappeared. While I understand, it doesn’t make it hurt any less. Once the NCAA wiped out the college season, I knew the high school season wouldn’t be far behind. I am crossing my fingers and really hoping that Legion and town ball don’t get cancelled, too.”
Sorenson, who also is a limousine driver, returned to Minnesota and quickly found work as a grocery shopper for an online delivery service. He considers himself lucky to have found steady work during the pandemic, but he knows that other fulltime officials haven’t been so fortunate.
“It becomes more than just sports to us as officials,” he said. “This is a major part of our lives. Other officials, I’m sure, are really struggling at this time. You need to be grateful game in and game out when you have these opportunities to work games. When they are taken away from you, that is when you know just how important they are. When we get back, I know I will be very thankful for the opportunities I’ve had and the ones to come.”
Sorenson, who began his umpiring career in 2002, figures he would be at least 50 games into his officiating schedule by the end of April. Instead, he wills himself to stay in shape, both mentally and physically, so he is prepared when he receives word that games are reinstated. He continues to read materials and bulletins from the NCAA, the NFHS and the MSHSL. He admits as well to looking ahead to the fate of fall activities.
“Should I be concerned about the fall and football? No,” he said. “Am I concerned? Yes. I don’t want fall sports to be in jeopardy, too. Before we can even think that far down the road, we need to have Legion baseball and town ball back to get things back on track.”
Tim Leighton is communications coordinator for the Minnesota State High School League and is a member of the High School Today Publications Committee.