Professor’s Umpiring Career Spans Nearly Five Decades
When he tried his hand at umpiring nearly 50 years ago as a way to bring together his passion for athletics and his analytical thinking skills, Brian A. Marks, J.D., Ph.D., knocked it out of the park. Decades later, he is still officiating softball games and staying connected to the game he loves.
August 23, 2022
By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications
Dr. Marks, a senior lecturer at the University, was the home plate umpire during that game, after umpiring at first base during the semi-finals. Dr. Marks feels at home on the softball field, as he has recently completed his 48th year as an umpire.
“I’d like to say now I’m a true umpire – perhaps not a professional umpire like the major league umpires, but I’ve been doing it long enough where I can honestly say I understand the true art of the game,” he said. “I understand the true art of umpiring and, given my own limitations, how to be in the best position to make the right call.”
Growing up in Nassau County, NY, Dr. Marks enjoyed playing baseball and soccer and skiing. After finishing a ski season during which he’d started working as an instructor, he was looking to earn some extra income. It was 1974, and his parents, who were both involved with Little League, encouraged him to try umpiring. They told him it would be a great way for him to stay involved with a game he was passionate about.
“I think my parents were right,” said Dr. Marks, executive director of the University’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program. “It was a way to bring together my analytical side with my athletic side, so a mind and body connection.”
‘There’s always congratulations’
Dr. Marks, who went on to umpire in the same Little League he’d played in as a kid, found what proved to be a constant in his life, even while living all over the country, including umpiring softball games while living in St. Louis, MO, in the 1980s.
After moving to Connecticut in the early 1990s, Dr. Marks served as a Little League coach and umpire. When he suffered a spinal injury nearly 20 years ago, he was instructed to limit his athletic activities. Umpiring and coaching presented the perfect way to give back to the game and stay involved with the sports he loved, and he’s been umpiring even more frequently since then.
Dr. Marks, who earned his J.D. and Ph.D. from Washington University, says umpiring unites the critical thinking and mental components he enjoys and is good at, as well as athleticism. Both law and umpiring also require the application and interpretation of rules. He often remembers how U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts likened judges to umpires, as both are supposed to be unbiased.
“The slight difference between them is an appellate judge gets to sit back and think, evaluate, assess, and can take time to make a decision,” said Dr. Marks, who has also officiated soccer games. “An umpire has to see what happens on the field, react to it on the field, and make an immediate pronouncement. We’re expected to be perfect on day one and only get better each game afterward.”
During his career as a volunteer umpire, Dr. Marks officiated at the Softball Little League World Series in Portland, OR, a decade ago, and he officiated when the Canadian National Team played in Connecticut. He has umpired at the collegiate level – at Division I, II, and III levels.
As an experienced umpire, Dr. Marks is now the state assigner for Little League softball. He watches and evaluates umpires, helping to select who officiates state tournaments. He is constantly inspired by the athletes he interacts with, and he has found umpiring at Little League softball games to be particularly rewarding.
“The camaraderie among the players, especially when it comes to softball, it’s just so wonderful to see and be a part of,” he said. “It’s a very different dynamic, especially at the end of a game. Yes, there may be tears, but there’s always congratulations, and it seems like sometimes the parents might have harder feelings than the kids.”
‘You have to develop a thick skin’
While rewarding, umpiring is not always a walk in the park. It can be challenging, and Dr. Marks is constantly striving to up his game. Among the challenges he faces is that he does not have access to replay like umpires in the major leagues do. Instead, he has to be prepared to make a decision.
If there is a question about a call, Dr. Marks does not ask his colleagues for their judgment of his decision. Rather, he presents the elements of the play he witnessed and asks if they think he might have missed an element. If they believe he has, he must digest that information almost instantaneously and make a decision. Then, he must announce it to everyone on the field, as well as everyone watching.
“By umpiring, you have to develop a thick skin,” he said. “I can honestly say that, as a child, I was pretty sensitive. I took things to heart – and I still take things to heart. But now, I know how to package it and put it to the side. I also know how to tune things out a bit better.”
‘Being in a position to make the right call is important’
During his nearly five decades umpiring, Dr. Marks has also seen the game – and the athletes – change significantly. In particular, he has seen the players’ athleticism increase dramatically, as athletes become more accomplished at younger ages. But while the quality of their game has improved, he says he’s noticed many athletes aren’t involved with as many sports as they once were. Instead, they now typically focus on one sport.
“You can’t rely on speed as an umpire because the players are just so athletic,” he said. “I have to be very conscious of my footwork and read even more into what’s going on and move into a position to be able to make the right call. Being in a position to make the right call is important. The way I can be in position is by understanding my own physical limitations and adjust accordingly. Maybe I’ve gotten better as an umpire because you have to read the situation.”
‘At the end of the day, it’s a game’
Along with that athleticism, Dr. Marks has also noticed athletes’ confidence and maturity have also increased. He says that 15 years ago, he and the athletes would say hello to each other before a game, but now, he is no longer the one who needs to initiate the greeting.
“They’ll come out and they’ll say hi, introduce themselves, and often we’ll do a fist bump,” he explains. “There’s a greater level of confidence in the athletes I’m seeing, which I think is wonderful. They’re not going to shy away, they’re going to talk to you. During the game, some of them will ask, ‘Where did we miss?’ So, they’re inquiring and wanting to learn.”
The confidence and camaraderie of athletes is something he saw firsthand at the Eastern Regional tournament in Orange, as athletes from opposing teams came together to play kickball and socialize during their downtime. Dr. Marks and his fellow umpires interacted with the players and their families while serving them at a barbecue at the tournament, a tradition in Orange, which has been hosting the tournament for nearly 30 years.
At another recent tournament, Dr. Marks, while wearing his protective gear, was hit with a foul ball. The catcher retrieved the ball, then asked for a brief time. While he was not hurt, he appreciated the catcher’s concern.
“That, to me, shows their understanding, their sense of the game, and their maturity,” he said. “In some senses they’re more mature than their parents. Many of them have a perspective that, at the end of the day, it’s a game.”
“It was probably seven or eight years ago, and an assigner called me and asked me to cover the game at Pace,” he explains. “The good news is that I don’t remember what happened. The better news is no one complained – there was no conflict of interest. I have to keep my distance and be professional, and I was able to do that.”
While umpiring has provided a fun way for Dr. Marks to remain active and to be involved with the sports he enjoys after his injury, he has begun to think about retirement. In the past year, Dr. Marks welcomed his first grandchild, and he and his wife began discussing his eventual retirement from umpiring. But, he believes, he still has more innings ahead of him.
“Because of my physical injury, I’ve had to limit what I can do in sports,” he explains. “Now that I have my first grandchild, I’ve started thinking about how long I’ve been umpiring. Maybe in 2024, after I complete my 50th season, I might consider retiring. But I’m not there yet, and I’m physically fit.”