GREELEY — After serving a little more than 22 years in the U.S. Army, Paul Moser is swapping one uniform for another. Thursday evening, he stood behind home plate in his latest attire: a light blue polo shirt, black pants, tennis shoes and a ball cap.

In the middle of the first two innings of a youth baseball game, Moser joked with his fellow umpire. It was only Moser’s eighth game on the job, but he already knew to be aware of rogue balls flying in from the outfield while the pitcher takes his warmup tosses — a lesson he learned a few days prior when he was pegged on the side of head before the start of a game.

“First base guy gets it, throws it down … I go past him at that point, thinking we’re clear, didn’t look in the outfield. I got to my spot at about 15 feet out, turned around, (popping sound)!” Moser laughed, demonstrating the incident.

Moser, a 42-year-old Army veteran, was glad being a ball magnet was the height of his concern. Unlike many youth sports officials around the country, Moser hasn’t yet dealt with combative behavior from parents and coaches while umpiring. Jokes come easy about thatparent — the one who causes a scene by berating or threatening an umpire — but the problem is legitimate. And it’s causing the number of youth sports officials across the country to decrease.

Triple Crown Sports, a Fort Collins-based company which manages roughly 300 youth sporting events around the U.S., has felt the impact of a dwindling number of sports officials. In an attempt to combat the issue and give back to communities, it launched the “Protect The Game” initiative in April; the program provides free training, uniforms and equipment to military veterans in order to help them become youth sports officials.

Moser is one of three veterans who participated in Protect The Game’s first training session, which took place across three nights in April and consisted of classroom time and practice calling balls and strikes with live pitching.

Jordan Cohen, the executive director of Protect The Game, said veterans are the ideal group to help fill the officiating void for a variety of reasons.

“Being able to deal with people, dealing with tough situations, thicker skin — really being able to handle that part of it,” Cohen explained.

“When we do our national tournament in Arizona in March, we were short officials,” Cohen added. “… I brought 30 guys in from all over the country to help out and we were still shorthanded at that point in time. It’s the worst I’ve seen it, by far. And I don’t know if it’s going to get better. The younger generation doesn’t really — they don’t want to do it. They don’t want to officiate, mainly because of the parent situation and how they’re treated and the cost of getting started.”

A 2017 study conducted by the National Association of Sports Officials, which represents youth, amateur, college and professional sports, found that 47.94 percent of the 12,889 male officials surveyed reported they “have felt unsafe or feared for their safety because of administrator, coach, player, or spectator behavior.” Of the 1,113 female officials, 44.74 percent say they’ve felt the same way.

Paul Moser watches the play unfold ...
Kelsey Brunner, The Denver Post

Paul Moser watches the play unfold during a youth league baseball game in Greeley, Colorado on Thursday, June 13, 2019.

While Protect The Game was designed to help veterans integrate back into civilian life, for Moser, umpiring is simply another pastime. He describes his transition back to the real world as “scary, but in a good way.” His father also served in the Army, retiring when Moser was 15, so the military lifestyle was all he’d ever known.

“I didn’t know what to expect with just about anything — finding a job, how to deal with medical insurance,” he said. “I mean, the list goes on and on. It takes some time getting used to that life on the outside.”

When Moser retired from the military last summer, he got a full-time job as a security officer for Banner Health. He knew he wanted to work in the medical field, and in January he enrolled at Front Range Community College to earn his EMT certification, which he completed two weeks ago.

But when he received an email with information about Protect The Game, he couldn’t resist the opportunity.

“I needed a hobby. I’ve never been able to find a hobby,” Moser said. “I just love baseball, and I thought, ‘Hey, this is a good opportunity. I can do it on my own schedule to a point. I don’t have to do this full-time.’”

Now, a little over two months removed from his first day of training, Moser has umpired nine youth baseball games. He sees it as a win-win: Getting to spend time doing something he enjoys, and helping his community fill the need of youth sports officials.

“I’ve talked to them, and they all seem to really enjoy what they’re doing,” Cohen said of the three veterans who’ve completed the program. “… They really seem interested in it. It’s getting them out in the public, being active, and basically finding something they like to do.”

And lucky for Moser, he hasn’t had to channel his military instincts to deescalate any situations with hostile parents or coaches.

“So far I haven’t had any parents calling me any four-letter words or anything crazy like that,” Moser said. “It’s still very enjoyable. I can’t complain.”

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