Turbitt, Kook diamond pioneers with masks

 Lisa Turbitt (Milton, Ont.) rings up a runner on a close play at the plate.  

Lisa Turbitt (Milton, Ont.) rings up a runner on a close play at the plate.  

Two Canadian women break barriers for female umpires
By Scott Langdon

Shanna Kook and Lisa Turbitt are baseball umpires, not female umpires.  It’s a message for youngsters they’re both proud to send across Canada.

Kook, 34, is the only Canadian woman to umpire in professional baseball. She spent two years working in the Pioneer League in minor league ball. Turbitt, 46, recently became the first woman appointed to the World Baseball Softball Confederation Baseball Umpiring Commission and will be Umpire Director at the Women’s World Cup in Korea later this year. She has umpired 16 national and international championship tournaments.

Turbitt accidentally started umpiring amateur baseball at the age of 11 when umpires failed to show for a game in her hometown of Burlington, Ont. Being female was the main obstacle when she started, but no longer, she says.

“The hardest part, as a kid, was getting people to judge you as an umpire, not a female umpire. You do it by doing a good job. Shanna and I have broken a lot of barriers, but an umpire should be quiet and humble off the field.  It’s not about us. It’s about the game,” she said.

Kook started umpiring on Toronto sandlots when she was 14 years old. It wasn’t always easy.

“I did meet some resistance even though I had earned the required certifications from Baseball Ontario at the time.  I just started showing up at ballparks with my equipment and eventually some umpires didn’t show up and I got my chance. I did a senior boys’ doubleheader by myself,” she explained.

The late, great, legendary Nikki Ross, another accomplished umpire, took Kook under her wing as a youngster, encouraging her to attend umpiring clinics.

“Back then, there were umpiring clinics for women only. It was great to see the range in age and experience of the other women and to hear their stories. I realized I wasn’t alone and that umpiring is a close knit community,” she said.

Baseball Canada and its provincial affiliates offer umpire training programs for all levels. But Turbitt, a Master Course Conductor for Baseball Canada, says the Ontario women-only clinics are a thing of the past. 

“We have moved past the uniqueness of female umpires.  All of our clinics are mixed and have been for some time,” she said.

Not all amateur umpires will scale the heights Kook and Turbitt have reached, but there are many opportunities and benefits. Both women encourage youngsters who have a passion for baseball to give it a try.

Requirements, training opportunities and pay scales vary across the country for amateur umpires. Typically, there are five levels of certification ranging from entry level one for house league play up to Pee Wee rep games  to level five, which is by invitation only and allows umpiring in international baseball. A level one umpire in Ontario can earn up to $25 per game. Kook says it is a good part-time job.

“I remember how much fun it was to umpire in tournaments. You could do four or five games a day and the pay seemed a lot back then,” she said.

Both women say there are important life skills and self-awareness benefits that result from amateur umpiring.

“The age of 12 is a good starting point to umpire, but it really depends on when a person is ready because it’s a job. Young umpires learn a lot about themselves as well as life skills such as conflict resolution, leadership, teamwork and communication,” Turbitt said.

“Self-regulation is one of the main things I learned. You understand how to evaluate yourself and your performance on the field and not let outside influences be your gauge. You learn not to put limits on yourself and that’s a really good thing later in life.”

Kook agrees. “Kids should enjoy umpiring and pursue it as long as they can. Don’t regret any moment. You don’t want to end up years later wishing you had done something when it’s too late,” she concluded.

Turbitt, a teacher at Chris Hadfield Public School in Milton, west of Toronto, says the Canadian astronaut’s legacy is a reminder that “We should learn not to limit ourselves because anything is possible.”

Kook, an anti-money laundering fraud investigator for one of Canada’s largest banks, believes “Rewards come from your passion. Find what you enjoy, what you’re passionate about.  My umpiring hobby turned into a professional job.”

Ontario has about 5000 certified amateur umpires and Turbitt estimates 80 to 100 of them, or about two per cent, are female during any given year. Visit the Baseball Canada web site (www.baseball.ca) or contact your local baseball association or provincial governing body to learn more about umpiring.