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Making the Calls

As the room began to fill, the noise level increased incrementally. Soon the conversations taking place all across the room melted into one big buzz as the ‘war stories’ of the games they had officiated elicited smiles, laughter and an occasional contradiction to what was being discussed.

The occasion was the annual end-of-the-year gathering of the Lycoming Chapter of PIAA baseball and softball umpires. The collective group had just completed another regular season and were gearing themselves for the district playoffs. During my 40-plus years of baseball coaching, this would have been a very strange place for me to be. Now, as a second-year baseball umpire, the ‘fish-out-of-water’ description may not exactly fit but hearing all the conversations from the ‘men in blue’s’ side of the story continued to provide an informative parallel to what I’ve spent most of my life doing.

Coaches and umpires sometimes can equate to dogs and cats. They both recognize each other’s existence, but what makes their motors run is not always understood or appreciated by the other. Over the years, I’ve attended coaches meetings where game officials’ actions were hot topics of conversation, and the vice-versa is also quite prevalent.

Annually, the Lycoming Baseball Chapter recognizes an area coach with a ‘Sportsmanship Award.’ This year’s recipient was St. John Neumann Regional Academy’s Corey Burkholder. In presenting the award chapter, president Frank Gardiner asked Burkholder for his game assessment of umpire’s performance. The Sportsmanship winning coach showed he is also a diplomat with an answer expressing his appreciation of the umpires without engaging in an evaluation dialogue.

Oh, co-existence. Even dogs and cats sometimes show the same consideration.

The truth is the game could not be played without the presence of the other. My long involvement with the game has seen a long line of umpire-related stories. Let me share a few of my favorites.

During my tenure as a manager in South Williamsport’s Little Mountaineer Little League the availability of umpires was sometimes a problem. On one particular Saturday, our team was scheduled to play an afternoon make-up game. As the game approached, there were no umpires in sight. The other manager and I got together to see if we could come up with a solution. We agreed we each should find a parent or fan willing to help out.

One of my players eagerly said, “My Dad will do it,” and ran off to get him. The father was not nearly as excited as his son but agreed to do the bases so the game could be played.
Our team occupied the first base dugout. During the top of the first inning, there were two ground balls hit to our infielders who made the throws to first base each time clearly beating the arrival of the runner. In both instances, the reluctant umpire ruled safe. Hey, this was one of my player’s father and judgment calls to boot. I stewed but remained silent.
At the end of the inning, the father/umpire came to me apologizing for the calls. “Coach,” he said, “I’m sorry. I thought the first baseman had to tag the runners!”

On another occasion, I was attending a Saturday morning minor league game at another league’s field where again no umpires were present. Two gentlemen were coaxed from the stands so the game could be played. One overly critical spectator continually complained about the home plate umpire’s calls.

After a couple of innings of abuse, the umpire had enough. He dropped his mask and walked over to the fence line where the loud fan was standing. He took his ball and strike indicator and deposited it into the man’s coffee cup stating. “Here you go, pal. Hope you can do a better job,” and walked off.

In 2004 I was invited to play the role of a Little League Baseball World Series umpire during the filming of the movie “Mickey,” which was shot in part at LLB’s Lamade Stadium. The movie starred Harry Connick Jr. and was written by John Grisham.

When it came time for the ‘umpires’ to take the field prior to the shooting of a particular scene, I was assigned to be the second base umpire. As we awaited further instructions, one of the film crew’s producers walked across the field to where I was positioned and asked, “Where is the centerfield umpire?” I thought he was kidding and began to laugh. He was serious, and it took some explanation from an LLB official to convince him there was no need for a centerfield umpire.

Most are familiar with the old saying, “Don’t judge others until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” Keep that in mind the next time an umpire’s call doesn’t go the way your eyes saw same.
In closing, I’d like to send out best wishes and appreciation to Paul Novak, a long time umpire who has announced his retirement. Novak served the Lycoming Chapter with distinction as rules interpreter helping to clarify rules and upgrade the umpire profession. He will be missed.

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