By John Valverde
California District 65 Little League® Umpire
I’ll never forget my first year as a Little League® umpire. Unfortunately for me, I started officiating baseball late in my life. I say unfortunate because some 15 years later, I regret not starting back in my 20s. I was in my mid-40s, and was so confident in my knowledge of the game, that I was going to show everybody that I knew what I was doing as an umpire. After all, I’ve played baseball, so I know all the baseball rules…right?
There was one play in particular, during my inaugural season that gave me my epiphany and made me choke on my pride.
In a Little League Minor Division baseball game, with a runner on third, the batter hit a ground ball to the shortstop, who fielded the ball and threw home to get the runner trying to score. I got into position – In hindsight, I have no idea if I was in the correct position for the play – the catcher caught the ball ahead of the runner. The runner then lowered his shoulders and leveled the catcher, dislodging the ball. Runner touched home. No, I had to make the call: The run counts, right? I saw images of Ray Fosse and Pete Rose in my head. Yup, runner scores! “SAFE,” I yelled!
The stands exploded with cheers from the offensive side and outright anger and let’s just say, some “interesting” comments being shouted at me from the defensive side. I learned quickly that I was now, in their eyes, the “worst umpire ever.” The coach from the team on defense came out and was pleading his case that the run cannot count and it should be an out, declaring, “He took out my catcher.” I stood firm for about 10 seconds (but it seemed like an eternity) and decided to ask my young 20-something-year-old base umpire what he thought. I was really hoping he knew what the exact Little League rule was, but when we discussed it, I’ll never forget his words: “I don’t think you can do that, but I am not sure.”
Neither was I.
At that moment, I realized that for all my baseball knowledge, I didn’t know anything about umpiring. Mechanics or game management were not even on my radar screen. It felt like I had 50,000 sets of eyeballs in the stands waiting to see what the final outcome of my call would be. I had no knowledge what was correct, but I changed my call to “Out!” based on nothing more than a gut feeling.
Now, the offensive team explodes in anger with cheers from the defensive team. And in the span of minutes, both sides have made sure that I know that “I’m the worst umpire in the world.”
All I could think was how to finish this game so I could get out of there. I don’t even remember what transpired after I changed my call. Somehow, the game continued and thankfully ended. While in the end, it was correct to change my call, there were no moral victories for me. I felt terrible and heard many shouts of how “horrible” I was.
Following that game, I wasn’t sure how long I would continue to umpire. This was an experience that I have no doubt, all new umpires have gone through. I had to decide if it was worth it to me, knowing the next time out may not be much better. I had choices. I could simply walk away from a game that I have always loved as a player or fan, or suck it up and take the initiative so that something like this would never happen to me again. I chose the latter. I was determined to get better, to persevere. That one game made all the difference for me. I came away with valuable lessons learned that day.
As the years went by, I still made mistakes, but there was a difference. I was beginning to officiate as an umpire should. I was getting better. No one learns the rules overnight, no one learns mechanics or game management overnight. But in time, by putting in the hard work through studying the rules and mechanics books, doing field work, working with mentors, attending clinics, and, last but not least, umpiring in many games, I got better and my confidence soared. I felt like I now belonged.
I’m glad I didn’t throw in the towel after that call at the plate. I love this game, and I love Little League because it is where it all started for me. I’m certainly now on the downside in my umpire “career” and often think about the day when it will be my time to hang up the mask. Little League has given me many of my most memorable umpire moments, some good and some bad, but all important, and I wish I could share them with all who stood by me and supported me through the years. I think they would have been proud to see how I developed as an umpire.
If you have your own umpire stories to tell, please share them with Little League International, by emailing Chris Downs, Director of Constituent Communications, at: cdowns@LittleLeague.org; and identify your submissions by placing “Umpire stories” in the subject line.