Originally Published: April 17, 2012 11:58 p.m.
PRESCOTT - I've been a full-time sports writer off and on for the past 15 years, and not once has a local Little League umpire approached someone like me to officiate a baseball game - at least not until I received an email out of the blue several weeks ago at work.
The correspondence came indirectly via Courier Sports Editor Peter Marx from Jeff Cook (no relation) - the Arizona District 10 Little League umpire in chief who asked if one of us on the newspaper's Sports staff would be interested in completing a short umpire training course in late March, follow it up by officiating a real game on Prescott Little League's opening day, and then write a first-person account about the experience.
Since I am charged with penning many of the local stories on the Courier sports desk, naturally this was something headed in my direction.
I accepted the assignment with enthusiasm, but I'll be honest: Initially, I was scared to death. Not once had I officiated a sport of any kind in my 38 years on this planet.
In journalism school, one is trained how to cover events and report on them with accuracy, clear and concise language and, hopefully, a bit of flair.
Instead of being in the stands or on the sidelines, here I found myself thrust into the action, similar to the role of a judge in a courtroom. Not my cup of tea.
And yet on Tuesday night at Lower Bill Vallely Field - some three weeks after completing two Little League rules sessions and a full day of on-the-field training with about 40 other adults and teens in Prescott Valley - I made my debut as a plate umpire.
Jeff Cook helped me round up all of the personal gear required of an ump, and he officiated the game out in the field alongside this near nervous wreck of a man. (Kids more than half my age umpire Little League and do it well, but I still couldn't shake the nerves.)
In a late-afternoon contest pitting Prescott True Value versus Prescott Orthodontics, I would be calling the balls and strikes while making sure runners were properly crossing third base and home plate.
For those of you who think it's "cake" to be an umpire, it's my humble opinion that you've probably never put on the blue (or black, in my case) uniform and given it a real shot.
It's entirely too easy to sit in the stands and critique officials. Heaven knows I've said some things under my breath through the years at basketball, baseball and football games wondering where an umpire or referee was coming from with a call.
And that's why I'm glad I agreed to do this.
I have a newfound respect for veteran Little League and high school officials who do not get paid very well to drive all over this huge state of ours for games they have no stake in, occasionally sustain hurtful verbal digs from fans, and keep coming back for more year after year.
In my book, there's really only one reason to officiate: You truly love the game and/or you want to see it prosper.
While my experience was enjoyable on Tuesday, I could feel an underlying pressure to make the "right" call and not "blow it."
I'm thankful that Jeff Cook was patient with me. After all, as a green ump, I was getting frustrated with myself. In between innings, he would casually walk over to me along the first base line and give me a few pointers. I listened and hoped to do better the next time.
Despite the quality training I had received from Jeff and a few other great umps in March, I found myself inadvertently making some mistakes in the heat of the moment.
Occasionally, only a second or two after I had made what seemed to be a hastily called strike or ball, would my brain catch up and remind me what I had been taught: Take a deep breath. Slow down. Don't move your head and keep your eyes on the ball. Focus. Concentrate.
No matter how simple it seems, keeping track of the count on every batter in a seven-inning game is difficult because of the distractions one has to force himself to tune out.
The hand-held clicker Jeff gave me for tallying balls, strikes and outs was a huge help, but every once in a while there would be a foul tip or a check swing and I'd have to train myself not to forget to move the dial with my left thumb while making the call with my right arm.
In between innings, as I pulled the protective mask off my face to wipe the sweat from my cheek, I realized just how tiring it is to be a plate umpire.
Not until shortly after the game ended and Jeff and I had strolled to the snack bar behind home plate to get a free hot dog and soda pop from the amiable concessionaire was I able to heave a sigh of relief.
I was indeed feeling beat, dripping with perspiration under my uniform. But at the same time, I was proud that I had pulled through an entire game as an umpire. I tried my best to get every call right, even if that wasn't apparent to every onlooker.
One of the main lessons I learned from this umpiring experience is that if you really want to try something new, do not be afraid.
It's your life, roll the dice, and let the chips fall where they may.
As long as you work hard at something, remain self-confident and give it your best shot, it's important not to pay attention to the naysayers out there.
They're not the ones putting their behinds on the line. You are.
I may not have rocked a home run to deep center field as an umpire Tuesday night, but I'd like to think I at least managed a base hit to shallow right.
For the guys who do this job day in and day out to the best of their ability, such as Jeff Cook, they deserve a standing ovation.
The next time I cover a game, I'll be thinking of you guys - and remembering how much I respect what you do for youth sports in this community.
Now let's play ball!