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Parents and umpires a combustible mix

You know you're in trouble when the Little League sends you an e-mail about enforcement and zero tolerance. It is a caution against disrespectful behavior. Not from the kids. From the grownups.

In junior's playoff game last week, an umpire reversed a call and the opposing manager's argument ended with his ejection, an interminable delay of the game and much parental criticism aimed at the umpires.

Disagreements with umpires are as old as the game.

In The Old Ball Game, a 2005 look at the turn-of-the-20th Century New York Giants, author Frank Deford's research indicates baseball's beginnings as an intellectual sport turned it into professional amusement for the middle class. Deford's book focuses on Hall of Famer John McGraw, who, as a combative major leaguer, wasn't shy about trying to spike opposing players and umpires alike. Some intellectual.

Fortunately, Little Leaguers and their parents don't wear metal spikes.

I recounted the event for Dan Tipton, ex-mayor of New Port Richey and Republican candidate for Pasco Circuit Court Clerk, who umpires at the West Pasco Little League. He said he's had to toss two coaches and one player during his 36-year career. That's an ejection every 12 years.

Guess it is safe to say it's rare, though Tipton acknowledges some umpires are enamored with their authority and don't mind exercising it. Recently, he said, an umpire tossed a player for retrieving a bottled water from his mother. Thirst is no excuse for leaving the field of play without permission.

Tipton once ejected the manager of a girl's softball team for obnoxious behavior and verbal abuse even though Tipton's own 10-year-old daughter was on the team.

One the ride home, Tipton's wife asked their daughter, Melissa, what she thought about her dad throwing her coach out of the game.

"A man's got to do what a man's got to do,'' came the wisdom from Melissa, who 19 years later is the girl's softball coach at Wesley Chapel High.

On infrequent occasions, I have volunteered to umpire one of the offspring's baseball games. I drew the chore again earlier this pre-season. I always inform the coaches, I have a big strike zone so tell the kids to swing the bat.

On this evening, a mom on the opposing team didn't like the balls and strikes called from my position behind the pitcher's mound. She did not hesitate to verbalize her disdain even though the game was a meaningless scrimmage.

At the evening's end, another parent approached and volunteered that after listening to the woman's consistent complaints, he had positioned himself directly behind the backstop to watch the strike zone.

"You were right every time,'' he said, "and that (woman's heckling) is the reason why people don't volunteer.''

My own son didn't comment on my umpiring. I was most appreciative.

The mother of an acquaintance tells the story about the youthful competitiveness of her now-adult daughter. As a fast-pitch softball player, she became aggravated by the plate umpire's calls of balls and strikes. She conferred with her catcher and told her to let the next pitch go by. She aimed to hit the umpire.

The recollections differ at this point. Mother says daughter hit the umpire in the knee. Adult daughter says, no, she missed him.

That family members would disagree about what went on at a softball game is not new. The targeted umpire, whose view of the strike zone had so irritated the pitcher, was the girl's own father.

My own criticisms of umpiring/refereeing are tempered by my experiences calling baseball games and the elder offspring's venture into being a paid soccer referee, a chore he's been doing now for four years.

When he returned home from serving as a sideline referee at his first competitive, postseason tournament he remarked about the educational experience. The then-11-year-old told us he had learned a lot of new swear words from the parents.

"Parents,'' said Tipton, "think they should be able to say anything they want.''

Sadly, so do some youngsters. Tipton said the West Pasco Little League expelled three players last year and another this season for their behavior or profane language.

I detailed my initial (and unpleasant) foray into Little League umpiring more than a half-dozen years ago. The response to that column included a nice hand-written note from a west Pasco reader whose brother, it turned out, had been a Major League umpire.

Said brother's baseball-related career allowed him cross-country travel and, at one point, he was able to meet Terence Cardinal Cook, archbishop of the Diocese of New York for 25 years ending in 1983.

The umpire was destined for eternal salvation in heaven, the cardinal assured him, because his chosen profession meant he had served his Hell on Earth.

Parents and umpires a combustible mix 05/24/08 [Last modified: Thursday, May 29, 2008 3:07pm]
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