Sunday, December 17, 2017

Local umpire Mike McCullough makes the cut for Little League World Series

ST. PETERSBURG — Mike McCullough wasn't much of a baseball player growing up in St. Petersburg. He went to Bishop Barry (now St. Petersburg Catholic) and Eckerd College before settling into his job as postmaster in Ruskin.

When his son, Justin, was 7, McCullough signed him up for T-ball at Northwest Little League. The next season, when players started to pitch, the league was looking for volunteers to umpire games.

"I went out to a game and there were no umpires," McCullough said. "I've criticized a lot of umpires and they said, 'Hey, you think you know everything, why don't you get your butt out here and do it?' So I did."

That was 1988. McCullough, 65, has been a volunteer umpire for local Little Leagues ever since.

He has umpired thousands of games at Little League fields throughout Pinellas County. Next week, McCullough will be one of only 16 umpires invited to call games at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.

Getting there was not easy.

McCullough had to slowly build his resume. He worked his way up from doing district tournament games, to sectionals to state championships. In 2006, he qualified to umpire games as the Southeast Regional, then held in Gulfport.

He got closer to the ultimate goal when he did an intermediate regional game in 2014 and a Junior League regional in 2015.

Then, last October, McCullough spent a week at the Southeast Regional site in Warner Robins, Ga., for an umpire clinic. That got him noticed by Little League officials. In December, he received his official letter informing him that he was selected for the World Series.

He will fly out on Tuesday morning and return home the following Monday.

"As volunteers, we don't get paid, but going to Williamsport is the ultimate payment," said McCullough, who has to pay for his own travel but does get lodging from Little League. "I tell people that I work for peanuts. When I'm done with a game I get a bag of peanuts and a Diet Coke and walk off."

McCullough, the only umpire from Florida, is one of three from the Southeast Region. He is guaranteed to call at least six games since Little League World Series games use six-person umpire crews.

Little League officials do not determine which umpires do the final and semifinals until after pool play. The only way McCullough would definitely be eliminated from a semifinal or final is if the game involves the team from the Southeast region.

While getting to Williamsport is the ultimate goal for a team or umpire, McCullough said it will not be the end of the road. He plans to umpire for as long as he can.

Next year will be his 30th as a volunteer. He mainly does games at Pinellas Park National Little League. And through those years he said he's gotten over his fear of being behind the plate.

"At first, getting behind the plate scared me to death," he said. "I didn't want to do it. But I gave it a shot. It's the best seat in the house. You see everything coming. Once you do it and get comfortable, you want to keep doing the plate."

And he's also gotten over being questioned. In fact, sometimes he has some fun with it.

"Just last year there was a grandfather that I had never seen before," he said. "Every pitch he would say, 'You're missing a good game, Blue.' He kept saying it over and over. In the third inning there was a low pitch, and it was low. I popped the kid out. He says, 'Missing a good game, Blue.'

"So I walked over and said, 'You know, sir, I have no problem with you making comments. But you're boring. You're redundant. That last pitch, I would've said something like, 'You better put a helmet on those worms.' Or 'I've seen better eyes on a potato.' There are so many different lines you could use. Would you try to be more creative?

"He looked at me and burst out laughing. We were good after that."

He's not likely to hear those kind of remarks in Williamsport. He plans on soaking up all he can before returning home. Then he'll take the winter off before breaking out the gear for another season.

"This has never been a job," he said. Some guys weightlift, or some do woodwork. Little League is my hobby. I don't want to change that. I want to do this until I can't see straight."

Contact Rodney Page at [email protected] Follow @RodneyHomeTeam.

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