Wednesday, June 26, 2019

To Umpire Is To Dream

What happens when 100-plus youth baseball umpires get together in one location?

Well, as much fun as it might have been to regale you with Umps Gone Wild tales ... sorry ... it isn't quite as exciting as that.

A hundred-plus colleagues and I recently had the opportunity to umpire a national 12-and-under tournament at Cooperstown Dreams Park, which is located in the central New York town best known as home to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The 165-acre complex includes 22 well-manicured, lighted fields, each enclosed within green walls to form its own little stadium. Here is a shot I snapped from the grass berm outside the main field, which is used for opening and closing ceremonies, the championship game and other big events.

From the CDP website, here is an aerial view of the entire facility.

You'll note the white buildings in the middle of that photo. Those are the "barracks" that housed the teams and the umpires. 

I was in #30B. The outside wall of each barracks featured a replica baseball card of an all-time star who wore the number, in this case Orlando Cepeda.

The barracks included numerous bunk beds and little else -- not exactly glamorous. Each umpire got one full set of bunks, the bottom to sleep on, the top to store his gear and other stuff.

On our first day, Saturday, June 15, we were placed into 5-man crews. Mine was headed by our crew chief, Gary, who has been umpiring at CDP for many years. 

Our crew also had the youngest umpire of the entire week, 19-year-old Kody, as well as 82-year old Ken. 

Age-wise (and experience-wise), Brandon and I were in the middle of those extremes. We spent a lot of time together on and off the field.

Just as teams came from all over the country -- from California to New England and from Florida to Utah -- we umps were from everywhere. Brandon lives in Tennessee, as you might have guessed from his Vols hat.

On that first night, they ran the skills competition, featuring running, throwing, fielding and hitting contests. Our crew worked the "Golden Arm" event, which rewarded points for the accuracy of throws from 125 feet away.

The games started Sunday, June 16, with each team scheduled to play twice over three days.

"Scheduled" is the operative word. Heavy rains moved in Sunday morning, and things got pushed back by several hours. My first game, which had been scheduled for 1 p.m., didn't start until 11:30 p.m. After showering, my head didn't hit the pillow until 2:10 a.m.

Thanks to the composition of the fields, the equipment they use and the dedication of the grounds crew, CDP does an amazing job getting fields ready quickly after rain stops. 

Still, they aren't miracle workers, and Sunday's final two games couldn't be played. So one game was added to each of the next two days' schedules. I worked three on Monday and two on Tuesday.

Here I am on the bases for one of my Tuesday games. 

The above photo (and many others) was taken either by my sister-in-law Sandy or my brother Al. They made the trek from their hometown of Philadelphia to get a little vacation time in a less-hot, picturesque part of New York state. 

Given that coaches and parents aren't always pleased with our calls, it was nice having my very own "umpire groupies"!

One of the popular activities of the week is pin-trading. Each team produced its own pins, and kids from all over the country exchanged pins with each other. Umpires also were given pins to hand out.

Below is the pin of the team from the Matthews Athletic & Recreation Association -- the MARA Cobras -- who sponsored my trip to Cooperstown. The photo also includes the official CDP tournament baseball, as well as our umpire pin.

Each team selects an umpire, usually from its region, to go to Cooperstown Dreams Park. I'd like to thank the MARA Cobras, coached by Chad Bost, for choosing me. (To avoid conflicts of interest, umpires do not work games involving the teams that sponsor them.)

Wednesday, June 19, marked the start of the single-elimination tournament. Here are a few shots of me at the plate in the first game of the day.

Waiting for a pitch

Strike 2!

Recording a lineup change

Here are Sandy and I outside the field after one of my three Wednesday games.

The tournament concluded Thursday, but in general those games were handled by the most experienced umpires. That was fine with me, as I wanted to get going to Easton, Pa., where I was to meet my wife for a few days with friends. 

Before leaving CDP, I picked up my American Youth Baseball Hall of Fame ring. 

And before leaving Cooperstown, I met Al and Sandy for a quick stop at the Hall of Fame. I had been there years ago with my son Ben, but it was nice to check it out again for a couple of hours. 

This time, I took special note of displays involving umpires ...

... and the media.

Being a lifetime Baseball Writers Association of America member, I'm guessing that I was probably the only umpire at this tournament who also has a Hall of Fame vote.

All in all, my week in Cooperstown was an outstanding experience. 

I got to meet a lot of interesting people, work in an amazing facility, and share a love of baseball with both kids and fellow kid-like adults. 

I also took advantage of being surrounded by folks with decades of umpiring knowledge. I like to think I improved at my craft, and it was great getting to know so many others who answer to "Blue" at ballfields all across the country.