Houston & Peach

For the love of the game: Umpires volunteer for Little League

WARNER ROBINS — The Little League all-star had just struck out. He snatched off his batting helmet and was within a step of flinging it toward his dugout. That’s when the first-base ump caught his eye.

Umpire Gary Dorsey flashed the boy an “unh-uh” look and half shouted a “hey!” the way a middle school principal might chide a seventh-grader for cutting in the lunch line. That was all it took. The player held his temper.

The brief exchange played out Wednesday evening at the District 5 all-star tournament, where the umpires, many of them seasoned veterans from the high school and, in a few cases, the college ranks, volunteer their services.

Most of the men in blue — or black or whatever color they and their mates suit up in — say the kid-league games offer baseball at its most wholesome, purest level.

Robbie Guest, a 22-year vet who is the district’s umpire-in-chief, said, “I worked a game the other night and one team was being beaten badly. I’d say the score was in the 20-to-nothing range. And those kids, while they were losing 20 to nothing, were playing the same as they were when the game was 0-0 at the beginning.

“They were just out there having fun without focusing on this big loss that was looming.”

For Guest, an electrical engineer by day, overseeing Little League contests takes a more laid-back approach than calling, say, a college ballgame. Not that the calls are made any differently. It’s just that you won’t see umps in the big-boy games dancing with the mascot the way you might at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. Or you won’t hear an umpire at a semi-pro game praise a player with a “nice throw, kid,” the way you might in youth ball.

At the higher levels, Guest, 38, says an umpire has to take “an extreme, professional approach” and go in knowing full well that “the umpire is the guy that you can yell at.”

“There is no chatting, there is no smiling at fans, there is no swaying your hips to the music between innings,” he said.

“Then you go out to a Little League game, where I’m making the same effort on getting balls and strikes and out and safe right, and I can now hear a kid make a comment and smile. Or I can hear a fan make a jab at me that is a new one that I haven’t heard before and I can tip my hat that that was a good one.”

(A few of Guest’s favorite heckles: “Hey, ump, I think I’ve found your cell phone because it says it’s got three missed calls!” “Flip over the plate and read the instructions!” “It’s a strike zone, not an end zone!”)

Umpire Kyle Chambers says the players in youth ball tend to look up to the umpires and see them more as authority figures than some of the older players might.

“You’re an adult, so they kind of respect you more than the bigger guys. I also coach 15- to 16-year-olds, and it’s a handful to just keep their attitudes in check,” said Chambers, 39, an aircraft worker at Boeing.

Chambers was behind the plate Wednesday night when his cohort on the base paths, Dorsey, gently corrected the player who’d struck out.

Later, Dorsey, 59, a retired telecommunications guy, said, “You have to keep in mind the age of the players. Sometimes you have to remind yourself that they’re 12 years old.”

To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.