You received the plum assignment, playoff game or bowl game you’ve always wanted. If your group has a scoring system, perhaps you graded out first at your position. You’re finally one of the best officials at your level. Congratulations! A lot of folks will never be able to say that.
Whether the topic is players, coaches or officials, there are several ways to go once you get to the pinnacle, whatever that is in the sport and at the level you’re working. You can become so impressed with your accomplishment that you begin thinking (and worse, acting) like you think you’re better than everyone else. Or you can become complacent, as if your mindset is that having gotten to the top, you can now afford to coast. Or, you can continue to do the big — and, even more important sometimes, little — things that got you there in the first place.
I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to have achieved some pinnacles. I’ve always known deep down inside that there are a lot of officials as capable as I am, and probably quite a few who are fundamentally better in many respects, but just never got the break they needed. My entire career has been break on top of break on top of break.
My good friend is also from Austin. He got his first CWS assignment in 1978, and while I was genuinely glad for him I also thought that it would probably be an eternity before the powers that-be picked an Austinite again, so there went my chances to go to Omaha. Fortunately, I didn’t let my chin drag but instead kept plowing ahead and, sure enough, the lightning bolt hit me the very next year when I got picked for the CWS. How easy would it have been for me to slack off given my rock-solid belief that with Randy’s selection, my Omaha chances had gone down the tubes?
I thought another group of people might react by watching my work more closely than before because they would now see me as a role model to emulate in the hope that they might get better — or just lucky — and that might get them to the pinnacle as well.
I hope that doesn’t sound cocky because I don’t mean it that way — I just think it’s true that a lot of aspiring officials watch the successful ones in the college and pro ranks and then try to add a lot of what those folks do to their own repertoire.
At the other end of the spectrum, I figured there would be those who would be just plain jealous or, worse, tell everyone within earshot that I’m really a pretty crappy umpire who managed to kiss his way to the top. I knew I could count on them to watch me like a hawk in the hope that I would screw something up along the way. Then they could laugh and say, “It figures — he never was that good to begin with!” Funny how if you’re jealous of others, their failings can somehow make us feel good.
The bottom line was that I suspected that, for whatever reason, I would be watched more closely in the future. I also knew I was ambitious, and young enough that I wanted to get to the top again — and again and again. Finally, I had enough pride in my work that I knew I couldn’t afford to get complacent. All of that added up to the decision to, borrowing a former supervisor’s phrase, keep on chopping wood.
Last spring I observed a conference baseball series at the University of Texas. Two members of the four-man crew were veteran umpires with many CWS appearances behind them — and, no doubt, more to come. Because I don’t want to embarrass anyone by using their real names, I’ll call them Jack and Pete. They put on a clinic as far as what to do once you reach the top is concerned.
Both went to the NCAA clinics, as they do every year. Yes, you have to do so to be eligible for postseason work, but they also go because they know that even this far along, they might learn something new.
Both scored at the top on the NCAA rules exam.
Both keep themselves in excellent physical condition, with 60-year-old Pete telling me that he runs two to three miles every day.
Both treated their two crewmates — young’uns by their standards — with courtesy, respect and friendliness. No big-timing.
Both bounced around and hustled all over the field throughout the series — no dogging it.
Both turned in outstanding plate jobs, with Pete’s going almost four hours, with terrible pitching, and him never losing his focus, getting lazy or complaining. After he got whacked solidly on the elbow by a deflected pitch, and almost went down in a heap, I saw him laughing with the catcher once he regained his senses. No bellyaching or whining, as easily could have been the case.
What officials shouldn’t do, once they’ve “arrived,” is throw their weight around. Don’t become the one who always demands air time at chapter meetings because your opinion on everything is suddenly golden. Don’t run over younger officials on or off the field. Don’t be the one whose implicit message in virtually every comment is that everyone else should do things your way because it’s obviously best, or you wouldn’t have gotten where you are.
Years ago I umpired a college game with a then-new official who has since been to Omaha several times. There were no lights and darkness was rapidly approaching, and I thought we should have told the coaches at the beginning of the eighth inning that this was it, but he was the plate umpire and I didn’t want to come across like a dictator, so I kept my mouth shut. We progressed to the bottom of the ninth, when an outfielder lost a ball in an almost-black setting. Three runs scored, and the home team won a game it should have lost. Driving back to Austin, this guy berated me up one side and down the other. He said he needed help in deciding whether to shut the game down earlier and I didn’t give it to him.
The reason I didn’t was that I didn’t want to come across as the know-it-all. In hindsight, I should have struck a happy medium by getting together with him at the end of the sixth inning and asked — not told him — how he felt about going one more inning and then telling the coaches that the eighth inning was going to be it, regardless of what happened. If he agreed, which I’m sure he would have, everyone would have been happy. The bottom line is that when you get to the top, younger umpires will usually look to you for guidance, but wait to be asked instead of imposing your will. Same thing with postgame critiques. If someone asks me what I thought of their performance, I’ll tell them, but generally I don’t offer unsolicited advice.
The attitude of all top-notch officials I know is that pinnacles are great but, in the end, to use a trite phrase, you’re only as good as your next call. If you eschew the little things that got us there in the first place — endless rules, mechanics and philosophy study, both in season and out; conditioning; video study; hustle and aggressiveness on the field; good appearance and field presence; good rapport with colleagues; solid game awareness and management; the attitude that no matter how good you are, you can always get better; and, finally, the sobering realization that you’re potentially only one truly messed up call away from seeing your career go down the drain — you are not likely to stay there.
Now that I’m off the field in baseball and football and in the replay booth in football, I can look back and see many things I wish I had done differently. But one thing I’m proud of is that I never let any of my successes prevent me from approaching the task at hand almost as if I was a “newbie.” Even after 45 years I still put in tons of hours in rules and video study, daily conditioning is part of my routine, and so on. A great deal of that is the product of having enough pride to always want to give it my best, but some involves the fear factor — the realization that if I don’t “dance with what brung me,” to use a Texas expression, I could end up at the bottom of the heap a heckuva lot quicker than I got to the top.
NFL player Johnny Manziel is a textbook example of a player not taking care of business once he got to the top of his game, and now he’s paying the price. Fortunately, for every Manziel there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Petes and Jacks who know that fame can be fleeting and that no matter how good an official they are, they can always improve.
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