The year 2020 was, well, not a great one for many people.
But at least Kelly Elliott Dine had wonderful memories of 2019 to comfort her and fuel her dreams for the future.
“2019 was an incredible year for me,” said the Akron, Ohio, resident, whose star is rising in the umpiring world faster than a 100-mile-an-hour heater. “Not only did I work my first-ever NCAA Division I baseball game, I worked the Little League Baseball World Series. How blessed I am. Both of those were at the top of my goal list.
“But once you achieve some of your goals, it’s time to write more. And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. I’ve never believed that there’s a limit or a peak at which you can’t go any further. You can always find a new goal to set, in every facet of life.”
Elliott Dine failed to mention that she became only the second woman to umpire behind the plate in the championship game of the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., an honor that Tom Rawlings, director of umpire development for Little League International, said was well deserved.
“When we rate the umpires at the Little League World Series, at the end of the day we take those that we feel were the six best leading up to the championship game and put them on the field for the final. All of us had Kelly number one on the list. She was rock solid in the championship game. There wasn’t anything during six innings that I would have questioned.”
Elliott Dine called her LLWS experience “the honor of a lifetime.” She recalled, “I can still feel the awe of walking out on the Lamade field (Howard J. Lamade Stadium) for my first plate game. Over 24,000 people in attendance. The skill of the players was incredible. The game happens at warp speed at that level … fastballs from just 46 feet away, whackers at first base that seem to happen in thousandths of a second after the crack of the bat.
“I was so excited for the kids. I couldn’t stop grinning. But I kept reminding myself that I was there to do a job, to focus and give it my best. It was over way too soon.”
She thought back to the last out of the game between Curaçao and Louisiana. The Curaçao batter fouled off 10 pitches and then lined a drive at the Louisiana shortstop, who caught the ball for the last out of the contest.
“It happened so fast,” she said. “Then the craziest level of noise and celebration. What an incredible experience.”
Elliott Dine also called working her first D-I baseball game in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference in 2019 “an amazing feeling, to accomplish that goal, and then begin to set new ones.” She was scheduled for two D-I nonconference games in 2020 (one in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the other in the Horizon League) before the pandemic put things on hold.
“I am hungry for the challenge of continued advancement, but I know that this takes time and lots and lots of continued hard work,” she said. “I am grateful for every opportunity that I have to work, whether it be a youth game or a college game.”
After attending Fairview High School in Erie, Pa., Elliott Dine attended the U.S. Naval Academy from 1987-89 before transferring to and graduating from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., in 1991 with a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Selected for the first-ever ROTC scholarship for the Navy Nurse Corps in 1989, she was commissioned an ensign in 1991 upon graduation.
Honorably discharged as a lieutenant commander, she then earned an RN license in 1991 and graduated from the University of Akron with a master’s degree in education in 2016, which led to a career change to teaching. She is presently employed as a PLTW Biomedical Science teacher at North High School (NHS) with the Akron, Ohio, public school system. NHS is a 100 percent high-need, urban school; nearly half of its 900 students are refugees from throughout the world (20 different nations), making it the most diverse high school in the state.
Elliott Dine was a superb athlete in high school and college. In high school, she earned All-America honors in the breaststroke and was heavily recruited by a number of D-I colleges. But duty called. “I had also been recruited by the U.S. Naval Academy,” she said. “When I earned my appointment to the academy by Sen. John Heinz, the stage was set. I became a midshipman in the summer of 1987.”
She threw the javelin at the Naval Academy and set the record for the female javelin throw there and later, at Catholic University. After graduating from Catholic and getting commissioned in the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps, she earned an invitation to compete for the U.S. Navy Track and Field team, and was given temporary active duty to the team in 1991. Unfortunately, she ruptured her ACL during a practice throw, ending her career as a competitor.
Elliott Dine credits her husband, Jeff, and three sons, Steven, 23, Alex, 21, and Aiden, 15, for being supportive of her various undertakings. “There is no way I could have pursued this (umpiring) passion and achieved what I have without (their) love and support,” she said. “I’ve missed many of my sons’ games to work my own. My family is simply incredible.”
Elliott Dine is an ardent volunteer, which takes up much of her free time. “Jeff and Aiden and I are all longtime advocates for the American Diabetes Association (Aiden was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at 15 months old). I also enjoy volunteering for Little League of course, in any way I can. I’ve volunteered as an umpire for 11 years now, but I’ve also volunteered as a tournament assistant and coach for many years.”
She is part of a small group of female umpires that includes Janet Thomas, Ila Valcarcel and Liz Hammerschmidt who work with Jim Kirk, owner of Ump-Attire.com, to advocate for female umpire safety gear and uniforms. “It’s hard enough for all of us to do the job we do. But when umpires have to take the field without proper-fitting safety equipment or well-fitting uniforms, it makes our job even more difficult,” she said. “I’m also greatly looking forward to a new role in working with the Wounded Warrior Umpire Academy. Their mission is to provide instruction, training, placement and peer-to-peer support for military veterans interested in baseball.”
Kelly’s dad, the late Tom Elliott, passed along his love of baseball to his energetic daughter at a young age. That eventually led to her coming home one day and telling her husband she wanted to coach baseball. Between the couple’s two oldest boys, her teams won four different Little League championships over the years. And that led to umpiring.
“One bright Saturday, my son and I were walking home from baseball practice (we live just down the street from the baseball park),” she said. “I looked over and saw two Little League teams ready to play a game, but no umpire in sight. I went over to the field and offered to officiate. I donned some rusty old gear out of the lockbox, put a balloon chest protector in my hand and started the game. I’m sure I was awful. I distinctly remember a batted ball had landed on home plate. As the catcher picked it up to throw out the runner, I came up big and loud: ‘Foul!’ I didn’t know that I was totally incorrect, but I do remember that I absolutely sold it.
“After the game, a friend came up to me. He said, ‘Kelly, you know that was a fair ball, right?’ I turned about five shades of red, but from then on, I was hooked. I knew I wanted to umpire.”
She met a man she calls “her first mentor,” Dale West of Barberton, Ohio, at a Little League game. “I remember that he didn’t miss a beat when I told him I wanted to be an umpire. He just grinned and looked at me and said, ‘Sure! When do you want to start?’ He didn’t give a hoot if I was a man or woman. And neither did the other small core of District 3 Little League umpires. They just brought me into the fold and started teaching me how to umpire.”
She loved umpiring so much she decided to try her hand at softball as well. Her first Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) umpire certification was in that sport in 2010. Then just a year later, she earned her OHSAA baseball certification and attended the 2011 Little League Central Region week-long umpire school that April, where she met mentors Jason Kelley and Greg Ramos.
Elliott Dine moved through the softball umpiring ranks quickly. She worked her first OHSAA state tournament in 2014 and then again in 2016. She also worked ASA/USA Softball tournaments and attended the ASA/USA Softball National Umpire School. She moved up to the college level, working some D-III games. To keep her hand in baseball, she continued volunteering to work Little League games, including postseason games, and was selected to officiate the 2013 Little League Baseball Regional in Indianapolis, where she earned a recommendation to work the Little League Baseball World Series.
“It wasn’t until a 2014 clinic that I got ‘noticed’ by (assigner) Larnie Martin. He heard how much I wanted to work baseball, and he assigned me to every local summer baseball tournament that I could work in 2014 and 2015,” she said.
Then came some tough news. In the late fall of 2015, Jeff Dine was diagnosed with cancer at age 47. Doctors discovered a softball-sized tumor on his left sacrum. Three months later in January 2016, he underwent a grueling 28-hour surgery to remove the tumor and rebuild his lower back.
That year, Elliott Dine worked another full season of high school softball, including her second state tournament, and worked as many baseball tournaments as she could in the summer. “One evening, my husband and I sat talking about the future. I decided right then that I really wanted to commit to working just baseball,” she said. “Jeff’s recovery made us both re-examine all of our priorities.”
Unfortunately, Jeff’s cancer metastasized about 18 months after his initial surgery in January 2016. In the past five years he’s had close to four years of chemotherapy and three rounds of radiation. “His cancer is terminal,” Elliot Dine said. “But because there’s so little data, doctors won’t place a timeframe on survival for him. He’s weary, fatigued a lot of the time. He deals with more pain than anyone I know. Yet he never complains.”
Aiden’s diabetes is also a concern. “We religiously keep our appointments every three months, and we and Aiden are as strict as possible with his diabetes, his activity, his diet, etc.,” Elliott Dine said.
As if this isn’t enough to deal with for one family, their son Steven deals with Primary Variable Immune Deficiency. His immune system doesn’t make antibodies to battle illness as it should. “Every four weeks, he sticks a bunch of needles in his stomach and receives huge amounts of fluid: antibody infusions,” Elliott Dine said. “Stephen has had to undergo multiple surgeries for a variety of complications. But to look at him, you wouldn’t know it. He played football, still plays rugby, got high grades despite missing close to 40 days of school some years.”
“It’s amazing what Kelly and her family have to deal with health-wise,” said Scott Taylor, the NCAA Division II national coordinator for baseball umpires. “I think perhaps she uses umpiring somewhat as a way to escape, for a little while, the pressures and worry. She is an incredibly strong person.”
Stephen Dine was interested in umpiring and was invited to attend a day clinic at Kent State University for potential college baseball umpires. Steven, as a ninth-grader, was the youngest person to be certified by the OHSAA for both baseball and softball. In high school, he even worked a few NCAA fall softball games. Elliott Dine thought she would attend the clinic with her son.
“Steven decided not to go,” recalled mom. “He was no longer happy with officiating and wanted to try other things. But I went. That day, (assigners) Jim Lizer and Jon Saphire and Andy Dudones watched a few of us work some showcase games. Toward the end, Jon came up to me and said, ‘Kelly, how serious are you? Do you want to work college baseball?’ I said yes, and he said, ‘Good. Because you should.”’
Elliott Dine attended her first camp, operated by Bruce Doane, in late August 2016. “I met and was instructed by (assigners and fellow umpires) Brent Rice, Nick Sweeney, Mark Uyl, Scott Taylor, Mike Duffy and Tim Farwig, among others,” she said. “Mind you, I still hadn’t worked a varsity baseball game yet in my career, just Little League and summer baseball.
“At the end of the camp, Scott Taylor walked up and said, ‘I think you have the talent to work college baseball if you want to work hard and stick with it.’”
A few months later, in the spring of 2017, she indeed worked her first NCAA baseball games, thanks to assigners Derron Brown and Chuck Adya.
Taylor is a big fan of Elliott Dine’s work. Noting that she continues to hone her skills as an umpire at the collegiate level, he said as a plate umpire “she is one of the best out there at any level. I watched the Little League World Series Championship game she worked and she missed one call on a very close pitch. Major League umpires may miss 11 or 12 pitches a game and she missed just one and she knew which one.
“Her positioning is superb and she is consistent for both a left-handed or right-handed batter. She reminds me of (former Minor League Baseball umpire) Pam Postema as a plate umpire. We need more diversity in umpiring and obviously Kelly fits that bill.”
As for being a woman in a predominately man’s world, Elliott Dine said, “I do think that, as a whole, diverse umpires have to work harder to prove themselves and to change long-standing perceptions. Just because a profession used to look have a certain ‘look’ doesn’t mean it should continue that way.
“If you only seek out those who seem to fit into a certain mold, then you are also overlooking a very large percentage of the talent pool. The last thing that any woman wants is to be a ‘token.’ We want to earn what we are given, and to be recognized for our talents and effort, not our gender.
“Nobody would take me seriously for years. Everybody wanted me to be a really good softball umpire. Nobody wanted me to be a baseball umpire. No matter who I told, no matter how many times I said it, I could not get baseball games. Assigners, peers, you name it. … I think they just hoped I would forget about this ‘baseball thing.’”
But she didn’t stick to softball; she had dreams to follow. She attended baseball mechanics clinics “and guys there would just discount me,” she said. “Nobody was ever aggressive or in my face, just the opposite. They’d look at me, turn their backs and just smile knowingly at each other. Some of them thought it was ‘nice’ I was there. But no one took me seriously.
“Then I’d come back the next year, and the next. They’d look surprised that I was back. And I could read the thoughts on some of my peers’ faces: ‘How long will she keep this up? Doesn’t she know that nobody’s taking her seriously?’”
Elliott Dine credits Martin for helping drive through the male negativity.
“He was the one who came up to me at the 2014 clinic, the fourth year I’d attended,” she said. “He said, ‘Girl, where you been all my life?’ He was an evaluator that year watching me call pitches in the gym with 30 other guys. Then he told everyone loudly, ‘That’s the best I’ve seen all day!’ For the first time (outside of Little League), I was noticed for my skill as a baseball umpire.”
“Larnie understood exactly where I was coming from, because he’s lived it, too. Without him and without my Little League mentors (West, Kelley, Ramos and Chet Cooper), I wouldn’t be doing baseball.” She also credits Doane and his instructor crew who “really supported me (and treated me like an equal)” at her first-ever college clinic.
Elliott Dine has made personal and professional strides, but it remains an equality struggle for female umpires in all codes of baseball, she said. “The ‘higher-ups’ (MLB supervisors, NCAA coordinators, etc.) are good with it. … They want change to happen. But our peers, local assigners and others around the nation, it’s an uphill battle with so many of them. It’s got to change.
“Two other umpires who have been both good friends and role models for me: current Minor League Baseball umpires Jen Pawol and Emma Charlesworth-Seiler,” Elliott Dine said. “I believe that Jen and I are the only two women who have ever worked both NCAA softball and NCAA baseball.”
She added with some degree of optimism, “It’s slowly getting better. But there are miles to go before the biases and inequities in baseball officiating catch up to the advances made in football, basketball and soccer officiating.”
Conscious of her “uniqueness” in the baseball umpiring world and the attention it brings, Elliott Dine strives to be a good role model for all, not just females.
“I’m a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a teacher and an umpire. I take those roles very seriously,” she said. “My work as both a teacher and an umpire directly impacts many young lives. I need to strive to be sure that it’s a positive impact I make. I also take great pride in being a Little League umpire. We have an obligation to these young players to be positive leaders and to be positive influences on them.”
She added, “If a young girl or a woman decides to try something new, chase down a dream or break a mold because they saw me pursuing my passion, then I’m blessed and thankful that I may have played a tiny part in their path to success.”
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