Keep Your Eye On The Ball. Mitch Ball, That Is.

So you want to be an umpire. That’s not the standard desire of your average kid growing up in southern Alberta. Unless you’re Mitch Ball. Mitch has been an integral part of the WMBL for almost two decades. You’ll see him at Spitz Stadium for most Bulls games this year. I thought it would be great to find out a little bit more about why a guy would be interested in doing a job where you are booed more than you are cheered. As Mitch would say, “This is my story and I’m sticking to it.”

How long have you been umpiring in the WMBL?

I started umpiring the WMBL in the year 2000. The Bulls began in 1999 and I was only in my second year of umpiring at that point. I wanted so badly to umpire that year in the WMBL (which back then was called the SMBL Saskatchewan Major Baseball League), but thankfully the guys who were in charge told me I needed a little more seasoning before I started to work at that level. I remember going to those games during that first year, playing Bulls blackout bingo and watching the guys work on the field. I didn’t watch the players, I watched the umpires because I wanted to be there on that field with them. It was hard to sit and be on the sidelines even though I knew that I wasn’t quite ready. Sure enough though, the next year I was on the field working games. The rest they say…is history!

Did you have an Oprah aha moment where you said “I want to be an ump”?

I wouldn’t say that. I do remember my dad umpired my high school games and I took a lot of heat from my teammates because of a call he would make and they would blame me because my dad cost us the game. I just remember umpiring little league games because the Little League President in Raymond, Barb Depew needed help with umpires, so I just did it. Then after I graduated, I didn’t do anything with organized sports until after I returned home from a mission for my church. I was helping coach Raymond High School baseball team with Brent Maxwell. My dad told him that he was hanging up the mask. So Brent asked me if I would want to umpire home games in Raymond. Once I went to a clinic and started working games, I quickly became ‘addicted’ to umpiring. It was weird. I really jumped in with both feet and would try to learn as much as I could from books, other umpires and wherever else I could get information. Internet was still new so there wasn’t a lot of information there. It became a baptism by fire type of situation for me where I just went and umpired games. A lot of games. Sometimes over 150 games per season. Luckily for me, I had guys on the field to help mentor me. Guys like Howard West, Shawn Hass, Don Huber, Brent Radlinsky, Mark Jones and my mentor, the late Brent Derricott. I owe a lot to all of those guys.

Did you have skills as a player?

I was a very average player. I played through to high school in Raymond and loved it. Growing up in the younger leagues I was a good pitcher. I didn’t start out that way though. Travis Ring and I used to practice in our back yards where he would pitch to me. I always thought I would like to be a catcher because at the time, I liked Johnny Bench. After a while, when he realized he had a hard time being accurate, he made me trade with him. So we did, and I became a good little league pitcher. My favorite player then became Nolan Ryan. When we got to High School, I was the master of the change up. All I could throw was a change up! My fastball and change up were the same speed. So, when I pitched, I was effective for about 4 innings. Then my coach would bring in guys who could throw a lot harder. It made it tough on them to catch up with the extra velocity. Going from 60mph to 85mph is tough for even the best hitters!   But, I will say this. No one on my team outworked me. I remember going to our assistant coach’s house (Dwight Hudson) after practice was over and he would have me throw pitches for an hour straight. I just couldn’t figure out how to get that extra ‘pop’ in my pitches. My final game in High School I got to pitch in the consolation final at provincials and I pitched a complete game and we won. It was probably my proudest moment as a player.

The big question: Why be an umpire?

That’s a great question! I always say…WHY NOT? So many players end their playing careers and go on to coach. I did. But for some reason, I didn’t find my niche in coaching baseball. So when an average player doesn’t have anywhere else to go and isn’t really a good candidate for a coach, and you still want to be involved in the sport you love….well, I think you know where I’m going with this! I wished more players would become umpires. They have so much to offer the game of baseball. They understand the game. They make very good umpires because of this. Unfortunately, not enough of these guys decide that umpiring is something they want to do. There are so many opportunities to go so many places not only around our area, but provincially, nationally and even internationally. If an average ball player like me can become an umpire, dedicate some time and energy into the craft like I did, then why can’t they get to travel the country attending American Legion State Championships? Baseball Alberta provincial Championships? Little League National Championships? Baseball Canada National Championships? Pan Am Games? World Championships? Heck, the sky is the limit!

Officiating any sport provides a fraternity like no other. I’ve officiated hockey and football as well, and no matter what sport you officiate, there is a brotherhood that sticks together. I’ve made friends from all over the world who I admire and I respect. I have lifelong acquaintances and friendships from umpiring both locally and abroad.

What do you remember about your first ever game?

Actually I don’t remember my first game. I was in high school and got asked to go and do it. I do remember not really knowing the rules like I thought I did! I remember my first official season after attending a training clinic. I was so gung ho. You couldn’t get enough games for me then. I remember the motivations back then were a bit different then than they are now. I was young and newly married and money was tight. It became basically a second job for me. After a couple of seasons, the motivation changed and I started looking at it differently. I started teaching clinics with Brent Derricott and my whole perspective changed. It became something that I could do to help my local league as well as help other guys. I wanted to help umpires get better.

Over the course of your career are there any players that you still remember for any particular reasons, good or bad?

This is a very good question. There are so many. I really do not have any players that I remember for bad reasons. Players in any sport are the same. They are trying to win. They are emotional. Sometimes, emotions get the better of people. I don’t take it personally that’s for sure. There are a lot of players whom I have a lot of respect for that have come through the ranks locally. I respect them a lot because I never had the talent to do what they are doing. They are playing baseball and when I was a kid, that was something I wanted to do, but never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I could go play college ball somewhere. It was a dream, but one of those childhood dreams I had but really knew it wouldn’t come true. So, because of that, I really have a deep respect for these kids that play baseball at the higher levels. It’s a grind and is not easy.

When it comes to good memories about players whom I’ve rubbed shoulders with that have played in the WMBL, for some reason, the one that stands out to me more was Lethbridge native, Aaron Lavaratto. He was one of the most competitive guys I’ve ever met. I remember umpiring him when he was in Little League, up through High School, American Legion and then in college for PBA and the Lethbridge Bulls. Aaron was not a big guy, but his heart was the size of heart of a giant and he wore it on his sleeve. I remember a lot of times him catching a game in WMBL and he would want a pitch I called a ball so bad, he would say to me how badly he needed that pitch. I couldn’t argue with him! Sometimes he was right about it being a strike and sometimes he was wrong. But he never told me I was wrong. He just reminded me how much he needed it for his pitcher. I remember very well one game when Les McTavish was coaching the Bulls, Aaron was catching and he was the on deck batter. The Bulls were playing the Weyburn Beavers. Kevin Gregus was on first and the batter hit a double. Kevin came around and scored all the way from first on a somewhat close play, but the ball went to the backstop. However, Kevin didn’t touch home plate and the catcher knew it. So he yelled to his pitcher to throw the ball to him so he could tag him out. Kevin, who was already halfway to the dugout turned around and ran back to try and touch the plate, but the catcher football blocked him! Aaron was standing right close by because as the on deck batter he ran to homeplate area to tell Kevin to slide. When the Weyburn catcher football blocked Kevin, Aaron jumped on the catcher’s back and started pounding on his head with his fist! Needless to say, the benches cleared and there were 50 ball players in a very small space pushing and shoving each other. That was the thing about Aaron. He was a great teammate and a great player. He was there to help out if someone needed it. I always respected him for his tenacity and heart and desire. He caused me more stress later as well as he initiated another bench clearing brawl when the Bulls played the Regina Maroons. (That was their name the first time they joined the league. They are now known as the Red Sox.)

I have a lot of respect for coaches in my umpiring career. Some are really good, and some not so good. But one guy I really respect, who helped me along the way was Blair Kubicek. I was always afraid of him because of his gruff and grizzled old veteran demeanour. But, he always treated me with respect. Even when I made a call he disagreed with, he never yelled, he just asked me questions and shared his point of view and then he would walk away like nothing happened. I only ever had to throw him out of a game once. I remember going to the park one day for some reason and he saw me and told me to come and see him in his office. We must have sat there for 2 hours just talking about baseball, his coaching career, his son Tony, and umpiring. It was something that I had never done before. Sit with a college coach and talk about life. During our conversation, a player who was injured came in and had a brief conversation with Coach Kubicek. The conversation quickly escalated and became emotional. This player had worked so hard to get a scholarship, but was injured and there was a possibility that he might not get it. There was so much emotion in that room and as a result I had a different perspective of Coach Kubicek after that day. I’ve always admired his passion to the sport and to his players.

Is there anything you do to mentally prepare yourself for a game?

Yes I do. Most days I show up to the ball park after a day at work or having come from home after a long day of yard work or whatever. The biggest thing for me early on in my career was to try and put all of that ‘real life’ stuff behind me. In order to do that, I always like to show up at least an hour before game time. Music always helped me to relax so I would have a radio in the room or back in those days when we didn’t have Ipods or even cell phones, a cd player with ear phones and listen to music. Also, just talking with my partners about other things other than the upcoming game always helped me to just not get nervous and to prepare myself. As game time approached, it would become a little more businesslike and we would discuss our crew mechanics making sure we were all on the same page. Now, when I show up to the park, I am usually prepared to go when I arrive. I always feel now that it’s my responsibility to make sure my partners I’m working with are loose, relaxed and ready to go. Not all officials are at the same level when it comes to confidence or at the same level of understanding in how to deal with pressure they put on themselves when the come to work games. So, I try to make sure they are as loose and relaxed as I can get them and try to remind them that whatever level we are doing, it’s just another game. We don’t treat it any different. That’s not to say that we don’t understand what the game means to the participants and the fans, but we as umpires are the only ones who are really unbiased as to who wins that game. So we make sure that we treat that game we are working like it’s Game 7 of the World Series. Like I said, it’s just another game!

What’s been your biggest thrill as an umpire so far?

One of the neatest experiences I’ve had is to umpire baseball games with my Father in law, Gerald Anderson and be on the field with my oldest son Colton as a player. That was pretty neat. I have also been able to umpire games with my son Colton as well. That was really neat too. You can’t beat it when you are able to participate with your family members in a sport, in different or the same capacities. Those moments will always be very special to me. The only thing I wish now, is that I could have had the opportunity to work games with my dad. He umpired for many years, but retired before I really caught the umpiring bug. Now, he’s not physically able to umpire a game so I really feel I missed out there.

As far as accomplishments in umpiring and major tournaments I’ve attended, I’ve been very fortunate to be able to travel the world and umpire baseball. I’ve been to Toronto in 2015 at the Pan Am Games. I worked the 2009 World Championships in Europe. I worked the 2008 World Junior Baseball Tournament in Edmonton. I’ve umpired several Canadian National Championships for Baseball Canada as well as Little League. But, the highlight of my career most definitely has to be the 2002 Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. What a wonderful experience. You cannot fully grasp what it’s like at that event until you take it in yourself. Whether it’s as a fan, a parent, a player or coach, or as an umpire. It’s unbelievable. If you ever get the chance to go and take part in that tournament, don’t hesitate. Just do it! You will not regret it.

What’s the most creative insult you’ve ever heard?

Well, I’m not sure if I can write them…isn’t this a family friendly article? I’ve heard a lot and some are funny and some are not so funny. However, over time, insults are usually all funny! You have to be able to laugh along with the hecklers because if you don’t then they know they’ve got you!

Here’s a couple I’ve always got a good laugh out of

  1. Hey ump! Bend over and open your good eye!
  2. Hey ump! I found your cell phone. I know it’s yours because there are 3 missed calls!

I have to say that there aren’t very many insults that are directed towards us that are rude. Most people nowadays, at least in the games I work, are usually very good. Sometimes a call goes against the home team and people ask if I’m late for dinner (and if you know me you’d understand that I haven’t missed too many meals!) or something but for the most part, the fans are pretty good. That kind of stuff is part of the game. Most of the time I get a good chuckle out of what people say especially if it’s something different than the standard, “Open your eyes Blue!” Or ‘Figure it out blue!” or ‘Wake up blue, you’re missing a good game!” Those are boring. I appreciate when someone gets creative and comes up with something new and different! As long as it’s not personal and doesn’t cross any lines that make it something in bad taste. Gotta keep it family friendly!

How short/long is your fuse when it comes to a heated discussion over a particular call?

Most people who know me and have seen me umpire know that I probably have a longer fuse than most other umpires. My philosophy is that the game is better with that player or coach in the game. If I throw someone out over a call then it’s because they have basically gone and got themselves thrown out. It’s them who have crossed the line that shouldn’t be crossed. Once they’ve done that, then it’s time to go. It’s my job as an umpire to try and diffuse the situation and keep things calm, but that doesn’t always happen. Umpires have to make sure that they ‘take care of business’. Players and coaches have to be held accountable to certain codes of conduct and sometimes the umpires have to determine whether or not they have crossed that line.

Let’s have it…worst mistake you ever made.

I guess that depends on which player, coach, administrator or parent who might be reminiscing with me! There’s been a lot! Too many to count!

One that stands out wasn’t a call that I made, but rather something I said to a coach after a call I made. I was working 1st base for the Northern League in Calgary. Edmonton was playing Calgary and that was a very heated rivalry. You can ask Greg Morrison, the General Manager of the Medicine Hat Mavericks about that rivalry. He was a player at the time.

To make a long story short, I called a balk on the pitcher, which advanced the runner from first to second. The manager, who by the way was Terry Bevington. He managed the Chicago White Sox in the Major Leagues and at one point was the 3rd base coach for the Toronto Blue Jays. He approached me and asked me what I had. I explained to him why I called a balk and all he did was sit and look at me. Instead of just looking back at him, and letting him decide to leave on his own, I decided to add more to the conversation. I said to him, “Terry, it was small, but it was there.” His eyes got so big as we stood there looking at each other. I realized what I had done and tried to figure out what I was going to do now. He looked at me and started yelling! It was small? It was small? I’m gonna find every small, teeny weeny thing during this game and I’m gonna come after you for it Mitch! It was small!

As he walked away, I tried to think of ways that I could end this situation. I couldn’t come up with anything in my mind! It was all happening so fast! I was starting to really become nervous because I knew, even though I got the call right, that I made a mistake by opening my mouth and saying something as trivial as ‘it was small, but it was there’.   I knew that because of my stupidity of that moment, that the rest of the game was going to seem like an eternity and every call I would make from here on after would be under a microscope! Fortunately, my partner who was a young umpire and perhaps a bit on the cocky side of the spectrum he managed to catch Terry’s attention with a comment as he left the field and at that moment, all of my fears had been washed away as Terry had been ejected by my partner. Bless his soul!

What’s the biggest attribute an umpire needs to have?

There are so many attributes that umpires should have that help them become successful and respected. You can’t pinpoint one and say that it’s more important that another. If you put more emphasis on certain aspects of umpiring than others, then you aren’t balanced and it’s important to have balance as an umpire. You have to have an even keel. You have to maintain your composure when the intensity is picking up and things get heated.   Being a people person is very important. You have to be able to know how to deal with people and how to try to communicate effectively with them. Especially important to know how to deal with competitive athletes and coaches. That’s a whole different monster in itself. We could sit and talk for hours about that one!

Was there ever an opportunity to get to a higher level of baseball?

At one point, early in my career, I had worked a year or two in the Northern League in Calgary and Edmonton. It’s an independent professional league that I was working a lot of games for. Our local supervisor, who had worked in professional baseball as high as the Triple A level encouraged me to try and pursue a career in umpiring. He told me that I had what it took to be successful in that profession and for a brief period of time I was actually considering trying it out. However, after a lot of thought and deliberation, I didn’t feel that it was something I should pursue. I had 3 children at time, (maybe we had our 4th by then) and I just couldn’t justify taking that giant leap of faith and leave my family behind to go and chase my dream. My wife, bless her heart wanted me to go and she had actually went as far as to get me an application form to attend one of the two professional umpire schools. Instead, I chose to be close to my family, coach my kids in baseball and other sports and I am glad I did. Some days, when I watch games on TV I wonder perhaps what might have been if I took that leap of faith, but other days, I’m glad I didn’t.

Do umpires have an opportunity to work their way through different levels of baseball like a player?

Yes. It’s a very difficult road. People who want to become a professional umpire in the Major Leagues have to attend one of two umpire training schools located in Florida. They spend 6 weeks in January and February in a classroom and on field for 6 days a week, 12 hours a day. Then, if you make the top 10 percent and you are recognized as someone they feel could work in professional baseball, you get an opportunity to work some lower level spring training games and are evaluated. That goes on for 2 weeks or so. After that, if they like you, you get offered a job working entry level professional baseball. Most guys, if they last, will work around 10 years in the minor leagues before they get a chance to go to the Major Leagues. Some guys, it might be less time. If they do become a Major League callup, the might work 300 or so games in the majors (which could take a few years to accumulate) before they would get a full time job. The window of opportunity also depends upon umpires who end up retiring and opening spots for prospective umpires. So, when I say a difficult road, I mean a difficult road. When working the minors, keep in mind that the pay is not great and the travel is absolutely crazy. A crew might have to work a game on a Sunday night in one city and then have to be in another city which is a 10 hour or more drive away. There is a lot of driving overnight to get to your next town.

What advice would you give to kids who wanted to pursue being an umpire?

A few things.

NEVER, NEVER, NEVER give up. There were so many nights where I went home because of things that happen in question #11 and I would go home and swear to myself that I would never umpire another game in my life. However, I would, in a sense, count to 10 and allow myself to get over my first world problems I was facing and realize that what I did today, in the grand scheme of things really isn’t that bad. I can move on and I can umpire again. I am so glad I didn’t quit.

Whenever you umpire, go onto that field and umpire to the best of your ability. Mistakes will happen, but that’s because you are human. Things happen beyond your control sometimes and in the moment, coaches may get mad, but never, ever let anyone out work you. That’s a choice that you make. And make no excuses. If you are bad today, then get refocused for the next day and don’t make the same mistakes twice!

Remember that umpiring baseball, (or officiating any sport for that matter) is the only profession where you are expected to be perfect the first time you walk out onto the field and then you are expected to improve every time you step onto the field after that.

One thought on “Keep Your Eye On The Ball. Mitch Ball, That Is.

  1. Pingback: Mourning an Umpiring Great – TALES OF BASEBALL

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