Sports

Peninsula umpires call ’em as they see ’em

Bill Ezpeleta, left, and Derrille Thayer have almost 60 years of plate time between them. Ezpeleta is a 37-year veteran, Thayer has 20 years experience. - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Bill Ezpeleta, left, and Derrille Thayer have almost 60 years of plate time between them. Ezpeleta is a 37-year veteran, Thayer has 20 years experience.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

PUA members do a thankless job for the kids’ sake.

There are some 35 ball fields in the county with something always happening, and it’s a sure bet one of these guys will be there.

The Peninsula Umpires Association (PUA) is one of the county’s premier umpire hotbeds with 57 active members, as they umped 1,800 games this year and made up 300 weather-cancelled games.

They officiate games from South Kitsap to North Mason and all around the Kitsap Peninsula for youngsters up to the junior college level.

They must remember and recognize the 77 ways a ball becomes out of play, 48 of which happen around home plate.

They don’t blink, or at least that’s what they say. And their decision is always final. There’s no right or wrong, there’s only final.

They’re the sports world’s most hated players, but beneath the uniform they’re giant softies with hearts larger than the diamonds they dictate.

The four PUA royalty are from around the county who “ignore” the hecklers — and there are many — not because they enjoy honing their tuning-out-the-harasser skills, but because, well honestly, it’s for the kids and they no longer possess the skills necessary to coach the sport they love at an elite level.

“We regard it as a community service,” said PUA secretary Chuck Sacrison, who became an umpire 16 years ago, as he realized other county coaches were more adept at teaching the sport than he. Sacrison has been with the association eight years. “It’s something that’s needed for youth sports to operate. I’m glad to do it on that ground.”

It truly is a community service. They purchase their own equipment and uniforms, which can cost a beginning umpire around $500, and they’re paid $30 per game for the youngsters and $60-70 per game at the collegiate level. PUA president Derrille Thayer, 64, said he nets approximately $1,200 a year and in reallife wages makes about $5 to $6 per hour.

While the striped quartet — Thayer of East Bremerton, Sacrison of Port Orchard, training officer Bill Ezpeleta of Bainbridge Island and assignor Tom Marcucci of Allyn — don’t have favorites or agendas while on the field, they do have a plethora of quirks and stories to share.

Take the word “strike,” for instance. The question “How many syllables does the word strike truly have?” proved impossible to answer. There’s no rhyme or reason to the “strike” type noises that begin in their diaphragm and escape their lips. It’s all personal style and flair. And yes, they actually spend time perfecting their version of the call.

Ezpeleta, 60, said there are no syllables because it’s a guttural sound without vowels or consonants. His version sounds similar to the noise Jean-Claude Van Damme makes when he kicks someone in the head. He came up with the grunt because “guttural sounds work well,” for him.

Marcucci, 54, yelps out a “striiiiiiiiike,” (it’s all one syllable) because it’s hard to make an “S” or a “K” sound sharp and when people hear the “I” they automatically know it’s a strike.

Sacrison, 57, used to make a long strike with a high pitch on the end, but recently got rid of the “S” and cut it short to make it resemble a dog’s bark. He said players don’t want to hear his voice, they just want to hear the call. So he granted that wish.

Thayer, on the other hand, is an anomaly in the baseball/softball world and he says strike because he just always has. At which point Ezpeleta chimed in using actual words and said, “Yeah we need to talk about that.”

They even discuss fellow umpires’ strike calls.

“There’s one guy who says strike like it’s two syllables, but he never says the ‘ike’ he just goes, ‘steeeeee,’ ” Ezpeleta said. “And I stand there waiting for him to say ‘ike.’ ”

It’s the same for the hand signals. They’re taught a standard way to make the calls, which is to try and get it up in the air so all can see, but they’re individuals and modify that as well.

Sacrison used to drop his hand down low when calling a third strike, but admittedly he’s short and 13-year-old catchers could block him, so now he raises his fist and pulls it across his face.

The true deciding factor as to bust out the lawnmower “you’re outta there” move or to go with no dramatics is whether it’s a close call or not.

If the call is obvious a simple gesture will suffice, but if it’s close it’s no holds barred.

“When it’s a big play or a split-second play where the only ones that really know what’s happened is you and the baseman that’s when you want to sell the play,” Sacrison said. “That’s when you may holler as loud as you can and maybe point.”

While these four gentlemen take their duties seriously, the occasional bad call does happen, and it upsets them just like anybody else. They carry it home with them at night to share with their wives, and they remember it for a while.

“I’ll think about it for several days if it’s a really big one,” said Marcucci, who’s been an umpire for 13 years. “I’ll be sitting somewhere and say, ‘Yeah I screwed that up,’ and if I’m really unlucky I’ll work with the same teams the next day.”

But they also have a few get-over-it tricks, which after hearing some of the call fiascoes, are absolutely necessary.

One time during Marcucci’s first year on the job a runner stole third, but the catcher was on it and launched the ball to third base. Marcucci gave a big lawnmower display “You’re out,” only to discover the ball rolling down the foul line.

“He didn’t catch it at all and I had to reverse that one,” he said. “Then you pull your hat down a little bit so they can’t see how red your face is.”

Naturally when a bad call is made the umps get heckled. That’s to be expected and they don’t sweat it, they said. However, when the call is good and they still get reamed, they follow a rule: “Don’t wear rabbit ears,” and they consider the intelligence of the insulter. They’re trained to know and see the rules, whereas the overly enthusiastic fan or parent is just that: a spectator.

Ezpeleta, who umped 88 games this year, hears the comments and he chuckles because they’re funny, he said, as he’s being evaluated by someone who knows less about the rules than he. He considers the source and “rocks on.”

Thayer just remains confident in his ability and doesn’t let the nay-sayers impact his game.

“As long as it’s not personal it’s just a part of the job,” said Thayer, who’s been an umpire for 20 years and officiated about 75 games this season. “You can’t let it affect your performance and what you’re doing, otherwise you might as well take a vote of the stands and you’d get a 50/50.”

But as the saying goes, they’re only as good as their last call.

Several of the PUA umpires are retired, but being ball field foremen is a year-round undertaking. They go through training and rule refresher courses in January and February. They must take a test to officiate at the high-school level. And when diamond season rolls around again they’ll officiate from about 3-9 p.m. during the week and their weekends usually are full. The number of softball and baseball teams in the county have grown over the years, and now the umpires are in more demand than ever. PUA is in desperate need of new members.

If interested in joining this group of light-hearted rule memorizers, visit www.peninsulaumpires.org and click on the “become an umpire” tab.

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