Making the call on a national stage


John Gizzi, Special to the KP News

Many baseball pundits believe the best umpires are those you don’t notice-- which means there are plenty of Little League umps across the country trying to prove they’re the best by attracting the very attention they should be avoiding.

Confused? Don’t be. Many of those hidden-in-plain-sight umpires are hoping to work the Little League World Series, held annually in July and August at various places, including the most widely-known locale, Williamsport, Penn.

And while thousands of umpires officiate Little League games each year, only a few are chosen to serve on the biggest stage. Imagine, then, how Wauna resident Mike Rodenbucher felt upon learning he had been selected to work the 2011 Big League World Series (ages 16-18) in Easley, S.C. from July 27 to Aug. 3.

“It feels good,” said the 51-year-old Rodenbucher, a father of two and an employee at Coca Cola. “I’ve been working at it quite a while.”

For Rodenbucher it’s been 13 years ever since he was pulled out of the stands to umpire his then 8-year-old son’s Little League game. In recent years, however, Rodenbucher has been doing it more seriously. He umpires between 100-110 games a year on average, from Olympic College games to Little League.

“I’ve hoped would happen, but it was never really a goal until about eight years ago,” he said. “That’s when I decided to do something about it.”

Any umpire can be chosen for the Little League World Series, but there are procedures prospective umps must follow, such as attending Little League umpire schools, a requirement for doing higher-level tournaments in Little League.

Once Rodenbucher reached that point, all he could do was apply and wait to be selected.

“It could happen in a year, it could happen in 10,” he said. “With me it was eight.”

It’s not that simple, though.

After applying, an ump must be nominated by a District Administrator to the regional office, which, along with the region’s Umpire-In-Chief, considers all umpires nominated before selecting those who most closely meet the selection criteria.

To those selected, it’s a big deal. As the official website of Little League baseball noted, “Appointment as a member of the umpiring crew for a World Series is the highest honor Little League Baseball and Softball can bestow on an umpire” and “Selection as an umpire at any of Little League’s eight World Series means that person has reached the highest level of proficiency … and is considered among the best in the world.”

Rodenbucher believes patience, knowledge of the rules, sound mechanics, and a willingness to learn form the foundation of a good umpire. He has no plans to alter his style once he arrives in South Carolina.

“I won’t approach the games there any differently than I would any others,” he said, while conceding that the atmosphere will be more intense, due to the presence of so many talented players from across the country and, indeed, the world. There will be teams from not only every region of the U.S., but also from Latin America and Canada.

Don’t expect Rodenbucher to profit from this experience, either. Like every other Little League umpire, he won’t be paid. It’s strictly volunteer work at any level, World Series or otherwise.

Getting there is at least taken care of, courtesy of his local district, Washington District 2. Once arrived, he’ll stay in a dormitory-style residence with two meals a day. Some people might balk at such austerity, but not Rodenbucher.

“It’s the culmination of a dream, so the accommodations don’t matter much to me,” he said.

Though he admits he adjusts his strike zone for different levels -- “Any ump would,” he said -- one thing we can anticipate from Rodenbucher is impartiality, perhaps the key to successful officiating in any sport. In fact, even his own son couldn’t escape his father’s objectivity.

“If you were to ask him, he’d tell you that I rung him up on strikes more than anyone else,” Rodenbucher said with a chuckle.

Perhaps it’s that kind of fairness, among other qualities, that got Rodenbucher noticed.

Not that he was trying to get noticed, of course.