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Making the Call: Volunteer Umpire Jim Smith Works 2006 Little League Baseball World Series

Editor’s note: This story is reprinted by permission from the South Philly Review (Philadelphia, Pa.)

By Bill Gelman
South Philly Review
The summer of 2006 is one Jim Smith will never forget.

It doesn’t get any better for a Little League umpire than being on the field during the championship game of the league’s World Series.

Aug. 27, South Philly resident Smith was making the calls at third base in a game where Columbus, Ga., defeated Japan’s Kawaguchi City, 2-1.

“It’s the culmination of a Little League umpire’s career,” said the 41-year-old, who also oversees high school and recreation league games.

With the Williamsport-based World Series being broadcast live on national television, friends and family left e-mails and called Smith’s cell to let him know they were watching. But, with so much on the line, umpires can’t get caught up in all the hoopla.

“The cheering in the stands makes you focus a little more,” he said. “The focus comes when you see all the excitement and what’s at stake.”

Of the 32 games between Aug. 18 and 27, Smith did 12. Each region of the United States had two umpires selected, with the Eastern section the only one to have three this year. Canada, Guam and Hong Kong sent one umpire each. When the Hong Kong official was calling a game, there was an interpreter available in case problems arose with the language barrier.

“Umpiring signals are universal,” Smith, who fell in love with the job in the mid-1980s as a volunteer with the Delaware Valley Youth Athletic Association, 18th and Johnston streets, said.

In order to judge the World Series, Smith took time off from his full-time job as a correctional officer in the Philadelphia Prison System. Being a Little League umpire, even on the World Series level, is on a volunteer basis. For last month’s tournament, Smith covered his own travel expenses to and from Williamsport. Lodging and food were provided by Little League Baseball.

Like any career, making it to the top requires years of service and dedication. Little League umpires must first call games on the regional level, where they are evaluated. Then they can request an assignment. Smith previously umpired the ‘99 Little League regionals in Bristol, Conn., and the ‘02 Senior League World Series in Bangor, Maine.

“Once you do regions, you keep applying every year,” Smith said. “It just takes a few years for your name to drop through the funnel.”

When Smith got his long-awaited letter Dec. 2, 2005, from Little League headquarters, “I was ecstatic,” he said.

A former St. John Neumann baseball player, Smith attended other Little League World Series with now-17-year-old son Jimmy. But this time around, Smith hung out with the umpires before and after games.

Before getting his calling, Smith gave coaching a try with a DVYAA T-ball team. “The kids were great, but the parents were crazy,” he said.

It turned out the league was short on umpires, so Smith decided to give it a try. It was the start of much bigger games to come. He attended Little League umpiring school in ‘91 and has helped out as an instructor for the last six years.

These days, Smith calls games on his days off. Unless it’s something like the Little League World Series, then he takes an extended vacation.

This time it was a trip that included standing on third base for a championship game. Smith found out his station during an Aug. 27 meeting with other umpires, where the six championship officials were named. The match-up was postponed until Aug. 28, but umpiring in the Little League World Series was unforgettable.

“I was honored and ecstatic,” Smith said of being selected for the big game.