Quarter to three at sunny Palms Park. The umpire just drove up. He's the little man in blue wearing glasses, ol' Russ Fendley. Not as in old--he's only 48--but as in good ol' boy. He's from Alabama. They say the ball fields have a hold on him tighter than a sweetheart's. Or certainly a wife's. This life has already cost him two of those.
Half an hour later, a La Quinta High School softball player slides into home plate ahead of the throw to the Artesia catcher. She looks safe. Fendley peers down through the dust, waits a couple seconds, then shoots his right fist into the air.
"She's out of there!" he declares in a voice as Southern as grits.
A coach rushes out to protest.
A fan behind the backstop yells, "Bad call, Blue. You're starting the game out wrong."
The runner doesn't say a word.
An hour later, the game is over and Fendley lights up a Kool on the way back to his car.
"Her foot missed the plate this much," he says, holding his hands six inches apart.
"I told the coach just as calm as I could possibly be, 'Coach, she never touched the plate.' "
Fendley drives away, content that no one is angry enough to follow him. That happens.
'Threatened Many Times'
"I've been threatened many times," said Fendley, who has been a sports official for more than 25 years.
During a 1963 youth football game, coaches hit him with their fists. But that is the only time he has been subjected to violence, if you don't count being spit on with tobacco juice.
"I've been called every abusive name there is," he said. "I've had people call me at home, leaving crank messages over simple recreation ballgames."
But Fendley, who used to average 300 games (football, basketball, softball and baseball) a year, shrugs off the abuse as he would a foul tip in the shoulder.
"Once you put people between the two lines of a ball field they become totally different," he said. "But the good thing is if you have a row with them, then see them later downtown or in a store it's usually a congenial hello."
Fendley's passion for officiating has developed into his own business, the Russ Fendley Sports Officials Assn., which he operates out of his Los Alamitos home.
Under contract with the City of Long Beach, he assigns officials, including himself, to 10,000 to 12,000 games a year. These include high school softball, semi-pro and Little League baseball and recreational softball, basketball and touch football. Fendley, who is paid by the teams, also runs instructional camps for officials.
Wants People Who Are Dedicated
"We're always hurting for officials, yet we don't beg for them," said Fendley, who takes in 30 to 35 officials in each sport each year. "We want people to show initiative and dedication, because if they don't they won't last."
Fendley has almost 150 umpires but in three years 90% of them will have quit, a fact he mourns but all too well understands.
"We lose 'em because of marriage, girlfriends, job changes, lack of interest or lack of ability," said Fendley, who regularly assesses his umpires' performances. "It's hard to explain how much dedication there is if you're going to do a good job."
That dedication has cost Fendley dearly.
"I got married and had a child, and I paid more attention to officiating and being involved in sports than I did them," he said. "So it cost me my first marriage and my second marriage."
It was inevitable.
"Games are played in the late afternoon or early evening, when most everybody else is entertaining, and you're away from your wife," Fendley said. "And you'll find out real soon that your wife and kids don't care about coming just to watch you umpire. No one ever comes to watch an umpire."
And when the umpire finally gets home, he's not always perfect company.
"If you've had a bad night, you come home and want to kick the dog," Fendley said.
When Fendley gets home at 8 a.m. from his full-time job as a clerk for the Santa Fe Railroad, he calls his umpires to make sure they will be at their assigned games.
Has Coterie of Die-Hard Officials
"There are always cancellations," he said. "A guy gets a date, or a wife calls up and says, 'Did you forget it's our anniversary?'
"But I've got about 15 guys like me. They just live and die umpiring or refereeing. I call 'em up and say, 'How about working Friday night?' They'll say, 'Just a minute . . .. Honey, what we got Friday night? Susie's got an open house? Oh, I don't want to go to that.' And then he says to me, 'I'll take it.' "
Those are the umpires Fendley is proud of, the ones he tries to push into high school officiating, the ones he can be assured won't badger the players in a girls softball game for dates, the ones without chips on their shoulders.
But most find officiating too demanding.
"I would say the ideal experience for a guy is to work no less than 300 games his first year," Fendley said. "They work three games a night three or four times a week and then all day on Saturday. This is taxing because he can't make a living at the job. No way. (An umpire gets $15 for working an hourlong slow-pitch softball game, $16 for fast-pitch, $20 for a Little League game.)
"He has to have another job, so that puts him away from home 12 to 14 hours a day."
Fendley also finds that many umpires still haven't got playing out of their systems.
"Playing and officiating just don't mix," he said. "When an umpire is playing and gets into an argument with me, the first thing he says is, 'I know more about that 'cause I'm an umpire.' "
Whereupon Fendley will immediately say:
"Bang, you're gone." Gone comes out in two twangy syllables, "gaw-on."
Must Show Respect
"If they don't respect me (when they're playing in a game), they're not much of an umpire," he said.
The ball fields of Fendley's youth were the pastures of Gordo, Ala., and from the beginning he was the rare kid who preferred umpiring to playing.
"Even when I was 10 or 11, I'd be the umpire," he said.
In the 11th grade, he officiated his first high school football game.
He joined the Air Force in 1958 and two years later moved to California, where he worked eight high school varsity football games in his first season.
"That's unheard of," he said. "You usually need at least four years' experience at the JV and sophomore level before you think of getting a varsity game."
His talent gave him professional aspirations.
"I'd liked to have been a pro football official," he said. "But it's a lot of politics and, besides, my size hurt me."
Fendley is 5 feet, 6 inches tall.
Officiating has meant more to Fendley than just providing the opportunity to be close to the games.
Respects Others' Opinions
"It's taught me to abide by rules and respect another man's opinion," he said. "You get the feeling you are helping someone because you're keeping everything on a fair level."
Umpiring recreational games, where beer usually is a factor, can be a high-stress job.
"Players belittle them (the umpires) no end," Fendley said. "They're worse than major-leaguers.
"You have doctors, lawyers, construction workers and truck drivers all meeting under the same situation and, many times, after they've been drinking. So you can really have a chaotic situation."
Fendley believes he has the personality to handle such crises.
"I'm kinda hyper, outgoing, strong," he said.
His fuse isn't as short as it used to be, and he credits his good ol' boy humor, although some coaches and players compare his humor, he said, to "fertilizer."
When an irate coach rushes him, Fendley might take off his mask and say, "Hold on, you don't run into the bedroom cursing your wife when you want to make love to her."
That will usually break the moment's intensity.
Once, in a crucial inning of a big game Fendley was working, a batter took the first pitch chest-high.
"STEEERIKE," said Fendley.
The batter started to get angry.
Batter's Anger Mounts
The second pitch was in the same place.
The batter got angrier.
The next pitch was neck-high.
"Ball one," Fendley said, and walked around to sweep the plate.
Now the batter was boiling.
"That's the same place the first two pitches were. How come that's a ball and the other two were strikes?" he demanded.
"Are you sure of that?" Fendley asked.
"OK, STEEERIKE THREE."
He was only kidding, but the shocked batter probably never complained about a call again.
Fendley laughed at the memory, then turned his thoughts to the next day's game, thinking about the pitchers, how he'll squat behind the plate, psyching up.
"I probably won't die on a sports field, but I'll probably die close to one," he said. "I don't see any way of giving it up."
And he's finally found a way to overcome the problem of losing women because of his avocation.
His girlfriend is an umpire.
'I probably won't die on a sports field, but I'll probably die close to one. I don't see any way of giving it up.'