The Man They Love to Hate


Boo. Hiss. Hey buddy, you forgot your glasses. Cheat. Yo, what game are you watching? Jerk. Looks like your double chin's blocking your vision. Get outta here.

Why would anyone want to be a baseball umpire? It's thankless, to say the least. At best, every call an ump makes disappoints half the participants.

But it's true, if it weren't for the officials, that the game would be a lot less orderly. An umpire is as important to a baseball game as any player on the field. So, like the job of the guy who shovels up after circus elephants, somebody's got to do it.

One of those somebodys is 48-year-old Gary Ethier. He's been a volunteer umpire in the Saticoy Little League for 11 years. During that time he's been chewed out, bruised, fractured, knocked down and insulted. And he's loved virtually every minute of it.

Ethier began umpiring when his son Tim was playing. "I think it was the challenge. Can I call the very best game I can call?" he said. "And I enjoy the kids, and I've got a lot of friends in the league."

As fans and managers go, the Saticoy league is fairly tame. But there are still those particularly trying moments. "They taught us at umpire school that the umpire not only has to have thick skin but also selective hearing," said Ethier, a California Department of Transportation engineer when he's not calling balls and strikes. "If coaches think they can intimidate you, they will."

But after so many years and so many games, Ethier is rarely intimidated. He takes his job seriously.

A recent 3 p.m. game between the Cubs and Padres in the 10-to-12 age group, with Ethier serving as home plate umpire, was typical:

* 2:13: Ethier puts on some of his uniform: a protective cup and supporter, a navy blue shirt and navy blue slacks. "If you look like an umpire, sound like an umpire . . . by God, you must be an umpire."

By "sound like an umpire," Ethier means being assertive. "I call the game loud. I'm not the loudest, but I'm not a shrinking violet either."

* 2:29: Ethier leaves for the game in his slightly beat-up brown Ford van, which during the season serves as equipment storage room and dressing room.

* 2:33: He arrives at the multi-diamond Fritz-Huntsinger Sports Complex.

* 2:38: Ethier puts on the rest of his uniform--chest protector, shin guards, shoulder pads, mask, a light blue short-sleeved button-down shirt and cleats. He brushes off his clothes for that crisp, professional look.

* 2:43: He heads to the field to make sure all is in order for the game. He confers with the umpire working with him that day.

* 2:59: He brushes off home plate, something he'll do many times throughout the game.

* 3:00: Ethier begins the game. The first pitch is a hard foul ball down the first-base line that suggests a swift, exciting game to follow. It's not to be. Because the Padres had to make up their recently rained out games during the week, they are forced to use an inexperienced pitcher. His lack of control means a lot of walks and the game drags.

* 3:19: The game's first, and only, serious argument takes place. The umpire working the game with Ethier calls a Padre batter out at first base on a close play. Ethier serves as the peacemaker between the Padre coach and his fellow umpire.

* 4:12: It's been over an hour and only two innings have been played. Ethier is holding up well.

* 4:17: The catcher accidentally drops his mask on Ethier's left foot, just missing recently re-fractured toes. After some hopping around, Ethier resumes play.

* 4:47: The crowd turns on Ethier for the first time when he calls a close strike against a Padre batter in the fourth inning.

"Oooooh," say the Padre fans.

"It wasn't even close," says the Padre coach.

Ethier keeps his cool, and the game goes on.

* 4:50: Ethier gets hit in the left arm by a pitch. He doubles over, then spins around to make a call at third. It's the dramatic high point of Ethier's game.

* 5:22: The final out is made. The score is Cubs 17, Padres 6.

* 5:31: Ethier eats his reward: the hamburger and french fries the league provides for his efforts.

* 5:52: He finishes eating and heads back to the van to change. "Tomorrow my knees will be a little tender," he said. "But that's only old age and Mother Nature catching up with me."

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