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Answering the call

Times Staff Writer

There’s a plaque in front of the house where Alfonso Marquez was born.

“Obviously,” said friend and colleague Larry Barrett, “he’s a celebrity.”

For the record:

12:00 AM, Jun. 23, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 23, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
Baseball: An article in Friday’s Sports section about umpire Alfonso Marquez misidentified umpire Ted Barrett as Larry Barrett.

But not for anything he did. Rather, the 1,800 people in Marquez’s poor, dusty hometown of La Encarnacion, Zacatecas, in central Mexico, remember him for what he didn’t do.

He didn’t forget them.

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It would have been easy to do just that, of course. Marquez was only 7 when he left the farm fields of Zacatecas, following his mother through a small hole in a chain-link fence separating Mexico from the United States.

That was 27 years ago, plenty of time for memories to fade.

Here Marquez learned English, bought a house and rose to the highest levels of his profession, spending the last eight years as a major league umpire. Last year he worked behind the plate in the World Series. This weekend, he’ll work the series between the Angels and Pittsburgh at Angel Stadium.

Certainly he could be forgiven if he had forgotten.

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But instead, like Santa Claus, he returns every winter bearing gifts he spends the rest of the year collecting.

“Bottom line is there’s a lot of kids that are forced out on the street at 11, 12, 13,” Marquez said. “A lot of them are forced to get out of school just to work. So ... [I] try to get them involved in some sports.”

Along the way he has also provided faith, helping two other umpires turn a six-man religious retreat into a 2,000-member Christian church in Gilbert, Ariz., and charity, founding his own nonprofit group, Fonzie’s Kids, to benefit poor children in Mexico.

But perhaps the most important thing he provides, to kids on both sides of the border, is hope.

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“For them to look and say, ‘Hey, this is one of our people. This is one of our countrymen. And he’s made it to a high level.’ I would definitely say he’s making a difference just as people look at him,” said Barrett, also a major league umpire and a former crewmate of Marquez. “But also I think the fact is, his heart is still down there. They’ve embraced him because his heart’s never left there.”

*

The first time Barrett went to Mexico with Marquez, the two worked an exhibition game in Mexico City and Marquez chartered a bus to bring in people from his hometown. That may have been the first time an umpire got a standing ovation.

“You could see how proud they were of him and what a big deal that was,” Barrett said.

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Later the pair went to Monterrey and ran a clinic for Mexican umpires. Marquez wound up being inducted into the city’s baseball hall of fame.

“You could see how much they revered him,” Barrett said.

But what really opened Barrett’s eyes was his first trip to La Encarnacion.

“I was humbled by the people there,” he said. “This little tiny town in Mexico, kind of just an insignificant spot on the map to us Americans, and to think a major league umpire came out of here.”

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Marquez’s climb to the big leagues started in the parks and playgrounds of Fullerton where, the story goes, he hit an inside-the-park home run but was called out for missing second base. Amazed at the umpire’s ability to spot that, he decided to become an official himself, trading in his uniform for a dark blue shirt and chest protector. By age 19 he was umpiring high school games during the week and men’s leagues on Sundays, becoming so good several of his colleagues urged him to enroll in umpire school, the necessary first step toward a professional career.

So Marquez borrowed the money for the enrollment fee, flew off to Florida and finished third in his class, winning a job in the rookie-level Northwest League. He wasn’t there long, progressing rapidly up the minor league ladder and reaching triple A in just six years. The next season he made his major league debut, working the plate in a meaningless late-season game between Colorado and Montreal.

In Mexico, however, the game was far from insignificant, because it made Marquez the first native of Mexico to umpire a big-league game. And in the barrios and sweatshops, on the farms and in the restaurant kitchens of Southern California, that game made Marquez a hero too.

Like many of them, the umpire came to the United States illegally, but his skill, well, no one needed documents to verify that.

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“I always tell guys you should let your work talk for you,” said Marquez, who is preparing to take the U.S. citizenship test his father and sister have already passed. “And if you do that people [will] look at your work and they’ll start saying, ‘You know what? He deserves to be here.’ ”

And though he has worked more than 1,000 big-league games -- not including four division playoff series, one American League Championship Series, a World Series and an All-Star game -- since then, Marquez said he has never lost sight of the responsibility that comes with breaking a barrier.

“I think it’s pretty cool to show them that it can be done,” he said. “It gives people hope to try to do things because it’s possible.”

Still, at this point who could blame him if he forgot the colleagues who helped and encouraged him. Or even the kids trying to follow him.

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For this umpire, though, that would be a bad call. Marquez, 35, has helped fund an umpire school scholarship for former Dodgers batboy and Zacatecas native Alex Ortiz, now a fast-rising minor league umpire. And this winter, between trips to Mexico, he taught a two-week umpiring course to minority students at Major League Baseball’s Urban Youth Academy in Compton.

“There was quite a large group of Hispanic kids that are interested” in umpiring, he said. “I think it’s good. It’s good to have a mix.”

*

More evidence of Marquez’s long memory was hanging in his locker in the tiny umpires’ clubhouse at Dolphin Stadium. There, neatly displayed on a plastic hanger, is the black-and-white striped uniform top of former NHL linesman Stephane Provost, who died in a motorcycle accident two years ago.

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“We met because of his number,” Marquez said.

Seeking out an official in another sport who wears the same uniform number has become a common pursuit among big-league umpires. Provost was issued No. 72 by the NHL when he became an official, and Marquez requested the number because that was the year he was born.

Turns out the two men had a lot more in common. Both were from immigrant families who grew up speaking other languages, Provost French and Marquez Spanish. And both loved motorcycles.

“We just hit it off,” Marquez said. “We had a lot of things in common. It was cool.”

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The last time they got together was after an April 2005 game between the New York Mets and Florida Marlins at Dolphin Stadium. Provost, 37, wanted to show off a new Harley-Davidson Fat Boy, just like the one Marquez had. So he let the umpire take it for a spin.

“I was the last guy, other than Stephane, to ride it,” Marquez said.

Heading home early the next morning, less than 10 miles from the stadium, Provost ran into the back of a tractor trailer and was declared dead at the scene after the bike burst into flames and landed on top of him.

Marquez, who also has a black-and-white picture of Provost taped inside his equipment trunk, remains in regular contact with the linesman’s widow, Sandra, and his children Ashley and Reily. On his chest protector he still wears the same black “72" patch NHL officials wore in the 2005-06 season to honor Provost.

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“I think about him a lot,” said Marquez, who has three children of his own.

Yet as serious as Marquez’s work is, both on and off the field, it hasn’t hardened his personality. In fact, maybe it has softened it. After all, when you spend part of your time officiating games for pampered millionaires and the other part trying to bring hope to impoverished children, it’s hard not to laugh at life.

“He’s hilarious,” said fellow umpire Rob Drake. “He’s a fun guy. There’s not many people that don’t like him.”

Including players.

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“He’s a good guy and he’s funny,” says the Marlins’ Alfredo Amezaga, one of 13 Mexicans on an opening-day big-league roster. But Amezaga, who also goes home to Obregon, in the state of Sonora, each winter, has an even greater appreciation for Marquez’s charity work.

“It’s hard in Mexico,” he said. “But I’ve never heard of an umpire doing that. It’s very good for not just Mexicans, but for all Latin umpires.”

Marquez smiles when those comments are repeated to him. Yet he still can’t help but think he’s living a dream -- which is part of what motivates him. What if he were to wake up one day and find that he’s not a big league umpire, but a poor boy living in a shack in La Encarnacion?

That’s the memory that won’t let him forget.

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“I try to go to schools. I try to go and basically talk to them and tell them anything’s possible,” he said. “I’ve had a couple of players say, ‘Hey, man, I heard your story. I admire that.’ At least they realize that as umpires we struggle not only to get to the big leagues, but prior to [that].

“I never dreamt that I’d be the first Mexican or any of that. I just think it’s weird. Every time I go down there, it’s like ... I just think it’s weird.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com


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