They know him by his walk. After nearly five decades of crouching behind home plate, Pete Costantino's knees are so shredded, he swaggers painfully across a field like an aging cowboy in blue.
They know him by his look. He wears a faded cap, torn gray pants, eternally dusty shoes. His ancient equipment has been battered by thousands of foul balls. His craggy face has been weathered by a lifetime of arguments.
But more than anything, generations of San Gabriel Valley youth league baseball players and parents have known Umpire Pete by his calls.
He doesn't only call balls and strikes. He calls common sense and kindness. The thousands of kids who play in his games aren't just safe or out. They are encouraged and empowered.
Recently, Costantino was working a game when a young boy made a tumbling catch in center field, then scarily lay on the ground for a few long minutes. By the time the child slowly climbed to his feet, Costantino was at his side shouting, "Great catch! Catch of the year!''
When Costantino returned to his position behind home plate, a parent from the opposing team approached him while holding a smart phone containing a video that purportedly showed the child actually dropping the ball.
"Sorry, buddy, play is over,'' Costantino told him. "I'm not even going to look at that video.''
Then he gave the ball to the child as a souvenir.
"Sometimes,'' Umpire Pete said with a sigh, "I think I'm these kids' last line of defense.''
For 46 years he has held that line, through the screams of angry parents, the tears of crushed children, and the horrors of a spicy snack-bar offering. As a professional youth league umpire working every level from Arcadia to Pasadena, Costantino, 62, has endured more than 5,000 games at roughly 50 bucks a pop while viewing sports at its rawest essence.
"It's adults acting like kids, kids just trying to have fun, and everyone realizing that life is not fair,'' he said.
He's paid by the adults but works for the kids, vehemently protecting at all costs, staring down the dad scolding his son from the stands, firmly telling the arguing coaches that they are embarrassing themselves, constantly congratulating every catcher when they actually catch the pitch.
"Umpire Pete is a legend,'' said Kevin Hurley, past president of the Pasadena Southwest Little League. "He always puts the best interest of the kids first, that's where his heart is, that's where his head is.''
Every youth league in any sport probably has an Umpire Pete, and Costantino is a tribute to all of them, one of many who survive sports' stormiest climate with only their wits and wisdom.
There was the girls' softball game where coaches and parents became so abusive, Costantino ejected the entire crowd, clearing the bleachers, ordering everyone to watch the final innings of the game while standing behind the left-field fence.
"But as the game was ending, I'm thinking, oh no, I parked my car in left field,'' he said, "I'm like, you know, maybe I should have thrown them out into right field.''
Then there was the time a coach kept arguing with Costantino by calling up obscure rules on his smart phone. Costantino was preparing to toss him when he realized the guy was the team's only coach.
So, instead, he ejected the coach's phone.
"I told him, 'Take that phone out to your car and put it in your glove box and leave it there until the game ends,' '' Costantino said. "I don't need a rulebook to tell me what's right.''
Umpire Pete is an equal-opportunity jurist, witness the time he actually ejected himself. It happened while he was umpiring a men's softball game between grocery workers and bikers.
"They were all drunk, then they started brawling in the third inning, and I'm like, 'I've got my money, I'm out of here,'' he said. "So between pitches, I just walked away. I may be blind, but I'm not dumb.'''
Seriously, Costantino actually doesn't see very well during night games anymore, and because of his sore knees, he also doesn't really like to move around behind home plate.
During a recent machine-pitch game, a coach wandered behind the plate to stand with Costantino for an inning, but Umpire Pete just shrugged.
"I don't know what he was doing there, but he was picking up foul balls for me, so I had no problem with it,'' he said. "As you can tell, I don't like to bend over much anymore.''
League officials understand his physical challenges, but love his heart.
"He can barely walk and he can barely see,'' said a joking Greg Burns, former president of the Santa Anita Little League. "But he's there for the kids, and that's more important than any of it.''
He has been there for them since he began umpiring at 16. He was working behind the counter at a fast-food place when he heard he could make more money working behind a plate. He was an all-league catcher and linebacker at Alhambra High, so being in the middle of the action appealed to him.
When his athletic career dried up in college — he is 5 feet 6 — he began a career spent mostly in the deck construction business. He married, divorced, helped raised two sons who are now grown, and has since retired because of his bad knees.
Yet, he has stayed behind the plate. For years he and his three brothers worked for their own youth league umpiring company, but he is the only one still regularly active, working as many as five games a day in the most modest of fashion.
He has no cell phone, no email address, no working Internet. He lives alone in a San Gabriel house where he spends an hour before each game spraying hot water on his aching knees,
"He lives off the grid, and uses umpiring to socialize, pay his bills, get out of the house,'' said his older brother Vince. "I hope to God he keeps his health so he can keep doing it."
Five years ago, Umpire Pete was rushed to a hospital because of a stomach ailment. His situation was so dire, he made a promise that haunts him to this day.
"I saw that Reaper guy, I swear,'' he said. "So I immediately asked the Lord, 'If you don't take me now, I'll never throw anybody out of another game again.''
And in five years, he hasn't, calming coaches with soothing reason, calming himself by constantly chewing candy.
"He has really thick skin,'' Burns said. "He doesn't believe he's bigger than the game. He'll just say, 'Hey, you gotta stop' and parents stop.''
Kids, meanwhile, actually listen. They excitedly shout, "It's umpire Pete!'' before games. After one recent game, it took him 10 minutes to leave the tiny field, as he was swarmed by tiny players.
"You wanna know why I do this?'' he said after one child ran from his mother's embrace to shake his hand. "That's why I do this.''
He never pursued a professional umpiring career because he says he could never stay awake working the bases. He has never pursued a chance to umpire in the Little League regionals or World Series because those umpires are mostly volunteers and he believes in getting paid.
Even losing teams, especially losing teams, think he's worth it.
"Pete is the kind of guy, if he sees a team getting beat bad, and there's a close call at first, that team is going to get the call every time,'' Hurley said.
Costantino agreed, channeling a line from "Field of Dreams.''
"Yep, I'll give them the call,' he said. "Ease his pain.''
Sometimes the strangest calls in his career have come from others. Costantino is surely one of the few umpires to officiate a birthday party. Several years ago somebody rented a field, invited enough people to play a game, and hired him to work the plate.
There was eating, drinking, and maybe the game was getting a little crazy, but no, don't even think about it.
''Are you kidding me? There's no way I was throwing somebody out of a birthday party,'' he said. "I had one rule that day. Everyone was safe.''
With Umpire Pete, they always are.