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1995 | 07 | 25 | Articles | The News & Observer | Sports
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The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)
July 25, 1995
Page E1
When a hand injury put an end to his baseball career, Jon Shaw found another way to stay on the playing field.
By Stewart Ugelow

RALEIGH - On a sun-streaked weekday evening at the playing fields of Laurel Hills Park, the bases are loaded, the game’s on the line, and Jon Shaw is following the ball.

From the moment the baseball leaves the pitcher’s hand, its red stitches spinning frantically, until gravity slams it down with a thump into the glove of the catcher kneeling before him, Shaw watches it.

In a split second, he’ll decide whether the ball came in too high, too low, too far to the inside or too far to the outside to be a strike.

At the same time, Shaw eyes the runner on third, watching to see if he’ll take one step too many toward home plate. If the runner goes, Shaw will make that call, too. Safe or out.

For Shaw, calling bases and balls is all in a night’s work. He’s an umpire for the Raleigh Parks and Recreation Department’s summer youth leagues.

But unlike most of his colleagues, Shaw’s barely older than the kids playing. He’s a 21-year-old college student. And umpiring is his summer job.

This night he’s working a tournament game between all-star teams from Raleigh and Cary. He’s dressed in his uniform of a light blue shirt, gray slacks and black shoes, just like the umpires in the major leagues. Because he’s behind the plate, he wears a chest protector under his shirt, a face mask and a black baseball cap worn backward.

At first, the game looked like it would be competitive. But Raleigh has been on a tear since the second inning and is threatening to run away with the game. If at any point the Raleigh team can score 10 more runs than Cary, the game ends.

Raleigh’s ahead 12-3. One run to go. The bases are loaded.

Shaw scrubs at the plate with his foot, trying to clear away the dirt that has accumulated. Sweat streams steadily down his face and dust swirls around his feet. He points to the mound, his signal for the pitcher to throw. Then he crouches behind the catcher, kneeling on his left knee and waiting for the pitch.

It’s a familiar feeling, this waiting. He’s spent three summers as an umpire waiting for pitches. And a lifetime before that.

Shaw’s father played catcher for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. So Shaw played catcher too, first in the Parks and Rec youth leagues and later for the Broughton High School squad.

He would have played at Appalachian State University, where he will be a senior this fall, but he cut a 2-inch

gash in his catching hand on his grandmother’s tobacco farm the summer before his freshman year. The wound healed, but when he tried to play ball, it ripped back open.

Because he couldn’t bear to be away from the game, he turned to umpiring.

He took a class in sports officiating and worked some intramural games at Appalachian State. When he came home, he sought summer employment as an umpire. He was young, but Parks and Rec agreed to give him a shot. Three summers later, Shaw still spends many of his evenings on Raleigh playing fields.

"It started as a summer job, and now I just do it because I love it," he said.

He prefers to work games like this one, a Pony League game, because the level of play is so high. In games with older kids, the 14- to 18-year-olds, he can feel the heat of a pitcher’s fastball and have "at least a little fear for my life" if the catcher doesn’t catch the pitch. Younger kids, he says, "can barely get the ball over the plate."

While the older players have trouble getting the ball over the plate, too - pitchers from both Raleigh and Cary have sent pitches soaring above his head several times - they also throw some of their pitches very fast and very much on target. Shaw has called quite a few batters out on strikes tonight.

But being an umpire is more than just calling balls and strikes.

When a new catcher enters the game, Shaw checks to see that he’s wearing all the necessary safety equipment.

"Do you have your cup?" he asks, a little too loudly.

The catcher nods, and the crowd laughs. Shaw turns and deadpans, "Gotta make sure."

In between innings, Shaw talks with the players and sometimes offers advice. Even the older players have lots to learn, and when he can, Shaw tries to help them improve their games. "Especially the catchers," Shaw says.

He’ll show a catcher how to properly send his signals and help him with his throws. Shaw thinks he might want to try coaching one of these days.

These are the things he loves about umpiring. It’s having to deal with the people off the field that he hates.

Kids get angry at you, coaches get angry at you, and, worst of all, parents get angry at you.

"It’s the parents that give us the most trouble," Shaw said. "They rant and rave when their kids get a bad call."

The parents of the Cary team certainly have given him trouble. As the Cary team’s chances on the field dwindle, its fans have increased their heckling of Shaw.

"He just ain’t going to call a strike," screams one parent.

"We should show him the rulebook, show him where the strike zone is," a coach mutters, watching his team collapse.

Sometimes the spectators move beyond muttering and into violence. Trouble can erupt quickly.

At a game Shaw was working a few weeks back, one team’s shortstop was intentionally walked. As the shortstop made his way around the bases, he said something to the other team’s coach. The coach responded in kind. And before Shaw knew what was happening, the shortstop’s father had grabbed a baseball bat, run onto the field and attacked the coach.

"You gotta relax. You gotta relax," Shaw kept telling the father as he broke up the fight. "You don’t need to do this."

While fights don’t happen often, they can be quite serious. During a game in Chapel Hill last year, a coach attacked an umpire, beating him up so badly that the umpire’s chiropractor compared his injuries to those from a 75 mph head-on car crash.

Parents who are out of control on the field set bad examples for the kids who are playing, Shaw says. He makes it his job to keep that from happening.

"As an umpire, you’ve got to take control," he says simply.

Shaw does not take challenges to his authority lightly.

"People need to realize that if you make the umpire mad, no matter how impartial he is supposed to be, you can’t win," Shaw said.

In his three summers of umpiring, Shaw says he’s made only one mistake that haunts him. He called a runner out on a force play when the fielder should have had to tag him. Shaw did run that play over, because he was clearly in error. But on judgment situations, he always sticks by his call.

"You cannot ever let them question your call," Shaw said. "If you do, they’ll eat you up."

He knows the rulebook inside and out from all his years as a player, so he’s pretty confident making rules-based calls. He does have one little problem, though.

"The only thing that really plagues me is that sometimes I forget the count," Shaw admits.

On the nights when he’s not calling a game, Shaw works as a shucker at the 42nd Street Oyster Bar. One day a man who had umpired games that Shaw had played in recognized him there.

"He told me that I should go to umpiring school," Shaw said.

He appreciates the advice but is unlikely to follow it. Although Shaw went through a stage where he thought he wanted to be a professional umpire, he’s wary of all the traveling they have to do. He may change his mind again, but for now, he’s just having a good time.

"When it stops being fun, I’ll quit. Just like [Michael] Jordan," Shaw said. "If it ever gets to the point where I’m saying, ‘I wish it will rain,’ I’ll stop."

So for now, umpiring is only a part-time job. And his full attention is focused on the three Raleigh baserunners and the Cary pitcher, who has already thrown three balls. Shaw points to the pitcher and then waits.

The pitcher winds up and throws.

The batter doesn’t swing and all eyes turn to Shaw, who makes the call.

It’s a ball. The pitcher has walked in the winning run.

The game is over.

Just another night on the job.