ORWELL — In 1990, Orwell resident John Tester signed up his 6-year-old son for tee-ball in his then hometown of Union City, Calif., just outside of Oakland. Tester learned the team needed a coach, and he took the job.
The only catch was that Union City Little League baseball required its coaches to umpire.
That April Tester for the first time took the field ready to call them as he saw them.
“I was standing out at first base in a pair of dress slacks, shirt and tie … and froze my butt off. God, it was cold out there. But I remember it just like it was yesterday,” he said. “I loved it. I fell in love with it. And I’ve been umpiring Little League baseball ever since.”
Now 49, Tester, a longtime police officer and private security worker, moved with his family to a 46-acre Orwell spread in 2004. Since then has umpired local games steadily, from 3rd-grade to high school ball.
He has become a Middlebury Little League mainstay. He has been invited in each of the past four years to officiate at the Vermont District I championship tournament — and been asked to do the title game every time — and has also worked the state tournament.
This past March Tester learned he had been selected for a major honor among Little League umpires: He was invited to be one of the dozen men in blue working the Eastern Regional Tournament in Bristol, Conn., which will run from Aug. 5 to 12.
The team that wins that tournament earns a berth in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Penn., later next month.
Tester said he is thrilled to be asked to umpire the Regional games, some of which will be televised, because invitations are based on merit. The presidents of local leagues recommend their best umpires for District and state tournaments, and operators of those tournaments recommend their best for the Regionals.
Tester put in his application last year, and was quickly selected, a further indication that his work has been noticed. It probably also helped that he said he finished first in a class of 22 at a five-day Bristol Little League umpiring school.
“Talking with the guys ... in Burlington who run the District up there, it’s pretty unusual to get invited after only one year. Usually it takes three or four years,” he said.
LOVE OF THE GAME
Tester did not play baseball as a youth in Nevada, where his family moved from his native Utah when he was 3, although he did wrestle in high school. In his mid-20s, Tester settled in Union City, where he discovered umpiring. He explained he loves being out on the field watching kids play what he called the greatest game in the world.
“You get to sit and watch the game from a whole new perspective. You get to watch the strategy, the coaches and the players. You get to listen and hear to excitement of the game on the field ... I get to be involved with every aspect of the game,” he said. “You take it all in and you make judgments. That’s what I think I loved about it.”
Tester said he prefers a low profile on the job.
“I don’t like working with guys who think nothing happens on the field unless they say it’s OK,” he said. “I don’t want to be the center of attention. I just want to make the judgment calls right, fairly ... and let the kids decide who is going to win and lose.”
Doing the job well is no simple matter.
“No. 1 is know your rules. It’s Murphy’s Law, the one rule you don’t know is the call you’re going to have to make ... No. 2 is pay attention, focus,” he said. “You have to focus on every pitch ... Every pitch is individual. You judge the game on each individual pitch.”
Tester said he always shows up an hour early in a crisp, clean uniform and learns the quirks of fields’ ground rules and dimensions, such as holes in fences or overhanging trees.
“You always want to have fun. You don’t want to be overbearing or create an issue, but take it seriously,” he said.
Umpiring also demands complex technical knowledge beyond rules. In most games, Tester works one- or two-man crews, but positional responsibilities vary depending on the number and placement of baserunners for three-, four- and six-man crews. Tester offered a simple scenario for a two-man crew.
“When a ball is hit to the outfield, it’s my responsibility as the plate umpire to watch that fly ball and see whether it’s caught or not or whether it’s a home run or not. If there are kids on base, it’s the base umpire’s responsibility to watch those so if he hears me yell catch he can check for a tag-up. Or he’s got to watch those kids run around the bases, because a lot of times those kids don’t touch the bases,” he said.
Then there’s the requirement for a thick skin.
“You’ve got to follow this golden rule: You cannot react to the crowd. You cannot interact with them,” he said. “You cannot turn around and tell them to be quiet. You cannot turn around and tell them, ‘Well, why don’t you come out here and do this?’ or, ‘How can you make that call? You’re 75 feet away.’ ... If you let them get your goat, if you let them get you excited and get you mad, you’re going to lose focus on the game.”
Umpires should also trust their instincts once they are in the right position, Tester said.
“The truth about umpiring is that if you call it the way you instantly saw it, your gut reaction, ball-strike, out-safe, your gut reaction, you’re going to be right 99 percent of the time,” he said.
Umpires must also learn to move forward the other 1 percent of the time. For example, on July 20 at the District tournament, Tester forgot to clear his ball-strike indicator, as did the scoreboard operator, after a batter made an out on a two-strike count. The first pitch to the next batter was a called strike, and Tester made a rare miscue.
“I have a very dramatic third-strike call, so I punched this kid out on one strike. So everybody calls time and we got it all straightened out,” he said. “It was terribly embarrassing to do something like that. But you’ve got to forget about it. I apologized to the batter, and away we went.”
BRISTOL ON TAP
A similar mistake in Bristol, or even a tough call that is wrong by inches, will be revealed as such by instant replay. Tester admits he is aware cameras will be looking over his shoulder.
“Even while doing the District games up here ... you think to yourself, ‘That was a really close call. If I do that in Bristol, what are they going to see when they look at that on TV?’ It just goes through your mind. But you just call them the way you see them,” he said. “You don’t stop and analyze it. You have to be very confident.”
If all goes well in his first 12 games, Tester will earn plum assignments — behind the plate or at first base — in the championship contests at the end of his stay in Bristol.
And he could even merit a berth at Williamsport sometime in the next few summers.
“That’s my dream. You’ve got to go through Regionals. You’ve got to do a good job at Regionals. You’ve got to get recommended by the Regional staff. So 100 percent of my focus right now is to go down to Regionals and do the absolute best job that I can. I’m a good umpire, I know how to do this,” he said. “Next year I’ll submit my application for Williamsport and hope for the best.”
But the consolation prize isn’t so bad.
“I have as much fun doing a game with third- and fourth-graders that are out there to play ball and have fun ... as I do state championships up in Burlington,” Tester said. “I love being on the field with the kids while they’re playing the game of baseball.”
Reporter Andy Kirkaldy is at email@example.com.