by Michael Labrosse
Can a kid inherit an umpire gene? My dad officiated baseball, football and basketball for the NCAA for more than 40 years. As the young son of the chief umpire for the College World Series in Omaha during the 1950s and 1960s, I got to sit in the dugouts with some amazing (eventually MLB) baseball players; and watch my dad get booed and yelled at by thousands of fans. We moved back to Minnesota where he promptly organized the Minnesota Umpires Association. Here, he mentored me so I could be an umpire in college. Over the years I had already learned the number one job of an umpire: to protect the integrity of the game. That principled leadership lesson would eventually influence my professional careers in business ethics and psychotherapy.
Our two daughters, Marinda and Alicia, and I spent many years as soccer referees and referee mentors, a passion I continued to pursue until sidelined by paraplegia nearly six years ago. Because refereeing a soccer game in a wheelchair seemed clearly impractical, umpiring softball made good sense to me even in my mid-70s. For several years my applications to umpire were ignored or rejected. I kept reminding myself that no one becomes someone… without someone, so I turned to my very dear friend Terry Larkin, himself a physically challenged nearly 80-year-old umpire, who connected me to Jim Lombardi, the St. Louis Park Rec Supervisor. Thankfully, Jim and Terry had the vision and courage to imagine an umpire successfully working a game in a wheelchair. What a concept.
Once the players could see that I knew what I was doing out there, they didn’t see the wheelchair. There are few things as fulfilling as being on the field of play on a warm summer evening under the lights, with men and women enjoying each other and the game, as they struggle mightily to hit or catch a ball just for the love of it.
If you are physically challenged and yet can clearly imagine yourself officiating or mentoring any kind of athletic activity, I encourage you to find someone involved in that sport – a coach, player, manager, or official; and share your vision with them. Your experience and personality are totally unique. Any game you choose to officiate will be better because you became part of the action. It’s critically important for young people to witness disabled men and women officiating and mentoring in every sport.
In 2002 the National Federation of State High School Associations instituted a rule change that now permits umpires and coaches to use wheelchairs, crutches and other mobility aids. The Wounded Warrior Umpire Academy trains veterans that have worked at the highest level of professional baseball. We are living in a rare time when rules and traditions are evolving rapidly. This may be your time to wheel onto the field and change your life like it has mine. I’m reminded of an old proverb my dad once shared with me: They say old umpires never die . . . they just round the bases, and quietly steal home.
Michael Labrosse lives in St. Louis Park. He also refereed soccer for 18 years. His resume includes work as director at InnerCare Behavioral Clinic, studies in ethics and leadership development at Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, and studies in Psychology/Communications at University of Minnesota Twin Cities. This article also appeared in the Minnesota Recreation and Parks Association newsletter.