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Twenty-two of us gathered at McCormick Park a few weeks back, and under the guidance of Helena's Tom Mahoney, called imaginary base runners out.

Run a few steps. Stop, feet spread. Right arm in front, elbow cocked 90 degrees. Out.

The skateboarders must have thought it was quite the sight.

"I started when I was 12," Mahoney, now 53, said this week. "Just because they needed umpires and I loved the game."

It was an inauspicious start, at a baseball game in Great Falls.

"Here's a mask, here's a balloon," he was told. "Go to it."

"So I did," he said.

He's been doing it ever since, with a couple exceptions. In 1995, his National Guard unit was called to Iraq, where he worked in an aviation unit for a year.

There was also that time he got completely fed up.

"My first American Legion game," he remembered. "I was living in Great Falls (he moved to Helena at age 19), and ... I could've called a better strike zone. It was basically flip a coin.

"I didn't want to go back, but I talked myself into it. And I'm back."

So is Jeff Hibbert, in his second stint in the past few years as Missoula's UIC. He's pretty happy with the number of quality umpires he has. But there is always room for more blues.

"We can always put them to work," he said. "And if we could get more players - or ex-players - that always helps. People that know the game."

There is danger in that, too: Hibbert had played alongside one of his umps for years, but when the player became a blue, he went by the same rules that he played by. So when the umpire called a batter out for stepping on the plate he was confident. But the batter had already hit the ball and was running to first.

Perfectly legal, but the ump didn't know.

"He played his whole career where he would hit, and then step over the plate," Hibbert said, amazed.

That's where clinics and rules meetings help, and that's a benefit of joining the Amateur Softball Association. Mahoney joined in 1974. Calling his first game was still vivid in his mind.

"I didn't know how," he said. "With the ASA, they teach you how. They help protect you from that feeling."

Mahoney is no 12-year-old rookie, he's Montana's ASA Umpire in Chief, and a fill-in for the Pioneer League. And he's done everything in between.

"If they throw it, I like calling it," he said.

And his last ejection was far enough back to defy memory.

"I pride myself on keeping coaches and players in the ball game," he said. "As you get more confident, you handle those situations better."

And there will be those situations.

"One thing you have to do is separate out the sandlot terms," he said. "‘The hand is part of the ball (it's not).'

"Most of your arguments happen when you know the rules. When you don't know the rules, the fans and players seem to like you more, because you called it like they're used to."

If you're interested in being an umpire, you can call Hibbert at 546-4346. Knowledge of the game helps, but isn't compulsory. Loving the game is. That's what brings you back.

"One of the things I ask my officials after that first game is, ‘You want to come back?' " Mahoney said. "If they say yes, I can work with them."

Fritz Neighbor can be reached at 523-5247 or at fneighbor@missoulian.com.

 

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