For about 250 years combined, Jesse Rogers, John Haygood, Bobby Wright, Sammy Kimble, Charlie Kimble, James Kimble and Mike Blythers (the baby of the Old Guard) have brought fairness — if not justice — to softball and baseball fields around Rochester. And, amazingly, in all that time have yet to make a wrong call!
You’ve seen them under the lights of urban ball at Cobb’s Hill, with the senior leagues at MacAvoy Park, or at the Roberto Clemente Men’s Hispanic League at Edgerton Park. And all over the suburbs: under Big Sky azure sunsets at Veteran’s Memorial Park in Henrietta, by the water towers of Harris Whalen Field in Penfield, in the diamond at Hamlin State Park Beach where Lake Ontario glints beyond center field. From chilly evenings in mid April through the long days of summer to chilly evenings when Fall Ball can linger into November.
Their softball history and memory run deep. Recalling in 1977 when Andy Santillo led Mazzola-Castle to the national championship. And in 1980 when the Rochester Express won the professional slo-pitch title.
There have been too many great teams and players to pick the best. Mazzola and Castle before they merged. Projetti’s, Pace Electronics, and Al’s Green Tavern. Mike DeCillis, John Warren, Don Brown, Joe Nucci, the late Peter Castle, and lest we not forget the ladies, Carol Aselin. They’ve watched the game progress as more and more women compete in women’s and co-ed leagues. To a man, they have no plans to retire.
The group had no problem discussing race. To a man, they said race had not negatively impacted their umpiring career or experience. One said any isolated incidents he remembers were nothing to write home about. They’ve been called every name in the book (including one’s not suitable for our family magazine). And blind on more than several occasions — but the barbs have been color blind. I told this to another umpire, Spider (yes, umpires have nicknames), who said he was heartened to hear it, adding this is Rochester and that’s how it should be.
While a basketball referee for decades, James Quinn, “Q”, is in just his second year of umpiring. Q is the one with the distinctive hair down to his (colorful term used by the other umpires). But James knows the Old Guard well. In the community, they are like an extended family: gathering at home barbecues, church activities and community events.
James said people are surprised to learn he is an umpire, adding especially a black umpire. Their surprise points to a disappointing trend as younger generations of African-American young men are increasingly disconnected to baseball.
So, in the last couple of years James has become an ambassador for the sport he loves. Encouraging young men and women to get involved in baseball and softball — actually any team sport — as James believes the experience gives direction, the opportunity for achievement and the ability to work in a group toward shared goals. He’s actively recruiting others to join him behind the plate calling (always perfectly) balls and strikes.Speaking of getting involved, our USSSA game assigner John DeMagistris is always looking for umpires. Every year our association is getting older not younger. Recently, John has been recruiting college students home for the summer to give them a taste of what can be a life long involvement in umpiring. John will give you all the training and support you need. And work in games around your schedule. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org And the pay is not bad at all.
NOTE: I asked the umpires what was the longest softball they ever saw hit. One said a ball knocked by a Rochester Express over the center field fence at Silver Stadium. Another was at the Baden Street Park when Scott Virkus hit one into the parking lot of Dag Hammarskjold School 6. Today, I revisited the site. That was quite a wallop but I believe the story.
UPDATE: At the Lilac Festival, I saw Scott who confirmed the story. In 1981 when Scott was 19 — home for the summer from Purdue University and playing for Polo’s Grocery — he did indeed land one into the parking lot. Scott estimates the shot must have been close to 500 feet.
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