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Sports

Quill the Umpire: Baseball proves it's a small world after all

One thing I’ve learned as an umpire and sports writer is that it really is a small world.

As we finished our pregame coaches meeting during our final game last Saturday at Kaneland, I noted a white-haired gentleman sitting directly behind the backstop and thought to myself, “That looks a lot like Pete Klein.”

Once the game started, I asked the catcher where was his team from and he told me that the team consisted of primarily Wheaton North and Wheaton Warrenville South players.

“Anyone on your team named Klein?” I asked him.

“Right there,” the catcher said as he pointed toward his third baseman.

I hadn’t see Pete in about a decade but ran into him a couple years ago at a high school girls gymnastics regional at Glenbard North since his granddaughter, Lenna Klein, was competing for Wheaton co-op.

Here he was again, rooting on his grandson.

So we played catch up in between innings. Now in his 80s, Pete looked good and it was great to see him, but what a surprise it was to look at him sitting there in what is basically my backyard. Here we are in Maple Park, several dozens of miles away from where we used to work together in Tinley Park more than 10 years ago, smiling and laughing.

I had a similar experience a few years ago while working a game at Metea Valley.

I looked into the stands and saw Chuck Tomczak, father of Craig Tomczak, head coach of the Mustangs.

I worked for several years with Chuck in Homewood but never put two and two together to recognize that Craig was Chuck’s son.

I guess I’ve taken too many foul balls to the old noggin.

About a month ago I had an assignor in desperate need so I made the long trip to Mokena and spent the day out there working 14U games.

In my second game I saw a kid named “Hokanson” take the hill and all I could do was laugh.

I knew it wasn’t my old high school classmate Don Hokanson’s kid because he lives in Texas so I assumed it was his older brother Mark’s son and I was right. I caught Mark napping in the grass between games, took a quick picture and posted it via Facebook to Don just for the laugh.

It seems like everywhere I go, I run into someone I know.

I host a senior citizens luncheon on the final Tuesday of the month in Sugar Grove, which is funded by the Sugar Grove Township and Sugar Grove Park District.

This has gone on for about five years now and wouldn’t be successful without their support as well as our mixed group of volunteers, which varies every month, and we’re always looking for help.

At our June lunch, the park district had two college kids help out in setting up tables and then they stuck around and helped serve lunch.

When we finally had some downtime I had a chance to talk to these two kids who both are now playing baseball at Waubonsee Community College.

One of them was Jake Carlsen who went to Providence just like I did. What’s more though is that Carlsen started the 2015 Class 4A state championship game at Silver Cross Field in Joliet. I didn’t umpire that game, but I covered it for the newspaper. Coincidentally, Jake’s mother, Lisa Carlsen, is the head women’s basketball coach at NIU.

Carlsen didn’t pitch that well at state, but he kept the Celtics in a game in which they rallied to win 6-5 over Mt. Carmel. It was the middle championship during a three-year run of state titles by the Celtics that I doubt will ever be topped.

So there was Carlsen, a kid I just met, helping me out by serving ham and egg salad sandwiches and reminiscing about winning a state title. What a small world it really is.

Likewise, on a couple occasions this summer I’ve crossed paths with Geneva grads Nick Fitzmaurice (2014) and Garrett Davis (2015) who are coaching a Force Elite 16U baseball team this summer. It seems like just yesterday I was umpiring their games in high school and in youth travel ball.

Now the two are giving back to the game. Davis is still set to play at Elgin Community College next spring with his younger brother, Jeremy (2017), while Fitzmaurice is done playing and finishing up college at Illinois State.

“I love coaching,” Davis said. “Who knows if I have a future in coaching or not, but the team I’m coaching now is great and it’s a great group of guys.”

He’s also learned that coaching is far more difficult than it seems.

“It really puts things in perspective because managing the game is so much different,” Davis said. “It’s a lot easier to be on the player’s side than the manager’s, especially in high school with the substitutions and re-subs. I think back about how much easier it was to just go out and play your game, but I still love doing it.”

As a quiet kid who let his bat and glove speak for him, Fitzmaurice has learned that he’s got to actually speak up to lead his kids.

“I was so much different as a player because I kept my mouth shut, tried my hardest and talked with my glove,” he said. “Now it’s a different mindset because you have to understand the players, their personalities and how to click with them. It’s been a humbling experience and one I’ve definitely enjoyed. I don’t know what the future will bring but I know I’ll never step away from the game.”

That certainly makes complete sense, since Fitzmaurice’s dad, Pat, still plays in an older adult league and shows no signs of slowing down. I supposed it’s like father, like son.

I’ve only got a couple weeks of games left for this summer. I wonder whom I’ll run into next? As long as it’s not a catcher trying to make a play on a pop-up, I think I’ll be good, although I’ll never complain about seeing an old friendly face.

• Sugar Grove resident Chris Rollin Walker is a baseball umpire with an eye for strikes, balls, gerunds and participles. Contact him at editorial@kcchronicle.com.

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