I first noticed him as he stood at the rear of his car, trunk open, slipping his chest protector over his head. He’s tall, slender and an athletic appearing African-American man. He had white hair and a white mustache. It made a striking appearance against his dark skin. I’m guessing he was at least six feet, five inches tall and slender. Maybe 65 years old. Dignified. Deliberate. Purposeful.
Our little family entourage headed toward the baseball field, not giving the apparent umpire another thought. Caleb prepared for his Little League game. At 8 years old, Caleb is focused. Determined. Ready. He loves baseball.
As both teams warm up, the old umpire walked onto the field, looked at his watch and bellowed. “It’s time. We gonna play ball or warm-up all night?”
The two young teams casually move into place.
“We can play ball, or I can go home. It’s up to you.” The ump looks at both managers. It seemed to be the casualness that the ump finds irritating.
I see the managers and coaches glancing at each other. They seem caught off guard by his directness.
Before taking his place behind the plate, he calls the coaches over and gives them stern instructions. “Keep the kids in the dugout behind the fence. If you are not in a defensive position or up to bat, you’ll remain in the dugout. Get the dropped bats off the field, fast. I don’t want anyone tripping or getting hurt. And I wanna see some hustle. I ain’t gonna hang around here all night.”
The managers agree and walk back to their teams.
I was surprised by his abrupt nature. “These are kids,” I mumble.
The first 8-year-old batter cautiously approaches the plate. Head down. Shirt untucked.
“You don’t walk up to this plate with your shirt untucked. You hustle up to bat and you act like a ball player. Tuck in your shirt.”
The young man looks at the ump, then back to his manager.
“Don’t look at him,” the ump complains. “It’s not his job to dress you. Now tuck in that shirt and step up to the plate,” the ump says, this time with a changed voice. Soft. Encouraging. Mentoring.
He is old school. A bit crotchety but in his heart, I sense that he believes he’s protecting a sacred tradition. There is no question who is in control. The ump runs a very tight ship.
The young ballplayer swings and seems surprised he made contact. He drops his bat, looks at the ump who smiles and makes a "shooing" motion with his hands. The batter runs to first base. The ump nods his approval toward first, as the next young boy walks up to the plate.
The ump raises his hands and bellows. “I need some hustle here!”
The managers on both sides begin pushing their kids to run, not walk to the plate. There is a change in both dugouts. A sense of importance. Purpose.
The ump looks down at the next batter and shakes his head, then looks at the manager. “Hey coach, don’t send these ball players up here with their shoes untied. Somebody is gonna get hurt!”
The boy seems frightened and just stares down at his untied shoes. Frozen.
The ump, three feet taller than the boy, drops to a knee and ties the youngster’s shoe. I can’t hear the conversation, but I see a smile spread across the young boy’s face as the ump stands up and pats him on his head.
That gesture — this giant of a man, stooping down and tying an 8-year-old's shoes — then standing and patting him on the head told me everything I wanted to know about him.
The managers quickly began inspecting their players. They seemed unsure what to think about the umpire, but his spirit is contagious. The ump expects discipline and hustle. I said aloud to no one, “He’s teaching them life skills.”
This all took place at a Little League game in Sierra Madre, California. My daughter and son-in-law live there with my two grandsons. We try to visit four times a year and always during spring and fall baseball. Both my grandsons, 6 and 8 years old, play. At this game I had the pleasure of meeting and watching Mr. Isreal “Dino“ Charles in action as umpire and a loving mentor to a group of kids he has never met.
After the game, I introduced myself and complimented him. I asked why he volunteers.
“I love baseball and I want the kids to learn to respect each other and respect the game. What I try to teach them through baseball are life skills they need on and off the field. Be on time. Hustle. Be prepared. Look sharp. Try hard and be the best you can be.”
I shook his hand and thanked him. I wanted to say more but the words didn’t come out, but now they are. As I walked away, the phrases “thundering kindness and tough love” kept sounding in my head.
The world needs more people like Mr. Charles. He cares enough in his retirement to spend time on a hot, dusty baseball field to help the children of strangers learn valuable life skills. He has experience he wishes to share and does. I am grateful that my grandson met and spent time with this man. Mr. Charles wants the world to be a better place and volunteers his time to make it so.
I will probably never see him again, but I will never forget my encounter with “the ump,” Mr. Isreal “Dino” Charles. He is making the world a better place, one baseball game at a time.