Bill McClelland is the last of a dwindling breed in Grays Harbor — the baseball umpire. A former Air Force radio repairman who worked as an engineer for 37 years before retiring in 2013, McClelland now spends the spring and summer months on the baseball diamond.
On July 5, Bill McClelland stepped onto the grass field at Olympic Stadium in Hoquiam; his shoes polished and his face mask in his left hand. There was one slight adjustment to the plans as the second umpire for the contest did not show up. With both managers ready to begin the American Legion AAA baseball doubleheader between the Grays Harbor Giants and Vancouver, McClelland agreed to work one-man mechanics.
The extra stress doesn’t come from having to run further and alter his movements to make all the calls necessary, but without a second umpire, McClelland was the only party in the stadium without a rooting interest. In a sport where the sentence ‘Kill the umpire’ became famous, one would assume there would be more than a few nerves with McClelland positioned in the vice of pressure from both fan bases. His every call dissected by managers, pitchers, catchers and plenty of parents. A single missed or one incorrect call could have allowed for emotions to boil over. For McClelland, it is just another day at the ballpark.
“I enjoy the game,” McClelland said. “I get excited about a game when I first get out there. If I know that it is two really good teams that are playing, I get excited about the game just like everybody else. It is kind of like a pitcher on the mound when his adrenaline is going; it’s the same thing with an umpire. You know it is going to be a good contest and I want to be on my A game.”
The 70-year-old Montesano resident has been a part of the Grays Harbor Umpires Association for 23 years, and is currently the secretary-treasurer for the association. McClelland began coaching Babe Ruth baseball when he first moved to Grays Harbor in 1976. He eventually joined the umpires association as a way to try and spur changes to the cost of umpires for some of the Babe Ruth baseball teams he coached. However, after he was able to work with some of the umpires and see their perspective, he was the one who changed his mind.
“I figured if I can’t beat them, then I’m going to join them,” McClelland said. “I joined the association so I would have a say in it. I just found out that they were a lot of guys that liked the game as much as I did. I got a different perspective.”
McClelland enlisted in the Air Force in 1965. After a four-year stint, he began studying to become an engineer. McClelland and his wife, Margie, were married in 1966. The couple will be celebrating their 50th aniversary in October. He graduated from the University of Washington in 1973 with a degree in mechanical engineering and took a job for Standard Oil in California.
Due to his want to move closer to home and a little recruiting from the company softball team, McClelland took a position as an engineer at the ITT Rayonier pulp mill in Hoquiam. It didn’t take long for McClelland to find his way into the baseball community. He began coaching the Aberdeen Federal Babe Ruth team, and then in 1981, took over as the head coach for the Montesano Merchants Babe Ruth team. McClelland was able to coach his sons Scott and Kevin, but he kept detailed stats on every single player and still has binders full of records and scorebook pages from his days as a coach.
Hundreds of games
Now, McClelland works to help the Grays Harbor Umpires Association staff umpire close to 150 games throughout the high school baseball season, and then almost 300 games for various ages throughout the summer.
“We really only had six to eight umpires who were real active this last season,” McClelland said. “The other guys would fill in some games. We’ve lost about a half a dozen of our most experienced umpires this last year. They’ve either changed jobs, moved away or they are just getting up there in age and don’t want to umpire anymore. That is pretty typical across the board.”
McClelland’s dedication to the game has included almost three decades of coaching at the Babe Ruth level and was rewarded by induction into the Southern Washington Babe Ruth Hall of Fame in 2012, and more than two decades calling balls and strikes.
His life in baseball began when he was growing up in south Seattle. McClelland was the lone child from a single-parent household living in a rough neighborhood when his Little League and high school baseball coaches reached out to make sure he stayed off the street. McClelland’s Little League coach, Dick Dawson, took the time to help mold the young man into a shortstop.
“I kind of always thought (coaching) was a way to pay (Dawson) back for the hours he spent with me,” McClelland said.
The lessons Dawson instilled into a young McClelland are still with him today. Once, when he was playing Little League, he hit a home run and three triples in one game. The lesson came on a home run that didn’t count. McClelland rounded the bases on a well-hit ball and sprinted home for what looked like an inside-the-park home run, but he had missed second base and was called out. He followed his coaches’ instruction and didn’t yell at the umpire who made the call. He just kept playing and helped his team to a 9-8 win.
“Of all the plays that I can ever remember, I remember that one to this day,” McClelland said. “I don’t remember missing the bag, but I remember getting called out. It was pretty upsetting to me. I probably did miss it; I don’t know.”
Now that McClelland has spent 20-plus years as an umpire, it is safe to say he has made a few calls that players will remember years later. Yet, the goal is for the players not to notice the umpires.
“After 23 years, you’ve seen just about everything or at least you hope you have,” McClelland said. “With two-man mechanics, which we run on almost all of our games, it seems like you are always 90 feet from a call. It is a lot about angles. Getting an angle on a ball so you can see the ball coming in, but also an angle on the play so that you can see the tag or the player’s foot hit the bag.”
While not every coach and manager will agree with McClelland on all of his calls, he said it’s key to be consistent in your strike zone and how you call a play. Whether it is tricks of the trade like watching the middle of the bag on quick plays or knowing precisely where to be on every play, McClelland prides himself in knowing how to do the job properly, even down to the black shoe polish.
“I call a low strike zone,” McClelland said. “It is probably a little below the knees. It is the full width of the plate and the black. I will give strikes on the black, but I won’t give anything above the belly button. I like to be pretty active behind the plate. You have a place to be on everything. An umpire that is standing behind the plate when the ball is hit is not doing his job. You are always supposed to be someplace else.”
Even though he is a hall-of-famer, McClelland admits he is not perfect when it comes to every call.
“You can’t be right all the time, and you just have to accept the fact that sometimes you are going to make a mistake,” he said. “Sometimes you know right after the call ‘I should have called him out or I should have called him safe.’”
McClelland retired from his job as an engineer in 2013, but he still keeps busy with hunting and fishing. He took a fishing trip to Alaska last month and returned with 80 pounds of halibut. He is also the secretary of a duck hunting club. His interest may vary, but one of his first loves remains baseball.
“I’m umpiring the games of the kids of kids that I coached,” McClelland said. “That tells you how long I’ve been in it when the kids that I coached when they were 13, now have kids that are 13 to 18 years old. It keeps you young if you keep active. If I know I have a game tomorrow, I’m excited about getting out of bed and looking forward to the game.”
Brendan Carl: (360) 537-3954; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @DW_Brendan