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Playoff experience leaves Little wanting more

Joe Avento • Updated Oct 17, 2017 at 6:46 PM

ELIZABETHTON — Will Little’s career as a major league umpire seems to be progressing just fine. The more postseason assignments he gets, the more he wants.

A year after working the American League wild card game for his first postseason experience, Little was chosen to the crew for the National League Divisional Series between the Chicago Cubs and Washington Nationals. It was his first full postseason series and he came away hungry for more.

“I was blessed to get it,” Little said Tuesday while getting a haircut at Whitson Barber Shop. “There’s hopefully more to come. My goal would be to be picked for another playoff, whether it’s a divisional or wild card, whatever. Any playoff would be great. It was a lot of fun.”

Little, a Johnson City native and Milligan College graduate, said the wild card game last year was intense because it was a winner-take-all scenario in which the Toronto Blue Jays won an 11-inning thriller over the Baltimore Orioles.

“That felt like a Game 7 just because it was one game and that was it,” Little said. “It was much more intense than the regular season.”

Working the Cubs-Nationals series this year proved just as exciting when the defending World Series champions extended their season with a 9-8 victory in Game 5 of the best-of-five series.

“It really made it a cool fulfillment of a goal to see the whole deal,” he said.

Working the playoffs meant delaying his return home for the winter. With a baby at home with his wife Katy, being away much of the spring and summer was a little more challenging than previous seasons.

At least the family was able to travel to the postseason games.

“That made it a little easier,” he said. “I’ve been trying to adjust to being a dad now and being on the road. It’s a tough adjustment, but we’re figuring it out.”

With both of his postseason experiences coming down to a final game, Little understands the pressure, knowing that one bad call can make an umpire famous for all the wrong reasons.

“That’s the thing you never want to have happen,” he said “But you put that in the back of your head. You’re confident in your ability and just go out and do your job. You have to be focused.”

The 33-year-old Little has been in the big leagues for five seasons, counting his time as a rover before he got his permanent assignment.

He made some news in July when he ejected Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, catcher Russell Martin and pitcher Marcus Stroman all in the same inning.

The internet blew up with Blue Jays fans coming up with all kinds of names for Little. Somebody even edited his Wikipedia biography to include the word “blind.”

It’s just part of the job, he says.

“I try not to pay attention to that much,” Little said. “Most controversies are just fan-related and create themselves. I just do my job and go on.”

That fateful inning represented half of the number of players or managers Little tossed from games all season. He also got Oakland A’s manager Bob Melvin, A’s second baseman Jed Lowrie and Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch.

“Within the job, everybody knows what they can and can not do,” Little said. “They know where the lines are. We don’t go out and try to throw anybody out. It’s like they throw themselves out. We try to keep them in the game the best we can, but if they keep pushing, pushing, pushing, they know eventually they’re going to get ejected. That’s just the way it is.

“That’s also part of the game. There’s a better understanding inside the game than there is with the media and the fan base. They don’t understand that we all have an understanding that that’s part of the game sometimes.”

Replay has become a big part of the game as Major League Baseball uses technology to try to correct plays called wrong on the field.

Little welcomes the extra scrutiny. Anything to help get the calls right can’t be bad, he says.

“Personally, I think it’s been successful,” Little said. “The idea is to get plays right. Camera technology has gotten to a point where they can identify mistakes that the human eye just can’t see. So there’s, unfortunately, plays that we still miss, but for the most part those cameras are able to pick up those misses and we make the call right.”

As part of his job, Little spent three different weeks as a replay official. He watches games on monitors in an office in New York. When a call comes up for replay, he is notified, watches the different angles, and makes the final call.

“It’s a different mindset,” he said. “It’s nice to get off the field for a few days and not be standing on your feet for hours upon hours. It’s a relaxed type setting for the most part, but when a close play happens, everybody gets prepared.”

Replay isn’t the only way technology is used for the umpires. They are graded on balls and strikes as well as plays on the bases. They log into a system to see their personal results, and Little says that’s what challenges him the most.

“I try to look at individual goals and try to reach them,” he said. “I’m pleased with it. I hope I keep it going. I work hard. There’s always room for improvement in areas, but that’s the same for everything in life.”

Little, who played baseball and basketball at Science Hill High School and baseball at Milligan, advanced through the minor leagues about as fast as an umpire can before debuting in the big leagues in 2013.

Now that he’s arrived, he wants to stay for a long time.

“It’s work, but it’s a lot of fun,” he said. “I enjoy what I do. I’m blessed to be doing it for my career. I’ll try to keep it going and have a long and successful career.”

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