Dale Ford and Will Little exemplify the gratification in finding your calling.
Major League Baseball currently has Little on call, and Ford, a former MLB umpire who still calls high school and college games, isn’t in any hurry to hang it up.
Little, a Science Hill alum who played baseball at Milligan, is in his seventh season umpiring, and learned last month that he’s one of 19 alternates for the 68 MLB umpires this season. Vacation, illness or other attrition could land Little a temporary trip to the majors.
Little, who turned 29 in March, was issued an MLB uniform with the No. 93 this spring. Numbers are generally issued with the intention of using that umpire during the season. So Little anxiously carries his extra uniform from city to city while umpiring in the Triple-A International League for another season.
“I keep that uniform with me at all times,” Little said. “So if I get a call I’m ready to go. Sometimes that call can come on very, very short notice … maybe 2 or 3 in the morning. Basically, my phone stays on all the time, hoping to get that phone call and go.”
Little has dashed up the ladder. Ford is not surprised. He recommended Little try umpiring when he saw him calling a youth-league game some seven years ago, and almost immediately they were working together.
“Dale knew me from growing up and just told me to come do a college game with him that weekend,” Little said. “This whole thing started from there. I met him down at the Parks & Rec in Jonesborough, and he took me out on the field and showed me some basic stuff to get through a college game – basic positioning and basic mechanics – and we went over and worked a college weekend wooden-bat summer league series.
“And he told me, ‘You need to look into this and try to go to professional umpiring school.’ And it really just went from there, because I didn’t even know there was a professional umpires’ school. So I got on the computer and looked it up and it sounded interesting.”
It was easy to spot Little’s potential when he debuted in the Appalachian League.
“I saw Will had natural instincts you don’t see every day,” Ford said. “He’s a hard worker and he’s smart and he hustles and listens.”
Ford put in 26 seasons in the majors before being one of 22 umpires who lost jobs in connection to the mass-resignation labor negotiations in 1999. Ford, best known for run-ins with Billy Martin and Earl Weaver, called two All-Star Games (1988 and ’99) and two World Series (1986, ’97). Not bad for a 1960 graduate of Sulphur Springs High School who grew up “dirt poor” with seven brothers and five sisters.â€¨“I was the middle child of 13 children. If that don’t warp you nothing will,” Ford said while explaining how the former state representative endured major-league tirades and state politics.
Ford also refereed college basketball and high school basketball, and officiated high school football. He began by calling an elementary basketball game when he was 15. Sulphur Springs basketball-baseball coach Jerry “Shorty” Broyles asked him to after a ref no-showed. Ford was soon making $10 a week officiating.
“Ten dollars a week back then was pretty good for a country, high school boy,” said Ford, who lives in a 112-year-old house across the field from his Pleasant Valley childhood home.
Ford repaid Broyles, who died in January of 2008, with a two-week trip to Spring Training in the mid-90s.
“We played golf every day for two weeks and it didn’t cost him a dime,” Ford said. “I paid him back for his kindness he showed to me and my family during high school. I took him in every clubhouse, every dugout. He looked like a kid in a candy shop.”
Ford has had other guests at Spring Training, including then-East Tennessee State coach Alan LeForce and Buccaneers booster Richard Pectol, who were with him when Michael Jordan was launching his short-lived baseball career. Ford knew Jordan from when he called North Carolina games.
“I walked in the clubhouse and got a couple of baseballs and took Alan and Pectol in there and said, ‘Hey Michael, this is my local college basketball coach and this is my lawyer,’” Ford said. “He said, ‘Man, what are you doing here?’ I said, ‘I work here. I don’t know why they want your autograph, but they do.’”
Considering the professional career he had, Ford said Jordan didn’t stand out in college. Of course, he was playing with James Worthy and Sam Perkins.
“It was like a light went on when Jordan got to the pros,” Ford said.
The most dynamic athlete Ford saw was Bo Jackson.
“Bo Jackson was unbelievable,” Ford said. “I opened in Kansas City that year Bo made the team. George Brett brought Bo into our clubhouse. Bo was in his shorts and I’ve never seen a man put together like that. He swore to me he never lifted weights, but he looked like somebody who had two cantaloupes on his shoulders. That’s just how well he was built. And his legs looked like stumps. Unbelievable. Nothing but muscle.
“And he was so fast. Willie Wilson was the fastest man in the American League at that time and Bo outran Willie Wilson from home plate to first base by a step and a half.”
Among Ford’s highlights were being behind home plate when Boston’s Bill Buckner made the error in Game 6 against the Mets in the 1986 World Series, and when Tom Glavine beat former Atlanta teammate Steve Avery in Fenway Park during Avery’s first year at Boston in the inaugural season of interleague play (1997).
Ford said he officiated games at Kentucky when former Tennessee High alum Derrick Hord played and former Tennessee High coach Bobby Chambers was an assistant. He worked Indiana games when Bobby Knight was on the bench (he’d previously met Knight with Sparky Anderson at Spring Training) and called NCAA Tournament games. He said Knight didn’t give him any static, but he wasn’t crazy about a Knight adversary, LSU’s Dale Brown.
“I always thought Dale Brown was pretty much a back-stabber,” Ford said. “He wanted to yell at you on the floor. If you yelled back he’d call the league office on you.
“And I tell you, Norm Sloan was a tough ole rascal, but Norm was fair. Dale Brown wasn’t fair. Norm Sloan, I can’t quote you what he’d say in the paper, but if you got in an argument today, tomorrow it was all over with. … And that’s the way most of the big-league managers were, everybody except Earl Weaver and Billy Martin, of course.”
Umpires’ union leader Richie Phillips once brought a Ford lawsuit against Martin after the New York Yankees manager was quoted describing Ford as a, “stone liar, someone I'll bet $100 doesn't know how to read.”
Ford jokes – or at least says with a chuckle – that he didn’t want to be calling Baltimore-Yankees games because a call was certain to make either Martin or Weaver happy.
Ford once ejected Weaver during the national anthem. He said Weaver had been out to first base four times to argue with him the night before, and picked up where he’d left off while a large woman sang the next day’s national anthem.
Ford said he frequently addressed Weaver as “Rooney” because his diminutive stature favored actor Mickey Rooney. They were standing at home plate for the exchanging of lineup cards during the anthem.
“Rooney was talking out of the right corner of his mouth while she sang,” Ford said. “He says, ‘Dale, how many plays are you gonna screw up tonight?’ And I talk out of the left corner of my mouth, and say, ‘Rooney, it don’t matter, because you ain’t gonna be around to see it. As soon as this fat lady’s done, you are, too.’ …
“She finally got through and he looked up at me with his big ole blue eyes, I’ll never forget it as long as I live, and he said, ‘Are you serious?’ in that rough voice. I said, ‘I’m serious as a heart attack.’ So he left. The only time in my life he didn’t try to yell and scream.
“About the second inning I got a note from the broadcast booth that the batboy brought out. It said, ‘Dale, where’s Earl?’ I sent it back up there and a couple of minutes later looked up and gave them a thumbs-up and they were dying laughing. They loved it – Jon Miller and those guys.
“Weaver was easy. I got him 14 times. I got Bobby Cox five times when he’s in Toronto. I helped him get his record. He’d make a sailor blush with some of the stuff he said.”
Ford did say Cox and Weaver were great baseball men supporting their players. He didn’t qualify any comments about Martin, and even said Dale Berra saved what was left of Martin’s hide by getting hold of former Erwin star Ed Whitson when the Yankees pitcher was mixing it up with the scrappy, overmatched Martin.
Ford remembers the first time he called a game when Whitson pitched after he came to the American League.
“I walked through the dugout and I said, ‘Where’s that hillbilly from Erwin, Tennessee,’” Ford said. “He looked around and didn’t know whether to wind his butt or scratch his watch. I said, ‘Hey hillbilly, just get ‘em close, we’ll take care of things.’ … He was tough when was throwing the ball well … and he was some kind of competitor.”
Martin wasn’t the only Yankee that Ford ejected. He said he tossed Reggie Jackson one day when spitballer Gaylord Perry was getting the best of the slugger.
“Reggie Jackson might as well have stayed in the hotel when Gaylord Perry pitched, because he had him so psyched out,” Ford said. “Gaylord struck him out a couple of times. He threw him a spitter and it went down and he swung and, of course, missed it by a mile.”
Ford said batters would ask you to check the ball seemingly every pitch when Perry was on the mound.
“Reggie said, ‘You don’t have the guts to run him out of the game,’” Ford said. “I said, ‘I’ve got the guts to run you. Get out of here.’
“So he goes over and beats a water cooler off the wall, throws bats, balls, all kinds of catcher’s equipment on the field. (laughter) It didn’t bother me. I just wrote the thing up and they fined him a thousand bucks.”
Jackson did have a point. According to Ford, Perry would doctor balls with K-Y Jelly. He said he’d rub it all over his body, because if you used Vaseline, sweat would bead up like rain on car wax.
“Gaylord Perry was pitching in Seattle and he was loading the ball up like he always did,” Ford said. “I called him Farmer because he was a peanut farmer. I said, ‘Farmer, what are you doing? You’re screwing the ball up. Every pitch is going down. Where have you got that stuff?’ He said, ‘I’ve got it in my jock. You wanna check it?’”
Umpires used to be a bigger part of the poetry of baseball. There’s less theater and far fewer drawn-out ejections, Little and Ford agree, in the modern era.
“It seems like the umpires up there now, they want them to be robots,” Ford said. “As an umpire, you’ve got to expect people to come out and argue once in a while. A lot of times you’ve got the play right, and they’ll tell you. But they’re just out there (to support players). Ralph Houk would come out and sling his hat around and say, ‘Now Dale, don’t run me. I can’t afford the fine. When you get tired of listening to me, just tell me and I’ll get out of here.’”
Little says social media has helped sterilize the sport.
“Whether one would argue for the good or for the bad … there’s been a change over the years in the development of umpires and umpiring style,” Little said. “The social media, the public, the money that’s involved (have spurred the evolution). … You don’t see the characters in managers; you don’t see them carrying on like they did back then. Today it’s a much different form of argument. Obviously, there are some blowups every now and then, but the whole game has evolved throughout the decades. … “There’s always a camera on you now. The way you go about everything you do, you’re well aware it’s on television somewhere.”
Umpiring is a thankless task. You’re invisible unless you do something wrong. But Little and Ford like having an important role in something so important to so many people.
“I’ve always loved baseball,” Little said. “It’s been my passion, and now it is part of my life. The thing about umpiring I really like is … you’re in control of the game. You’re making big decisions out there in how that game’s gonna be played, and it’s your job to make sure the outcome of the game is an honest outcome. We hold the integrity of the game. I’ve always been a big person as far as just being honest in everything you do and having integrity within myself.”
Little fondly recalls Ford calling his games when he played for Science Hill and Milligan College.
“Dale Ford, Dean Hurley and Gary Maxwell were three guys that stick out as good ones (when I played),” Little said.
Rich Garcia, Rocky Roe and Jim Evans were three of Ford’s favorite major-league co-workers. He enjoyed working with area basketball officials while being yelled at by fire-breathing John Treadway, Elvin Little and Buck Van Huss.
"When I first started doing high school basketball I had John Treadway at Elizabethton," Ford said. "Man, I got baptized in a hurry doing that job. ... I worked many, many times for Buck. Elvin Little was one of the best high school coaches I ever saw. Elvin and I argued every time I worked with him, but he was a professional. And when it was over it was over. ...
“I worked a lot of games with guys like Carroll Kite, Charlie McConnell and Ralph Stout, some really good people up in this area that were conscientious, took it serious.”
Will Little isn’t surprised that Ford, 70, still umpires.
“The thing about Dale, even at his age now, he keeps himself in shape and works hard at everything he does – always has,” Little said. “Being a small-town boy growing up, I think, he kind of learned that to get out and survive in a larger world, you’ve gotta work hard to get anywhere you want to go.”
Ford said he still works out daily in his basement workout room, which includes a dry sauna. Little’s diligence includes an “almost obsessive” daily workout regimen.
It’s likely to pay off this season with at least a cameo appearance in The Show. Ford is eager to see Little realize the dream.
“I went to the big leagues at the end of ’74, like, Aug. 28,” Ford said. “They’d fired a guy. … You’re a country boy from out here in the county, and you look up and there’s 50,000 people watching you – plus TV. And the first few years in the big leagues you’re thinking, ‘This is awesome.’”
Any day now, Little could experience the same scene.
“I’m hopeful that at some point in time this season that I’ll get my debut,” Little said. “It’d obviously be a dream come true, but working a game’s not my final goal. My goal is to get a full-time contract and have a long, healthy career at the major-league level.”
The prospects of that, Ford says, is an easy call.
“Will’s got what it takes,” Ford said. “If he don’t stay in the big leagues 30 years I’ll be really surprised.”