Tony Paul, Detroit News staff writer
Umpires get a bad rap, because you really only notice them when they've blown a call, or are going at it — nose to nose, expletive to expletive — with a manager or a player.
So it's always good to hear stories like the one out of Kalamazoo earlier this month, when a major league umpire came to the rescue during a pivotal first place-vs.-second place game.
A wiffle ball game, that is.
Here was the situation: two outs, last inning (sixth), pitching team up three, hitting team with runners on first and second base, and the previous year's MVP at the plate.
Kevin Marszalek took a mighty hack, and sent the ball soaring to left, a mammoth shot some 80 feet from home. It looked immediately like a tying home run — so much so, one of the fielders let an expletive fly — but left fielder Steve Everett of Kalamazoo tracked back to the fence, reached up and, taking advantage of his 6-foot-6 frame, caught the ball (barehanded in wiffle ball, of course).
What happened next has made this national news. Yes, he caught the ball, but then went tumbling over the 4-foot fence, and into home-run territory. Confusion set in. Final out? Or tying homer?
Watch the play:
"Kevin's team finished up rounding the bases, everyone touched home, but we really weren't sure," Everett said. "Some of the guys pulled out their phones and tried to look at our website. We couldn't find anything on there, so any holes or gaps in our rules, then all major league baseball rules apply."
Nobody from the Kalamazoo Wiffle League really wanted to start leafing through MLB's massive rule book. So somebody threw out the batty idea of calling major league umpire Tim Welke, a West Michigan native. And that caught the attention of Everett, an athletic trainer at Marshall High whose work has had him crossing paths occasionally with Bill Welke, Tim's brother and also an MLB ump.
Bill Welke, during a chance encounter a while back, gave Everett his business card. And, sure enough, it still was in Everett's wallet that Monday night at the wiffle park in Oshtemo.
Everett dialed. Bill answered. And the conversation went something like:
"Hi, Bill, this is Steve Everett."
"Hey, Steve, how's it going?"
"Good, I have a baseball-related question."
"I'm in the perfect situation, cuz I am sitting in the locker room in San Diego with four other umpires."
And with that, Welke put the call on speaker, Everett explained the scenario, and four major league umpires — Welke, Tim Tschida, Jeff Nelson and Mike Estabrook, who combine for more than 50 years calling games on the grandest stage of all, and who were that night preparing for the Rockies-Padres game — listened, conferred and quickly reached the conclusion.
The ruling is an out, with each runner advancing one base. (Though, in this case, the game was over.)
Everett's team got the win. And the Kalamazoo Wiffle League scored big, too. League member Ryan Winfield was at the game shooting video, and just happened to capture the catch (which you can see above) as well as Everett's phone call to Welke. And quickly, the story was making the rounds, first on Deadspin, then on CBS and MLB Network, among others.
There were two themes in coverage: Wiffle ball, really? (They take it seriously; check out the website with deep stats, and expanded standings.) And umps aren't such bad guys, after all.
Welke apparently got a kick out of it — even if he didn't know he was addressing a wiffle ball question.
"I guess he kind of assumed it was for softball," said Everett, 24. "He called a couple days later and asked what that ruling was for. He goes, 'You guys have a wiffle ball league in Kalamazoo? The more I sit back and look at it, it's a really cool story, especially for Bill Welke and Major League Baseball, that they had an umpire who was willing to help out."
Photo caption: Kalamazoo's Steve Everett talking to major league umpire Bill Welke in order to get the right call in a Kalamazoo Wiffle League game. (Courtesy of Ryan Winfield)