Chief Little League umpire Tommy Smith battling ALS

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comApril 6, 2013 

Tommy Smith was an umpire who put fairness first on the field, but he won't question the tough call he received in life.

"I'm a spiritual person," Smith said. "I believe in the Almighty God. He never guarantees us no more than what we're doing right now. I'm not worried about the outcome, because I'm not scared of what's going to happen. I know he's going to take care of me."

For 30 years, Smith has taken care to ensure Georgia District 8 Little League games are played by the rules. Now, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis -- Lou Gehrig's disease -- has changed rules in his life.

As the spring youth baseball and softball seasons have started, Smith, 54, is looking at a fatal disease that has sapped much of his strength. This will be his final year as the district's umpire in chief.

"I still will be helping in any way I can because it is in my blood," he said, "and that part of me is still going strong."

Smith, who has worked for 25 years at Cott Beverages (formerly called RC Cola), first noticed symptoms in 2009.

He lost coordination. He stiffened. He weakened. He tripped. He fell. He blacked out. It got so bad, he had to stop umpiring and become an administrator.

"Oh, man, it's still painful now to let that go," Smith said. "That was heart-wrenching. It's so hard to turn loose something you've loved so long."

His bewildering medical journey finally culminated in a diagnosis Dec. 18 after three years of doctors trying to figure out the problem.

"At least we know what the fight is now," said Smith's wife, Vickie.

Smith went from a cane to a walker and now has a wheelchair at home. He also bought a scooter to use at work.

"We've got some big decisions to make," Vickie said.

"As long as I'm able to walk, I'm going to walk," Smith said. "I'm not going to let this beat me."


Randy Morris, who coached the Columbus Northern Little League All-Stars to the 2006 world championship, praised Smith's dedication to the district despite not having a child play.

"It just shows how much he loves these kids and the passion he has for the game," Morris said. "We need more people like that in Little League."

Morris never saw Smith lose control of a game or himself.

"He always was professional on the field," Morris said. "He called things the right way and always stood by his calls. … He always tried to do things for kids as far as safety. He preached that at tournament meetings."

Just seeing Smith's black Ford Taurus in the parking lot often would make district umpires hunker down to call their best game.

He has mentored umpires such as Bart Mace, the chief umpire at Northern.

"He always took the younger people who were willing to learn under his wing and give them the finer points," Mace said.

Garnett Ray, a former coach and now chief umpire at Peach Little League, said Smith commanded respect but didn't need to brag or swagger. He gained respect because he gave it. He defused conflicts instead of starting them.

"If you had a bang-bang play, you could ask him what he saw and he would tell you," Ray said. "There wasn't an argument. … He would make a joke to lighten the mood, or he would just smile and shower you with kindness."

'Prove it'

Nearly 34 years ago, Smith literally married the girl next door on Pollman Street. The Kendrick High graduates have two adult children, Brittni Shuttleworth and Lauren Coke, and two grandchildren.

In 1980, Smith was asked to coach a Northern Little League team. The team won one game that season. The next year, however, it won the city tournament.

Boosted by his sudden success, he complained about the umpiring to Ruth Burns, then the district administrator, and crossed the line.

"I believe a monkey with a blue shirt could do better," he told her. So she went to her car and tossed him a blue shirt and rule book and said, "Prove it."

He umpired for the next 27 years -- in Little League, Senior League, Big League, Babe Ruth League, high school and college. He reached the pinnacle of his craft in 2006, when he umpired in the Little League Softball World Series for ages 11-12 in Portland, Ore. That's also the year he made his most controversial call.

The call

During the 2006 District 8 age 9-10 all-star baseball tournament at Pate Park in Harris County, Northern trailed American by three runs in the final inning.

With the bases loaded and two outs, the Northern batter hit what appeared to be a winning grand slam.

But after he missed third base along his home-run trot, the Northern coach pushed him back to step on the bag.

Smith, the plate umpire, immediately called the batter out because of interference.

"People went haywire," Smith said. "Fans and parents, they were cussing me out. But the American coach was outstanding. He said, 'Let's just void the call.' I told him, 'No, I can't do that. I saw the infraction, so I made the call.'"

Mace was one of the other umpires in that game. He said many umpires wouldn't have watched so closely or had the guts to make the call.

"Tommy always had that pride in what he did," Mace said, "even if it wasn't popular."

Indeed, looking back on his umpiring career, Smith can't think of a call he regrets.

"I'm not one who dictates how the game comes out," he said. "I interpret the rules the way Little League wants us, and I enforce them."

Other health issues

Smith was diagnosed with Crohn's disease in 2007, but the digestive disorder didn't keep him away from the field.

His wife, Vickie, was diagnosed with breast cancer in July last year. She is in chemotherapy and has started radiation. While she has a positive prognosis, her husband faces an inevitable decline. Through it all, they support each other.

"Once I get her well," Smith said, "then I'll start worrying about me."

"I just keep pushing him," Vickie said. "We know what's coming. It's really hard to think about and deal with, but we just do it together."

Smith recited the ALS statistics: "Each person, the disease affects them differently, but says 70 percent of the people diagnosed live three to five years; another 15 percent live up to seven years; very few live past 10 years."

His voice weakens as he loses strength in his diaphragm and vocal cords. His lung capacity is about 60 percent. The man who could bellow "Foul ball!" now strains to be heard.

"It's pretty frustrating," he said.

Smith described the pain as a constant ache in his whole body, but he feels it most now in his legs, and it has started in his back and neck.

"The worst thing is the muscle spasms, especially at night," he said. "I have to sleep with my back to my wife because my legs jump, like kicking a football. I apologize to her, but she just says it's part of it."

On a scale of 1-10, he said, the pain is probably an 8.

"But you can't feel sorry for yourself," he said. "If you do, you go downhill real fast. I've got great support; they won't let me get down. My pain and suffering is short-term compared to theirs."

'Spirit still fine'

Smith notified District 8 administrator Bernard Ashley about his departure plan to provide enough time to groom his successor, Ted Preston.

When he started umpiring, Smith joined others in Georgia to improve the training and run clinics in Columbus. In 1991, he became the district's umpire in chief.

"Tommy is always willing to do what needs to be done," Ashley said.

Even with ALS.

"His spirit still is fine," Ashley said. "Last year, I thought we'd have to hog-tie him, because he wanted to get on the field when we had a shortage of umpires. I told him I'd whip his butt if his wife didn't."

Smith's deterioration pains his friends.

"Just to see him get to the point where he can't umpire anymore," Mace said, "it hurts us as much as it hurts him."

"People that know Tommy know how much he has put into Little League and just hate to see this happen," Morris said. "Tommy is a behind-the-scenes guy, not the type that goes out and advertises it, so he definitely doesn't call attention to himself."

Smith has collected more than 9,000 pins and countless memories from umpiring youth baseball and softball.

"I don't have a dog in this hunt," Smith said. "I just want every kid to have a fair shake."

District 8 umpires get $25 per game, but that doesn't really cover the gas money and uniform expenses, Smith said.

He doesn't receive any extra for the administrative duties as chief umpire. He estimates he devotes 20 hours per week during the regular season and 40 hours per week during tournament time to youth baseball and softball.

He likes to tell umpires, "If it weren't for the parents and coaches, the kids wouldn't need us because they would be fair calling their own games."

Smith described the ideal umpire as a cross between two animals: rabbit ears to hear everything and rhino skin so that stuff doesn't penetrate.

"Unless they get personal or cuss, giving umpires a little bit of a hard time is part of the game," Smith said. "Even when I'm in the bleachers, I'll holler, 'Are you sure about that call, Blue?'"

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