Feb. 18, 2009
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CORALVILLE, Iowa — Tim McClelland has umpired some of major league baseball’s highs (a perfect game by David Wells) and lows (Sammy Sosa using a corked bat). He shared his vast knowledge of the game to an audience of nearly 500 at the sixth annual University of Iowa Baseball Lead-Off Dinner on Tuesday at the Coralville Marriott Hotel & Conference Center.
McClelland, a graduate of Michigan State University and a resident of Des Moines, is a fan of baseball at all levels. He has been a full-time major league umpire since 1983.
“I’m a baseball fan, so I follow it,” he said. “I watch what Iowa’s doing and what Michigan State is doing. I watch the College World Series, but I watch it a little differently. I know a little about the college game, but I think that comes from just being a baseball fan. I like to watch high school baseball. I know it sounds kind of bizarre, but even when I have an off day, I’ll go to Principal Park (home of the Des Moines-based Iowa Cubs, AAA affiliate of the Chicago Cubs) because it’s a fun day for me and my family. I get to sit in the stands and have a hot dog and a Coke and enjoy the game a little bit differently than what I’m used to.”
Because of the hectic schedule of a major league umpire, McClelland admitted that those family outings at the ball park are rare. He has two daughters that play softball and a son, who attends the University of Iowa, who played baseball, and is still a big fan.
University of Iowa head coach Jack Dahm was responsible for luring McClelland to speak at the Lead-Off Dinner. Before beginning his sixth season as Hawkeye skipper, Dahm joked that bringing McClelland here signaled a personal peace-offering with the entire umpiring fraternity.
“I’m turning over a new leaf,” Dahm said. “I want all umpires to know that I feel bad every time I got kicked out and I want them to see I can be friends with an umpire. That’s why I brought Tim here.”
McClelland explained how the rite of passage for an umpire was similar to how a player reaches the major leagues — with one key difference. Those who score the top 10 percent in umpire school are assigned to a minor league. Only the top 1 percent of umpires in the minor leagues advance to the majors.
“Umpiring is all about experience and seeing as many places as you can,” McClelland said. “Even though an umpire might be a good umpire, they want you to experience as much as you can in A ball, AA and AAA, whereas a baseball player — if he has a lot of talent — might start in A ball and then go right to the big leagues.”
“I’m turning over a new leaf. I want all umpires to know that I feel bad every time I got kicked out and I want them to see I can be friends with an umpire. That’s why I brought Tim here.”
UI head baseball coach
McClelland said he benefits from having a `more laid-back’ personality.
“I don’t get excited very often about too many things either on or off the field,” he said. “I’m able to keep my head when everything is breaking loose.”
On May 17, 1998, McClelland worked a game at Yankee Stadium between Minnesota and the host Yankees. His umpiring partners included John Hirschbeck (first), Rich Garcia (second) and Mike Reilly (third). New York defeated the Twins 4-0 that day and Yankee pitcher David Wells threw 79 balls and 41 strikes en route to hurling a perfect game.
“There was a lot of pressure,” McClelland said. “Pressure is self-induced, so I try to push that to the back of my mind. You know you’re going to be part of history. You don’t want to take anything away from David Wells, but you certainly don’t want to give him anything either, or detract if he does get a perfect game.
“So in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, the crowd of 55,000 starts to get into it. I had to keep reminding myself to focus, focus, focus. When the fly ball went out to right field, a lot of people have seen Wells pump his fist at the ground. Well, nobody was focused on the plate umpire. I was pumping my fist, too, because I was glad it was over and I was glad to be part of history.”
When asked about steroids in baseball, McClelland pleaded for a `forgive and forget’ attitude.
“I’d like to see people kind of get over it,” he said. “It was part of an era. In 2004 baseball instituted the ban on steroids, but you have to realize that there were a lot of people taking steroids. They used them to make themselves better and I can’t fault a player for doing that. If you chastised everybody that was doing something illegal in the game, there wouldn’t be anybody playing the game. You have to say 1990-2004 there were a lot of guys doing (steroids) and that’s the way it was and just move on and put it in the back of your mind.”
“I’d like to see people kind of get over it. It was part of an era. In 2004 baseball instituted the ban on steroids, but you have to realize that there were a lot of people taking steroids. They used them to make themselves better and I can’t fault a player for doing that. If you chastised everybody that was doing something illegal in the game, there wouldn’t be anybody playing the game. You have to say 1990-2004 there were a lot of guys doing (steroids) and that’s the way it was and just move on and put it in the back of your mind.”
McClelland reminded reporters that cheating has always been a part of baseball and he went as far to say that some in the sport live by the adage that `you’re not trying to win if you’re not cheating.’
“Norm Cash, who won the batting title (in 1961) said he used to put tacks in his bat,” McClelland said. “There have been guys who grooved their bat…guys who have stuck thumb tacks in their glove to scuff the ball. Gaylord Perry is a good example. I think maybe he was more fiction than fact. The fact that he might throw one worried people more than anything. There have been guys who have tried to bend the rules for years and years and years.”
On July 24, 1983 — the first season McClelland worked as a full-time major league umpire — he was involved in one of the most controversial games in baseball history. Kansas City third baseman George Brett hit a two-run ninth inning home run off Goose Gossage of the New York Yankees to give Brett and the Royals a 5-4 lead. Yankee manager Billy Martin protested and McClelland, the home plate umpire, signaled than Brett was out and the bat was removed from the game.
“I knew we were right in that situation and we were handling it the way we should have by the rules,” McClelland said. “Unfortunately, George didn’t see it that way. We were doing exactly what we thought was right and by the rule book.”
The Royals appealed McClelland’s ruling and American League president Lee MacPhail overruled the decision. Kansas City eventually won the resumed “Pine Tar Game,” 5-4.
“I can’t rule on the spirit of the rule,” McClelland said. “I have to rule on the letter of the law.”
Since 2000, McClelland has worked in both the American and National leagues.
“Being an old guy, I still like the traditional parks,” he said. “I like to go to Wrigley Field and I like Fenway Park.”
McClelland said that most of the newer venues are `fan friendly,’ placing spectators close to the playing field, which can be problematic at times for an umpiring crew. He is intrigued by Chase Field, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“You have a swimming pool out in right field, you don’t see that in just any ball park,” McClelland said.
Dahm couldn’t help but toss bait to the umpire.
“You don’t get distracted there, do you?” he said.
“Sometimes you go out for balls you’re not supposed to go out on,” joked McCelland. “They have scoreboards that are vertical instead of horizontal and I understand from my wife that they have the best assortment of food. It’s a unique ball park and a fun ball park to see.”
McClelland also talked about umpires and their third-strike call.
“It’s an individual thing,” he said. “I remember practicing in front of a mirror. I’ve never been a big razzle-dazzle guy. I give it the old pull-the-chain, or whatever you want to call it. I try to make it a little more demonstrative than a regular strike, but I certainly don’t want to show up the player, either.”
McClelland was crew chief on June 3, 2003, when Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs hit what appeared to be a routine first-inning ground-out to second base. Sosa’s bat shattered during the swing, exposing a half-dollar sized piece of cork halfway down the barrel head. Sosa, sixth on the all-time list with 609 home runs, was ejected.
The Hawkeyes open the season Friday, Feb. 20, against Illinois at the Big Ten/Big East Challenge in Clearwater, Fla.