No show leads umpire Cliff Whitson into men’s fastpitch

Written by Bob on August 10th, 2017

WHITE BEAR LAKE, Minn. – An umpire missed an assignment and suddenly Cliff Whitson found himself crouched behind home plate with his nerves rattling and knees knocking.

“In 1989 I had just finished umpiring a junior varsity softball game when I got a call that an umpire didn’t show up for a men’s fastpitch game at Dunning Field,” recalled Whitson.

So he said, sure, he could fill in. But the game wasn’t quite what he expected. For the two ball clubs Whitson would arbiter weren’t your run-of-the-mill league teams.

Squaring off were St. Paul All-American Bar –one of the top teams in the country – and Scandia, one of the best in the state and Midwest.

He remembers the pitchers spinning rising, diving, curving missiles that he had never seen before.

KIWI PITCHER IMPRESSIVE

He doesn’t recall the name, but All-American had a New Zealander in the circle bringing his best “stuff” that evening.

“Every pitch moved so much,” Whitson said. “I admit, I was scared; it was terrifying.”

But he survived and was grateful for the experience. For that one game led him on a new path in his umpiring career.

“It helped push me into the men’s game,” he said. “I never did enjoy umpiring slowpitch anyway.”

HALL OF FAMER

From the chance happening, Whitson embarked on a 28-year career officiating hundreds of men and boys’ games in both the Amateur Softball Association (ASA) and the North American Fastpitch Association (NAFA). Including 39 national tournaments between the two organizations.

With NAFA, he has officiated in 12 World Series (2005-2016) encompassing hundreds of games in every division – young men’s to masters. He also served five years as the Umpire In Chief in the NAFA Youth program.

So it’s not surprising when his nomination papers were filled out and evaluated, he was a shoo-in for the NAFA Hall of Fame. Whitson will be inducted during a ceremony at the 2017 NAFA World Series in Fargo.

LOVING SUPPORT

“I was completely stunned when I found out,” said Whitson. “I told my wife, Diane, and she was in tears, so excited for me. This is such an honor.”

But without Diane’s support, that long and distinguished career may have never have sprouted.

“I have such a wonderful wife,” Whitson said. “She has supported me through the good games and bad. Without her I never would have gotten into the Hall of Fame.”

But 2017, however, brings him yet another such honor. In October, he will be inducted into the
St. Paul Oldtimers Fastpitch Hall of Fame.

“I am totally excited about both,” Whitson said. “It is an honor to go into both hall of fames.”

Diane played a huge role in his career, but so did another; an umpire that Whitson sought to model himself after and glean every nuance of the trade possible.

AMAZING MENTOR

Whitson says he was fortunate to come under the tutelage of legendary ASA Umpire In Chief and national board umpire Billy Peterson.

“He is a legend in the umpire world,” Whitson said. “He gave me confidence, taught me about positioning, to get in the best position possible to make the best call. He was real progressive, not close-minded. He’s been a mentor to a lot of umpires around the world.”

With experience came more responsibility, and soon enough Whitson took a leadership role as an umpire in chief. A role that had a learning curve to it.

“I wasn’t used to the management part,” Whitson said. “The hardest part to learn was telling an umpire he was wrong and he had to straighten up. As the UIC, you’ve got to be up front with umpires. I learned how to approach them and talk to them and advise them on how to adjust their game.

“Hopefully, I became an advisor like Billy Peterson,” he added.

THE BEST OF QUALITIES

For 16 years Whitson and his friend and fellow umpire Steve Vail have officiated in tournaments across the country. Vail has come to know the qualities that make Whitson an outstanding umpire, and deserving of Hall of Fame induction.

“Cliff has the highest integrity, he’s honest and has a passion for the game,” Vail said.

With age, reactions tend to slow down. At 71, Whitson accepts that. He admits to not being as quick to move as before. And with that acceptance he has cut back on his umpiring duties.

He continues to umpire girls’ high school softball, but has cut down on college officiating as well as the men’s game, occasionally putting on the gear when he’s needed.

“I’ve retired from doing college softball,” he said. “The girls got so fast I couldn’t keep up with them, and I only occasionally do men’s umpiring. I didn’t want to be know as an umpire who used to be good.”

Whitson has traveled by road and air to over 95-percent of the states, east to west, north to south. Often taking time off work at his own expense to pursue his profession, his passion.

Why such devotion?

“I love this game of fastpitch,” he said.

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