Making the call for the final out

Oak Park umpire to hang up gear after 40 consecutive years at the youth level

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By KIT KADLEC

As a teenager growing up in Oak Park, I'd often have to endure countless imitations from my friends doing my father's unique strike call as a baseball umpire, which in actuality sounds nothing like someone saying "strike."

"Heeeee!" they would bellow, accurately mimicking his call.

All my friends knew my dad, Randy Kadlec, as one of the regular Bronco League umpires. And my friends and I would often see him come dragging in late on a summer Saturday or Sunday after he umpired two or even three games in a row, with his light blue umpire shirt turned navy blue from all the sweat.

This year, my dad, 60, said he is retiring from umpiring after 40 straight years of the part-time profession in Oak Park, doing mostly Bronco and PONY League games. I don't know how his knees have survived, but amazingly, he is still standing and able to crouch behind the plate at games.

While his real job is an attorney in downtown Chicago, he never took a break from his contribution to the youth programs as an ump.

From what started out as a way to help fund our Kadlec family summer vacations many years ago has become just truly an expression of his love for baseball, and one of his passions.

"I do it just because I really like it a lot," he told me.

When my dad was growing up in Oak Park, he once talked to an umpire that he knew only as Ziggy, who told him he had umpired for 18 years straight.

"I remember saying, 'What a long career that was,'" my father said, never realizing at the time that he would someday more than double that total.

As a baseball player myself, I would love to talk about the game and its rules with my dad. And over the years, he's picked up quite a number of amazing stories.

One such story is of Sean Lawrence, a left-handed pitcher who eventually made it to the big leagues and started three games in 1998 for the Pittsburgh Pirates (see Spencer's column, page 74).

Back as a PONY League pitcher in Oak Park, Lawrence was by far the most dominant and hard-throwing player around, my dad would say.

"At the PONY League level, he was the best I ever saw," my dad said.

One game, Lawrence wound back and threw a fastball that skimmed off the chest of the batter, knocking him down. The coaches, fearing there might have been damage to his ribs or heart, called an ambulance. It turned out the batter was not seriously injured, but he was taken out of the game for a pinch runner.

The next batter came up, but before throwing a pitch, Lawrence launched a pickoff throw to first base. The high-speed throw connected directly onto the leg of the runner, breaking the bone. Almost perfectly timed, the ambulance originally intended for the hit batter arrived soon after and took the runner to the hospital.

As the game went on, the batter returned for the next pitch, but this time, he was standing so far away from the plate in fear of Lawrence's next pitch that my dad had to ask him to step into the batter's box.

"In my mind, he was so dominant as a PONY pitcher, it was almost unfair," my father said of Lawrence. "It was almost scary."

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Lawrence had the best fastball, but the best curveball belonged to Ben Shelton in Bronco League, my father recalled.

"When he threw his breaking pitch, you absolutely could not tell it was a breaking ball until the very end," he said.

Like Lawrence, Shelton played for the Pittsburgh Pirates briefly, but in 1993 for 15 games and as an outfielder and first baseman.

Or another of his umpiring favorites was a Oak Park and River Forest High School weekend game in which Mike Amrhein pitched the front-end of a double-header game starting at 9 a.m. and the second ended at 11:30 a.m., despite multiple runs in both games.

As the ump, my dad said he especially appreciated the hustle that went into the game.

"I'll never forget that," he said. "The reason they played so quickly was because there was so little time taken in-between innings."

Amrhein went on to star at Notre Dame and made it into the Chicago Cubs' farm system starting in 1997.

Part of that high rate of success of Oak Park players, with many more who have gone on to play in college and professionally, is what kept my dad umpiring for so many years.

"They feed on their past successes," he said of the local programs. "There's a continuity there that's very special."

As a youth, my father had quite a career as a player in Oak Park as well. This year is also a milestone in that it marks 50 years since he started playing organized baseball in Oak Park, and he hasn't stopped being involved since.

He was the catcher on the 1960 Oak Park traveling team that won the PONY League World Series held in Pennsylvania, making headlines in Chicago newspapers. That was the only time an Oak Park team has ever won the tournament.

And it was that work as a catcher handling every pitch that brought him to appreciate the intricacies of the strike zone, and for the game itself.

One of his common umpire partners over the years has been Ralph Cooper. Asked to describe my dad's umpiring style, he replied, laughing, that it was his tight strike zone.

"We always tease him a little bit about that," Cooper said.

But when it comes to a call on one of the lesser-known of baseball rules, Cooper said he always knows who to ask.

"If I wanted to know something, I come to see Randy," Cooper said.

There is always a copy of the latest Major League Baseball rule book somewhere in my father's house. And he relishes anytime anyone asks him about some obscure rule.

"He glories in the rule book," said my brother Cory Kadlec. "I remember updated copies of the Sporting News edition of the Major League Rule Book arriving at our house every winter for a close reading. Dad often would give clinics to other umps on technique, but always on the rule book."

The one thing that's certain for an umpire, though, is that no matter how well you know the rules, you are bound to make a call that makes somebody unhappy.

My sister, Heather Kadlec, said her friends would sometimes approach our dad at a restaurant or bar and recall in detail a close call from 15 years ago that they still remember and think he missed. Same with some of my friends now.

"I was safe!" they will plead to him about a close call at third base.

But such arguments never really rattled or discouraged my dad.

"That's just part of baseball, as long as it's not personal," he said. "Plus most managers in Bronco have been there for a while. I give them the respect that they give me."

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Other than umpiring, my father has been an organizer and coach throughout the years at various levels in Oak Park. And even when he umps, he sometimes goes over to coaches and points out poor form in pitching after the player has left the game.

The Bronco-League All-Star game, held at Vince Dierkes Field at Ridgeland Commons this Saturday, will be my dad's last game as an umpire in Oak Park.

Those in attendance can be sure to hear him belt out "Heeeee!" a few times.

"I guess I'm trying to say 'strike," my dad explained of his call. "I patterned it after another man who had umpired my games. But I just try to be very loud and emphatic. It's a signature. It's me."

Kit Kadlec, 27, graduated from OPRF in 1996 and now lives in Boston where he works as a general assignment reporter for the Daily News Transcript.

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