By Marty Farmer
Above all other job requirements, an umpire must be fair.
Raymond Rigitano, who has been working youth baseball games in Oak Park the last 40 years, established credibility early in his career.
"My most famous story occurred my first year in Junior Pony," Rigitano said. "There was a pitch on a full count that was a borderline strike on the outside corner at the knees and I rang the batter up. His coach called timeout and asked me why I called that pitch under the knees for a strike. I warned him not to make any more comments on balls and strikes. He told me he wouldn't if I stopped calling strikes on pitches under the knees. So I had to toss him out of the game."
The ejected coach was his father, Raymond Rigitano Sr.
"The guys from that era still bust my chops as the guy who threw his father out of a game," said Rigitano with a laugh.
Kidding aside, he takes his job very seriously.
"A good umpire has to be impartial, patient and hustle during games," he said. "You also have to really know the rules and study the game. I have a rule book in my washroom. Every time I go in there, I just open the rule book and read. After 20 years of that, it's like, 'Wow, I didn't know that rule.' If something comes up during a game, I'll know how to handle it."
Rigitano, who grew up in Oak Park, started as an umpire here at 15. He initially called games of players just a year or two younger than himself, which admittedly felt odd.
"When I was 15 years old, my mother told me I was getting a driver's license at 16 so if I want to drive, I better get some money for it," he recalled. "I looked in the local paper and saw an ad for baseball umpire. I've always loved baseball, so I thought it would be a cool part-time job."
While being an umpire never became a full-time profession (Rigitano works in security at Niles West High School and previously was a truck driver), it's always been a labor of love. In his spare time, he's a die-hard Cubs fan and overall sports junkie.
"It's a way to stay involved in the game I love," Rigitano said. "Between the money I spend on expenses like uniforms, clinics and gas, there's not much left. It's never been about money; it's about my love for the game."
Like any job, nothing is perfect. Unfortunately, armchair umpires are a part of youth baseball. Rigitano has tactfully tolerated overbearing parents, fans and coaches alike.
"It's a mental thing where you just have to block them out," he said. "Like the players and coaches, you're going to make mistakes as an umpire. The important thing is to learn from it and move on."
Although he has worked as an umpire in other towns, most of his time has been spent in the Oak Park and River Forest area. A certified IHSA umpire, he has called games for assorted age divisions, particularly Pony (13/14) and Bronco (11/12) for the OP-RF and OPYB organizations. It's a close commute, too, for the Melrose Park resident.
Jim Allen, who has worked in local youth baseball in various capacities, including former administrator, longtime coach and current umpire, appreciates Rigitano's professionalism and expertise.
"I think Ray embodies everything you want in an umpire," Allen said. "Ray is even-keeled, instructive, accurate and knowledgeable about all of the rules of the game. I look forward to the chances I get to work games with Ray. We always have fun comparing notes about what we just saw, especially those oddball plays and situations you've never experienced before."
During his childhood, Rigitano enjoyed playing baseball, football and hockey. He played varsity hockey for two years at Oak Park and River Forest High School. The 1982 graduate considered umpiring, in part, because of the Huskies' 1981 baseball state championship team.
"The catcher on the 1981 team was sophomore Frank Giammarese, who was an all-state player," Rigitano said. "I thought, I'm not going to get much playing time with him in the program so that also pushed me to becoming an umpire."
Rigitano, 54, fondly recalls the Huskies' glory years on the baseball diamond during the 1980s. Led by legendary head coach Jack Kaiser, OPRF went 30-4 en route to a state title in 1981. Pitchers Pat McKune and Tom Kozlow, second baseman Tom Hildebrand, first baseman Joe Citari and center fielder Jim McBride led the star-studded Huskies that memorable year.
As an umpire, Rigitano has also seen his fair share of notable players come through the ranks of Oak Park youth baseball. The list includes former OPRF pitching stars Ben Shelton and Scott Nelson, Eric Kumerow (OPRF grad/former NFL player), Joe Corvo (attended Fenwick/former NHL player), Robert Spillane (Fenwick grad/NFL player with Pittsburgh Steelers), Chris Ledbetter (former OPRF baseball player/head coach) and Christopher Bridges (aka rapper/actor Ludacris).
"You can kind of see the really good players and teams about five years before they reach high school," Rigitano said. "I enjoy the interactions with the players, especially having a good rapport with catchers."
Rigitano also praised fellow veteran umpires Randy Kadlec, Ralph Cooper and his son, Barry Cooper. Kadlec, who worked as an umpire for 46 years, served as a mentor for Rigitano.
"Randy kind of took me under his wing my early years," Rigitano said. "I grew up a block away from the Cooper family. Between the four of us, we have roughly 160 years of combined service in the same era umpiring in Oak Park. That blows my mind just thinking about it."
During a recent weekend at Lindberg Park, Rigitano worked the 14-U and 13-U All-Star games for OP-RF Pony baseball. Honorees from the day included: Luke D'Alise (13-U MVP), Paul Fischer (14-U MVP), Fischer (Home Run Derby champion), Gordy Hunter and Fischer (Co-League MVPs) and Joe Daschbach (Outstanding Volunteer Award). The American League swept the National League in the pair of all-star games.
Tryout dates for the 2020 OPRF Pack Travel teams are: July 23-26 (13U & 14U attend 7/23 and 7/24; 15U & 16U attend the 7/25 and 7/26. For more information, visit www.oprfpony.com.
An announcement was also made about Rigitano's four decades as an Oak Park umpire.
"After that announcement, several people thanked me for my 40 years of service. I said, 'Thank you, I've enjoyed this more than anything.' It's been awesome."
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