But this year is different. Oh so very different.
These days, the Major League Baseball umpire is spending more time at home with his wife, Katy, and their three sons, all under 3 years old. He’s not complaining about that, to be sure. Lord knows, she isn’t.
But the calendar says it’s mid-March and by that time of the year an umpire is supposed to be umpiring. Little is supposed to be getting ready for his eighth season in the majors.
But life has changed everywhere — in sports and the world in general — because of the worldwide coronavirus outbreak, and Little’s life is no exception.
The Johnson City native, a former athlete at Science Hill and Milligan, took some time to elaborate on how difficult the shutdown of spring training and the delay of opening day have been on his profession and favorite game.
How tough have the past few weeks been?
“I don’t know how you define tough in that regard. Tough is someone really affected by this crisis. Fortunately, we haven’t had to deal with it directly.
“As far as leaving spring training on a whim and coming home, it’s a big change. It’s something we’re not accustomed to. But the whole world’s not accustomed to what’s going on. I’m sitting at home. Blessed to be home and be healthy, at least to this point. I’m looking at the good right now. I’m with my family. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be.”
You get all geared up for spring training and now this. What’s been the biggest emotion?
“The first emotion is kind of a shock that this has really become this big of a problem and you never really perceived this. Back in early January, everybody’s excited to get going and not even seeing anything like this coming. And then all of a sudden, boom, here it is.
“In umpiring, we always say surprise is your worst enemy. With that said, something like this will always surprise you. You’re just not prepared for it.”
Do you think you’ll get to work this year at all?
“I always try to look at the positive things. I think we could definitely play some baseball. Our bigger concern before we play is just simply how this country’s going to be changed by this. We just hope the people of the country and of the world, for that matter, are kept safe as possible. That far exceeds any thoughts of baseball.”
Turning away from the current situation, do you still get excited when you’re about to report to spring training?
“Every year. There’s full excitement. I had a full schedule going with the baby coming, January winter meetings, physicals and all. With all of that going on, those meetings are the time you start turning on the switch and gearing up. Your families are used to it at this point. They have a preparation for you being gone and that’s probably never going to change. I love my job. I love what I do. It’s a great career and I’m very fortunate to be in the Major League Baseball family.
“Even though there’s only 76 of us on staff, we’re still part of a much larger family of Major League Baseball. We’re all in this together.”
When you do go back, will you be more careful when a manager comes running out of the dugout and gets nose to nose with you for an argument? Social distancing and all?
“I haven’t even thought of that, to be honest. I think there might be some reserved actions on those things moving forward, maybe some changes, maybe some guys getting creative. Hopefully we’ll find out sooner than later.”
What do you think of the proposal to eliminate so many minor league teams? Didn’t you work the Appalachian League on your way up?
“I worked in several leagues. You have to work at every level and I did work in the Appalachian League. I don’t know the details on all the sides to that stuff, only what I’ve read about it. I can say from my experience that working at each of those levels certainly helped developed my skill set as an umpire.
“From an umpire’s view, the development is typically slower than that of a player because you’ve not performed that type of task for much of any part of your life. As a player you start playing from the time you can walk around. As an umpire you don’t actually start that until later. There’s a lot to learn, a lot more than most people realize.”
Your strike zone is constantly rated as one of baseball’s best. How does that make you feel when you see that?
“I’m a competitive person and I have a job to do. At the end of the day, I just want to be right. The people put out those reports and we see them or somebody will send them to you. You never know where they’re getting their data and, again, when you put out general data it doesn’t always give all the integral parts that also go into umpiring. We want to be right at the end of the day, but there’s also a lot of aspects to umpiring a game. It’s more than balls and strikes and out and safe. It’s management of people and situations. Those are tough to measure.
“You look at it and kind of smile at it and keep on going because you can be at the top of one of those charts, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the next game you work. In the next game, people want you to get those calls right. The next pitch is the one that matters the most.”
Did you work many Astros games in recent years? And, looking back, did you ever get suspicious?
“I worked them several times, home and away. But there was never any idea on our side in any games I worked. It never came to thought, was never brought to anybody’s attention. Our job is to keep the integrity of the game, so it’s not like if an umpire knew something was going on, we wouldn’t address that.”
What’s the best part of being a major league umpire?
“It’s my favorite sport and to get to work in the 30 major league parks every night is probably the coolest thing. There’s not many jobs out there that you get to tour the country and work in the bright lights at game time.
“There’s also a shared gratification out of the fact that we get to be the decision makers on the calls and there’s a very competitive side to the umpires. We might not be playing the game, but to get the calls right, you have to be a competitive person. That level of inside competitiveness is what drives you to getting calls right.”
What’s the worst part of being a major league umpire?
“Being away from family. With three boys, there’s no joy to leaving them to go work. But it is what I do and it is part of our future. There’s pros and cons to everything. My kids are going to grow up with experiences that most kids will never have. They’ll get to do a lot of traveling and things I didn’t get to do growing up. Hopefully it will be a very fun next 20 years or longer. Certainly as long as I’m doing the job, there will be some perks they will experience.”
What’s the best line from a player or manager you’ve heard after ejecting him?
“I’m not going to name names, but I had a guy after I kicked him out say, ‘Good. That’s what I wanted. I didn’t want to be here anyway.’ ”
Do you ever wish you could talk back to the fans?
“No, actually. I probably get more inner laugh and giggles out of fans than anything. I’m lucky to have the personality that berating me really doesn’t bother me when it comes to the fans. A lot of that comes from I recognize the fans of the game, that’s part of what they do. It’s part of what they should do. They’re rooting for their team, having fun. It’s a great experience for them. It’s part of the deal. I don’t ever really take them personally.”
What’s the best insult you’ve heard from a fan during a game?
“Most insults you couldn’t put in the paper, but when I was refereeing (high school) basketball, I did get told that they hope I’m a better umpire than I am a referee. I actually responded to them. As I was handing the ball to a player to inbound, I looked back and said ‘I hope I am, too.’ ”