SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. —Little League World Series umpire Cynthia Smith considers herself fortunate that her job—and her hobby—each center around volunteerism.
As an employee of the YMCA of Broward County in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Smith calls for volunteers. As a youth baseball umpire, she’s a volunteer who calls balls and strikes.
Just the fifth female in 67 years of the World Series to be part of a 12-person umpiring crew in Williamsport, the 60-year-old Smith has reached the sport’s pinnacle. Rarely, if ever, are series umpires asked to return; there’s a different crew each year.
“I keep saying the beauty of Little League is that it really is a microcosm of the world in general. The whole apple pie, baseball thing,” Smith said Wednesday prior to a U.S./International doubleheader at Lamade Stadium.
Her umpiring days began when she became a volunteer coach for her son’s Little League team. Coaches were asked to umpire games of other teams in the league.
“A couple of very experienced umpires took me under their wing,” Smith said. “I started reading the rule book every night; it was right by my nightstand. That was 17 years ago and there weren’t very many women. I was really conscious of knowing my stuff and being ready for any kind of arguments.”
A law school background — she’s a graduate of the University of Georgia law school — aided Smith in that facet of the game and a second career was born.
“A third of the people thought there was a woman out there and she didn’t know what she was doing, a third thought it was kind of cool and cute, and a third was just happy someone showed up to umpire their kids’ games,” Smith said.
Now showing up on national television, Smith had home-plate duties during a record-setting, seven-inning no-hitter by Chula Vista, Calif., pitcher Grant Holman in the first round and worked the first international victory by a team from Brno, Czech Republic.
“The caliber of play is nothing like you’ve seen before,” Smith said about the youthful talent she deals with. “They make plays you never thought you would see them make, and if you haven’t hustled into position during the play you’re going to be caught with your pants down. Adjusting to that is a little bit of a challenge.”
To their credit, Smith said the players don’t seem to be as nervous as the adults. “They’re having so much fun,” she said.
Most of the time. The pitcher from the Czech Republic was in need of one strike to end the game against Michigan. Overcome with emotion, Smith said he took so long to get ready to make the pitch that she called time and cleaned the plate “really, really well” to allow him time to compose himself.
“He threw the pitch and it was a ball, and he threw the next pitch and the game was over. Every umpire on that crew was teared up as we were walking off the field,” Smith said. “Just because of that moment when those kids came halfway around the world to win that game in this moment and this spotlight.”
An umpire rarely makes friends in that role. Smith has had plays challenged, and online social media —or “unsocial media”, as she calls it— bloggers have cracked wise about her “throwing like a girl.”
Laughing about that, she has a reply: “I throw like a woman,” she said. “Every time I go to throw a ball I think I’m going to hit a kid in the head.”
Smith has had three replay challenges in the tourney thus far and just one was overturned.
“It’s really intimidating because you always want to be right,” she said. “You want to do the best you can and look good. But the last thing you want to do is go home knowing your bad call sent a team home. It’s not about us; it’s getting the play right.”
Smith has captured her Williamsport journey on a personal blog. “It’s like a diary for me because there will be a day when I can’t walkout on the field anymore and I’m sure I’ll love going back and reading all this,” she said.
She posts it on Facebook to inform friends and family, and to urge fellow umpires —especially women— to get involved.
“Volunteerism is what drives the success of Little League,” Smith said. “Volunteerism makes you a whole person.”
FAMILIARITY: The Little League World Series breeds familiarity.
The big bats of Tijuana, Mexico, dominated its first two opponents, beating Perth, Australia, 12-0 in 4 innings last week and Aguadulce, Panama 13-0, also in 4 innings.
Two games, two mercy rules.
On Wednesday, Mexico met its match, losing 5-2 to Tokyo, Japan as the Tijuana offense sputtered against the crafty Japanese pitchers, who used changeups and curveballs to keep Mexico’s big bats off-balance.
That set up a rematch Thursday between Mexico and Panama with a berth in the international final at stake.
“Our bats did not wake up,” Mexico manager Francisco Fimbres said. “We were behind in the count all the time. It was just mistakes. It happens. It was just a bad day.”
Now, Tijuana faces a team bent on taking advantage of that second chance.
“They know that they can do better,” Fimbres said of Panama. “They’re mad at themselves. It might help us.”
Wednesday night’s second game featured Chula Vista, Calif., against New England champion Westport, Conn. A loss by Westport would set up a rematch against Northwest champion Sammamish, Wash., which Westport beat 9-7 on Sunday.