By IAN WILSON
There was just something about the mask and the chest protector that pulled Brad Johnston in.
“If I can be totally honest, they gave out the equipment and I just wanted the equipment. That’s all it was. Sounds kind of geeky, I guess,” said Johnston, who now has 23 years of experience as a Little League umpire.
“My buddy had all this stuff in his garage and it was just awesome. You’re just a 13-year-old kid and I wanted the swag of it, you know. We got paid – I don’t know, something small – but it was that simple.”
Johnston, an Occupational Health and Safety officer in Alberta who moved to Calgary in 2009, has been the national umpire coordinator for Little League Baseball Canada for the last six years.
From July 19-26, he’s been able to call balls and strikes at the 2017 Senior Little League Canadian Championship, taking place at Calgary’s Richmond Green ball diamonds.
“As far as my role in this one, I’m just an umpire in this one, which is kind of nice. I just show up and do my games,” said the 36-year-old.
“As far as Calgary having it, Alberta’s one of the bigger provinces for Little League baseball across the country …. I think the coolest part is these kids get to see what baseball is like somewhere else and how other people approach the game. There are little regional differences, so it’s a great eye opener and the exposure is pretty cool.”
The national championship tournament – featuring some of the best 14- to 16-year-old baseball players from across Canada – will provide great experience for the players, and one deserving Canadian squad will advance to the Senior Little League World Series, which takes place in Easley, South Carolina from July 29-Aug. 5.
And for Johnston, it will be a good tune up before he goes to South Williamsport, Pennsylvania for the Little League World Series (LLWS) from Aug. 17-27.
“This will be my first World Series. Growing up in the Toronto area, I actually went down to the championship series when I was a kid. I know the area, I’ve been to the park,” said Johnston, who has umpired three Baseball Canada National Championships.
The LLWS showcases 11- to 13-year-old baseball players from around the globe and the event garners international attention, with TV broadcasts on ESPN and ABC. The 2016 championship game had an estimated attendance of 23,211 and 42,218 fans showed up for the previous title game in 2015. TV viewership for the championship games have ranged from 2.5-million to 5.5-million in recent years.
“It’s certainly something cool to put on the resume,” said Johnston, who also umpires in the Western Major Baseball League (WMBL), calling games in Okotoks and Brooks.
“I don’t know what the future will bring but I think this will be the biggest stage I’ll ever get to umpire on.”
There are a total of 16 umpires working the LLWS tournament, including 12 from the U.S. and four international umps. Johnston is the lone Canadian representative.
“Some of these guys really work their whole lives to get there. I almost feel like I’m getting in easy … it’s a real big deal for these guys,” he said.
“As far as the pressure goes, I’m not really thinking about it too much right now. The butterflies will be there for sure the first time you walk out.”
Johnston attended an orientation camp in South Williamsport in May and he says his WMBL experience should also help.
“It’s been funny trying to prepare for it this year. We’re fortunate to have that program in Okotoks because you do get 5,000 people a night, so you get used to the crowd a little bit,” said the veteran ump, who played baseball as a catcher and first baseman up until he was 30.
“But how do you simulate 12-year-old baseball of that calibre? You can’t really do it. That’s probably the biggest challenge. But right now I’m not thinking too hard about it.”
As far as his umpiring style goes, the Oakville, Ontario product doesn’t sweat the small stuff.
“You’ve got to let the big things bother you and not the little things. There’s a lot of guys who choose the wrong hill to die on in umpiring. You’ve got to manage the game right,” he said.
“It’s about feel for the game, it’s about allowing the game to play itself out and you’re there to step in when the game needs you.”
Johnston also has some advice for young umpires out there.
“The biggest thing I can say about umpiring is for our young guys to stick with it. Too often our young guys get a little scared early. Those are temporary experiences, they’re tough and they build a lot of character. Stick with it – there’s a lot of positives that come with it.”
If you do, you just might make it to the World Series.