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Batter up! Soldotna man heads to umpire school in Florida

Posted: Monday, February 11, 2002

C'mon blue ... which game are you watchin'?

Whaddaya, blind?

Kill the ump!

In his 30-plus years as a baseball umpire, Soldotna resident Joe Malatesta has heard it all. So why would he get out of bed at 5 a.m. every morning for 5 1/2 weeks to study a craft everyone seems to loathe?

Simple.

Kids and baseball.

Malatesta recently completed a five-week course at the Harry Wendelstedt School for Umpires in Ormond Beach, Fla. The school trains umpires for the professional ranks and is considered to be among the best programs in the world.

"I was trained by the best," said Malatesta in a telephone interview from Florida, after recently having received his diploma from the school.

"There were guys there from all over -- Japan, the professional guys ... it's the oldest and best school in the country."

But Malatesta wasn't there to try to work his way up to the majors. Those thoughts are better left to younger dreamers. Malatesta is 60 years old. If life were a baseball game, Malatesta would be in the seventh-inning-stretch.

"I was the second oldest guy in the class," said Malatesta.

But age, like balls and strikes, is a matter of perception. Malatesta said out of 200 students, only 143 finished the rigorous program. And many of the dropouts were far younger than he.

"I held my own. This school trains young people to become umps in the pros. They are certified by the Professional Baseball Umpires Corporation, which certifies all professional umpires," he said.

The school features instruction from the best umps in the business, including several veterans of the major leagues.

Each day for Malatesta began at 5 a.m., when he dragged his aching body out of bed and slowly toward the diamond. The school day started at 6 a.m., with calisthenics. After the umps finished stretching, the group was divided into two sections, and the umpires were put through a variety of drills designed to hone their agility, technique and judgment. The students also were required to maintain a "C" average on 25 written exams, and tardiness was not an option.

"You cannot be late," Malatesta said. "More than one tardy and you would be excused from the school."

Malatesta said he received instruction from such notable umpires as Charlie Reliford, a 22-year veteran of the National League; Hunter Wendelstedt, a third year National League umpire and son of the school's founder; and Dana Demuth, who has been behind the plate and on the baselines for 24 years as a major league umpire.

Such top-flight instruction can mean the beginning of a career for many young umpires trying to make it to the big time, but Malatesta said he has no interest in starting a new career. He said he just wants to get better so he can continue to help young people in the community.

"I did it strictly to get better ... so I can come back (to Alaska) and train the young guys," he said.

When not working as an investigator for a Soldotna law firm, Malatesta usually can be found at a baseball diamond. Especially during the long Alaska summers.

Alaska baseball has been in Malatesta's blood for decades. His involvement dates back to his days in the Air Force, when he was stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage. He played baseball for the Air Force team from 1959 until 1962, and he even met his wife while stationed there.

From that point on, Malatesta has dedicated himself to coaching, umpiring and inspiring young people. Last year he coached the Soldotna 9- and 10-year-old all-star baseball team at the state tournament, and he coached an adult team from Nikiski that also competed at the state level.

His passion is supporting youth baseball. He spends every summer umpiring and coaching all levels of ball players, from the youngest to the most advanced. He also is involved with the Special Olympics and numerous other youth sports programs.

Don't think that because he now spends time outside the baselines Malatesta doesn't still have a little game left himself. Part of the program at the Wendelstedt School included playing 10 to 15 innings of baseball each day. Malatesta said he wasn't the best player out there, but he was no slouch.

"I hit the ball well. I usually went 2 for 4 batting. I played third base. I caught my share of innings, too. They were shocked," Malatesta said of his fellow students.

"I was a little sore. I'm still recovering. I had black and blue marks all over."

Few people, whether they're 6 or 60, are willing to push their bodies much further than is necessary, especially without keeping an eye on personal glory. This winter, under a hot Florida sun, Joe Malatesta squatted down behind home plate and pushed his body to its limit. Just so he could get better at being a baseball umpire -- the guy everyone loves to hate.

Sometimes the bad guy turns out to be the hero.



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