GLADSTONE - Refs and umpires are always under a microscope, no matter what the sport, or the level of play, and Wednesday's Major Little League district title games between Escanaba and Gladstone was no different.
As I walked back from the concession stand, I noticed Escanaba head coach Gary Salo and tournament director Don Howes in some sort of heated discussion. I wasn't able to make out what was being said, but as I soon found out, it had to do with how the first game was umpired.
I've lived in this area my entire life (besides the time when I lived in Allendale, when I attended Grand Valley State University), but never attended a Gladstone/Escanaba Little League softball game. That was until Wednesday.
Initially, I was taken aback by how many people were there, and the amount of excitement and passion from both fan bases.
Coming from Bark River, where there is not much of an emphasis on the baseball programs growing up, it was surprising for me to see the large number of people deeply invested into the game.
For me, seeing fans that were that dedicated into sports, made my job much more enjoyable. Unfortunately for refs and umpires, deeply passionate fans and coaches can make officials' jobs a little more difficult, and sometimes create a bit of controversy, as was the case on Wednesday.
After the first game, where Gladstone won in extra innings, 6-1, I went to wait in the press box for the second game to start. From that vantage point, I saw Howes in the middle of a discussion on whether to use two, or the usual three umpires in the final game. The decision in the press box was unanimous, and it was decided all three umpires from the previous game would be on the field for the game.
This didn't sit well with Salo, who at the sight of seeing all three umpires on the field, called time to stop the start of the game and came over to the press box and said to Howes "you told me you'd take him out," meaning Howes must have mentioned he would comply to Salo's demands in their previous discussion, and only use two umpires in the next game.
Salo then went onto say he would be "playing this game under protest."
While Gladstone went on and won comfortably, 7-0, whether or not a protest occurs, remains to be seen. Gladstone head coach Randy Schwartz remains skeptical, though.
"From what I gathered when I watched, I watched the umpires leave the field, and according to the rulebook, it states that a protest must be made while the officials are still on the field, and I didn't see it, so that's where I'm at," he said.
It's unknown if it was one major call, or multiple calls that provoked Salo to say he would play the second game under protest. Were there some checked swings that could have gone either way, in Escanaba's favor? Yes. Did the umpires ultimately affect the outcome of the game? No.
The difference in the first game was Taelor Zeise coming through in the clutch when the bases were loaded in the top of the ninth and driving home two runs for Gladstone, while Escanaba wasn't able to score with a runner on third and only one out, in the previous half inning.
One of the biggest controversial plays was centered around whether a Gladstone runner advanced to second after Escanaba pitcher Gabi Salo already had the ball in the circle. The umpire ruled Salo was juggling the ball, as she had to reach high to make the grab, thus making the runner's advancement to second legal. If you ask Salo and the Escanaba faithful, they thought the runner took off after Gabi Salo had possession of the ball inside the pitching circle, meaning Gladstone should have been called for an out.
Whether or not it was the right call, both teams still had scoring opportunties late in the game. Gladstone just managed to take advantage of theirs.
I'm not saying anyone from Escanaba is blaming the umpires, or happened to be a poor sport about the outcome of the game. For me, it's just the result of coaches and fans being spirited, wanting to see their kids succeed. Sometimes that just trickles down to letting an official know you disagree with a call.
In fact, in the one quote he gave me, Gary Salo was quick to give praise and credit to the Gladstone program for winning the district title.
"Jeff Hanson's done a great job turning Gladstone fast pitch around," he said. "He's really got a lot of girls excited to play softball and hats off to that organization."
He also was quick to congratulate the Gladstone girls and coaches after the game.
Howes made the right call by standing by all three umpires. You can't let coaches pick and choose who they want to umpire a game. Coaches always get their say after each game when they review each umpire, and I'm sure Salo rated each ump according to how he felt, which he has the right to do.
I can't speak to any of the personal vendettas or the history that some people were saying one of the umpires may have against a coach, and vice versa. But as great as Gabi Salo pitched-recording 20 strikeouts-and as great as Escanaba played, in the end, the better team found a way to win, on Wednesday.