Ump wins MHSAA honor, already had peers’ respect

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 29, 2000

George Smith, selected as the MHSAA’s Softball Official of the Year, makes one of his trademark gestures during the championship game of the Lady Vikes Invitational at Warren Central Saturday. (The Vicksburg Post/PAT SHANNAHAN)

It’s a tense game. The count is full and the bases are loaded in the bottom of the seventh with the visitors holding a 4-3 lead. The pitcher winds up, and delivers a fastball on the black. The batter watches it go by and starts for first … but then the man in blue makes the call.

“STRI-EEEEK THREE,” George Smith yells as he turns to the right and pulls his arm as if trying to start a lawn mower.

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The batter, who would normally fling his bat and helmet in frustration, quietly walks off the field. The coach, who would normally jaw with the umpire over such a close call, stays quiet.

After all, George made the call. George is always right ….

For years, most coaches and players have recognized Smith, a 49-year-old Florence native who has lived in Vicksburg since 1974, as one of the top high school umpires in Mississippi. This year, the Mississippi High School Activities Association also recognized it for the first time.

Smith was named MHSAA Softball Official of the Year, an honor that will include a presentation at the state officials meetings and at this season’s state football championship game and basketball tournament.

“It’s very, very exciting to receive such an award. To be voted top of your class for a season is a very eminent occasion,” Smith said.

More than likely, Smith will already be at the basketball tournament, as a referee. In addition to softball fast-pitch and slow-pitch he also officiates high school basketball and baseball, plus college baseball and, for the first time this season, high school football. He is a regular Southwestern Athletic Conference umpire and has called some games at Ole Miss and Mississippi State, an experience he called “mind-blowing.”

“At one time I thought I’d never get there because for a long time, I was just calling little league baseball and softball,” Smith said. “But here I am today, and I’m looking to call a state championship in high school, I’m looking to call a (College) World Series final in Omaha, and I think those goals are attainable ….”

Smith’s skill and experience have earned him the respect of his fellow umpires, as well as players and coaches.

“When George is saying something and he brings up a point, everybody’s listening because they know he’s doing it to be a better official,” said Mario Jones, a fellow umpire and Vicksburg resident who nominated Smith for the MHSAA award.

“George is about as knowledgeable on the rules and etiquette of the game as anybody you’ll find in the state, and I’ve always admired him,” said Warren Central softball coach Lucy Young, who also nominated Smith. “George Smith is probably one of the best softball officials we have working the game today.”

WC baseball coach Sam Temple puts it even simpler.

“When it comes to umpiring, George is the man,” he said.

Smith’s skill and his signature “STRI-EEEEK” call is the result of hours spent observing other umpires, discussing and studying the game and practicing.

Jones said he’s often on the phone with Smith and other umpires until 1 or 2 a.m., talking about certain rules and situations, or just baseball in general.

While the knowledge is the result of long hours of studying, the moves and calls are the result of careful observation, practice and showmanship. In the one area where an umpire can get noticed for the right reasons, Smith said each one tries to come up with something flashier than the last.

To that end, many hours are spent at home in front of a mirror working on the calls to see how they look.