Smith snags MHSAA umpiring honor

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 9, 2002

George Smith earned the state’s top high school baseball umpiring honor. The veteran ump is a Vicksburg resident and has been calling games for 15 years.(The Vicksburg Post/C. Todd Sherman)

[07/09/02]It isn’t hard to detect the disappointment in George Smith’s voice when he says he was only ranked fourth among the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s umpires this season.

Sure, it puts him among the best in the conference. Sure, it shows a lot of respect from his peers and coaches in the league. But to achieve Smith’s dream umpiring in an NCAA regional and, eventually, the College World Series, he has to be the best.

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He vows to work harder next year, to become the conference’s top-ranked umpire. And then his disappointment turns to a cheerful tone, spoken through a wide smile as he talks about a small consolation prize: recognition as the best high school umpire in Mississippi.

Smith, a 51-year-old Vicksburg resident, was selected by the Mississippi High School Activities Association as its baseball Official of the Year for the 2001-02 season.

Smith, who also umpires softball games and officiates in football and basketball, was chosen as the softball official of the year in 1999-2000. His first love is baseball, however, and he said that made this honor special.

“When I got that letter in the mail, I said Oh lord, it finally happened.’ I was totally elated,” said Smith, whose unique “stri-eeek” call keeps fans and players buzzing. “People pat you on the back a lot of times, and say that’s a job well done. It’s great, but when you’ve got it in black and white and have a plaque on the wall, when your umpiring days are over, you can sit back and thank God.”

The award caps a great year not only for Smith, but for all of Vicksburg’s officials. Umpires Mario Jones and Fulton Carson were selected to call the MHSAA all-star games, James Judge officiated the Class 2A state championship football game and Smith umpired the fast-pitch softball all-star game.

In addition, local officials Peewee Green and Wayne Scott, as well as Smith, Judge, Carson and Jones, all called baseball playoff games.

“It’s been a tremendous year for us,” Smith said, noting all of the officials’ accomplishments. “For that, we must be doing something right.”

While all of the officials share in the postseason accolades, they’re quick to point out that little of it would have come without Smith’s guiding hand.

An umpire since 1987, Smith has now become the “old man” on the crew. He always makes himself available to answer questions or discuss rulings sometimes even staying on the phone until well after midnight and takes pride in teaching young umpires like Jones and Carson the lessons that were taught to him.

His strong work ethic, dedication and professionalism are all noticed and appreciated by coaches and umpires alike.

“He’s one of the best we have around here, no doubt about it. He’s always fair to both teams,” Vicksburg High baseball coach Jamie Creel said. “His game management is top-notch. You know when he shows up, there aren’t going to be any shenanigans that might be there when some yo-yo shows up.”

They also make his crewmates better. Smith tries to lead by example, and it forces the other umpires on the field to keep up.

“This is the only job where you’re expected to be perfect on every call, every time, every play,” Jones said. “I’m not going to say (Smith is) perfect, because we’re always trying to do better, but George is up there pretty close.”

Under Smith’s tutelage, both Jones and Carson have been certified to umpire college games in less than five years, and both work in the SWAC. The mandatory umpiring clinics for college umpires have helped elevate their skill level, but Carson said keeping up with Smith improved the learning curve even more.

“There’s always pressure to work hard when you’re with George, because it’s like being somewhere with your mother or father. You want to do well,” Carson said. “George is so experienced, it’s unreal … He’s the captain of the helm and we’re just shipmates.”

Like a proud parent, Smith beams when talking about the progress of his crew. “This award means a tremendous amount, but to see (Jones and Carson) go to the all-star game, it was just a blessing. My heart was overjoyed,” Smith said.

When it came to that SWAC ranking, however, Smith felt his heart drop. Although he’s in good health and has no plans to retire anytime soon, he realizes his chances to show his stuff on the big stage are running out.

This year’s accolades were wonderful, he says, but a trip to Omaha would still trump all of them. Only the top official from the SWAC is invited to call an NCAA regional.

“All the things I wanted to accomplish this year, I did, except for going to the regional in the NCAAs,” Smith said, adding, “Next year I’ll just have to do better.”