Many of us firefighters and paramedics have acres of free time to volunteer and give back to our communities in various ways. Some of us elect to donate time and energy to our favorite charity, while others look no further than to volunteer at our very own Local 798 Firefighters Toy Program.
Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting Leo Martinez, a San Francisco firefighter for 30 years and a 20-year veteran baseball/softball umpire. He is also a committed volunteer with the Local 798 Firefighters Toy Program. It has been through these myriad of interests of his that Mr. Martinez has found his niche in giving back to his community.
It should be noted that Mr. Martinez was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Northern California Umpires Association (NCUA), an honor that was well-deserving of a professional who dedicated much of his off-duty time to the art of umpiring and being part of the San Francisco community.
The NCUA is always recruiting athletes and even non-athletes to become umpires in the City and the Bay Area. The NCUA offers a flexible schedule, competing wages, and an opportunity to work within and for the community. In fact, there are several firefighter/umpires within the San Francisco Fire Department, including, but not limited to, FF Janeen Pirosko, FF Alexandria Alexander, and Lt. Nicol Juratovac.
I interviewed Mr. Martinez during the annual NCUA dinner to discuss with him the benefits of umpiring, the many parallels that the profession has with the profession of firefighting, and the joys of serving the San Francisco community doing what he loves.
NJ: Congratulations on the Lifetime Achievement Award. You must be completely stoked. How did you become such a great umpire?
LM: I managed to graduate quickly in the profession, as my firefighting schedule allowed time off for me to devote to the craft of umpiring.
NJ: Where did you get your start?
LM: I began umpiring Junior Varsity baseball games and then moved on to working the Pac 10. In fact, I had the opportunity to work behind the plate in a pre-season Pro-Am game between the Oakland Athletics and the Cal Berkeley baseball team.
NJ: What parallels do you see with the profession of umpiring and that of firefighting?
LM: You develop confidence, the ability work as a team, and dealing with people, in general.
NJ: Would you recommend that interested firefighters look into becoming umpires?
LM: Yes. It is an excellent way to give back to the community, while still remaining involved with sports. Many firefighters are already coaching young people, playing on teams, and running leagues, so umpiring is a natural progression for them.
NJ: Okay. I have to ask you the proverbial SFFD question, Where did you go to high school?
LM: I went to Lowell.
NJ: What sports did you participate in at Lowell?
LM: I ran cross-country and played basketball and football. Ironically, I never played baseball in high school. I did, however, play a bit of semi-pro baseball once out of high school, along with slow pitch softball in some of the Citys bar leagues.
NJ: Where did you play some of those bar league softball games in the City?
LM: I played at Margaret Hayward.
NJ: I swear, you and Gughi (SFFD Ret.) are the only ones who still call Lang Margaret Hayward!
NJ: Speaking of diamonds, which fields are the best to umpire on?
LM: I love Stanfords Sunken Diamond. I also enjoy Cals Edwards Diamond, although I remember when it used to be surrounded by fences versus walls like it is today.
NJ: When did you begin to serve with the Citys Bravest?
LM: From 1964 to 1994.
NJ: What fire stations did you work out of for most of your career?
LM: My first 12 years were spent at Engine 43, and then I retired out of Engine 42.
NJ: Engine 42, where Mindy (FF Melinda Ohler) had that tragic accident just over a year ago?
LM: Yes. In fact, I knew Mindy and she was a great person.
NJ: When did you begin to serve as an umpire?
LM: From 1960 to 1980.
NJ: Why did you cease umpiring in 1980?
LM: I had a friend who was injured (Jim Mancuso) and he and I operated a painting business. His injury caused me to dedicate much of my off-duty time to running the business.
NJ: What do you miss about umpiring?
LM: I miss the physical fitness part of the job, the work itself, and just enjoying myself out there.
NJ: What do you love about umpiring?
LM: Being respected by the players, the craft itself, and working up to a comfort zone of knowing the game and knowing how to umpire. I also enjoyed the partners I had on the field. Some of the umpires and I connected, and were able to form excellent partnerships on the field. It always made me feel good when we were able to just allow the game to be played.
NJ: What did you dislike about umpiring?
LM: I never cared for parents in the stands who yelled at their kids while the kids were just playing ball and having fun. Some of the parents were just domineering.
NJ: What levels did you get to umpire?
LM: I umpired college ball, like the Pac 10, semi-pro leagues, Pro-Am leagues, and Local 798s own Inter-Station championship games. I was especially honored to have been asked to umpire a San Francisco Giants game during the umpires strike in Major League Baseball. It (the strike) was a contentious issue, as I was a union man in the fire department. It was a huge compliment to have been asked, though.
NJ: What makes a good umpire?
LM: When the game is completed and no one says anything to the umpire and no one can remember who the umpire was. This is the ultimate confidence-booster for me, as it is at that moment I know that I did my job well. Umpires are not bigger than the game and they should not make themselves so noticeable.
One umpire I learned a lot from was actually a firefighter named John Hernandez (father of ex-New York Mets first baseman, Keith Hernandez). John and I worked together as firefighters for 16 years and he was a great umpire who taught me a lot about the game.
NJ: What are some of the lines you have used to respond to antagonistic players?
LM: I tell these players that I am trying to keep them in the game so that they can continue to play and I can continue to umpire.
NJ: How many players have you ejected throughout your career?
LM: I am proud to say that I have only thrown out two guys in my 20 years as an umpire, one of whom was a coach. In fact, there is a funny story behind that ejection. I was umpiring a high school baseball game at Big Rec, and the coach, Marino Piretti, was arguing calls with me, kicking dirt on me after one particular call. After giving him a quick warning, there was a dramatic play where Marinos outfielder was trying to gun down a runner running from first to third on a base hit. The outfielder overthrew his third baseman, the ball went out of play, and I called, Dead ball, two bases, which is the appropriate call.
Well, the two bases allowed the winning run to score, causing Marino to throw a tantrum. I had to throw him out of the game at that point. And it was not until later that evening that I received a telephone call from Marino, who wanted to thank me and actually wished that I had ejected him sooner, as he was running late for a wedding!
NJ: How important is a neatly-dressed umpire or firefighter, since both professions require the wearing of uniforms?
LM: It is extremely important. Not only is ones appearance the first point of perception with the players and the public, but it is also about self-respect.
NJ: Have you made mistakes on the field as an umpire?
LM: Of course. But you learn from your mistakes by working on the fundamentals, attending clinics, and trying to get more experience.
NJ: Do you think that a woman will ever umpire in the Major Leagues?
LM: Definitely. There is no reason in the world why a woman cannot to do the job of an umpire. People who may have thought otherwise evolve and their views change with the times. In fact, there are women umpires being groomed in the minor leagues in preparation for that one day when it will happen.
NJ: One last question. Is there a favorite story you like to tell about umpiring and firefighting?
LM: Actually, there is. Ill make it a short one. It was during the early 1970s when I umpired a Local 798 Inter-Station championship game with Bill Shaugnessey (SFFD Ret.). There was a runner on first who was trying to get to third on a base hit to right field. The right fielder rifled the ball toward third, accidentally hitting the runner on the back of his head.
Well, all the players were so concerned (naturally) about the runner that they paid no attention to the fact that the runner had gotten off the bag at third; except one astute firefighter on defense, who approached me and asked what would happen if he tagged the runner. Now, understand that I had not yet called time out, so the ball was still deemed live. I replied in true umpire fashion to this savvy (not to mention callous!) firefighter, I dont know. Well, after my reply, he promptly walked over to the injured runner and proceeded to tag him, at which point I had to call the big out.
After that episode, I remember getting calls from firefighters who would witness a questionable call during a game on television and actually call me at home to ask for the rule or explain the rationale. That was pressure, as they relied on me to such a high degree.
NJ: Thank you for taking time out to chat with me. It has been a learning experience both as a firefighter and an umpire.
LM: You are welcome. It was my pleasure.
I wish to thank Leo Martinez for sharing a moment with me to bring to the members of the San Francisco Fire Department a glimpse about a San Francisco local, his two stellar careers, and what he chose to give back to his community.