MISSOULA — Word came on Christmas morning that my favorite uncle died.

He was a hard-working family man who served his country and loved baseball. He was such a good player that he signed a contract with the old St. Louis Browns in the early 1950s.

But that's not why I'm writing about Uncle Earl. I couldn't tell you if he had a sweet swing or rocket arm or anything like that because I was born in 1964.

The Uncle Earl I knew was a high school baseball umpire. The kind that rushed to the ball field after a hard day's work at the John Deere factory, just so he could continue to be part of the game he loved.

Uncle Earl was a treasure behind the plate. The big guy loved to socialize — one of my absolute favorite qualities about him because he helped me feel comfortable in the batter's box.

My favorite story about Uncle Earl involves my little brother. He was beaned by a hard fastball one afternoon and stayed on the ground for a while. Uncle Earl scooped him up in his powerful arms and carried him to the dugout.

I'm not even sure if umpires can do that sort of thing anymore, what with all the guidelines for medical protocol and underlying fear of lawsuits. Too bad really.

Seems to me the Uncle Earls of this country are becoming fewer and farther between. The men and women that give back to the games they played by tackling roles as umpires or officials.

Maybe because it's harder than ever being an official. Parents pay through the teeth to make sure their kids get top-notch coaching and good competition as club athletes, then expect results on the high school stage. The operative word there is expect.

Heaven forbid some high school umpire or official getting paid peanuts for his/her time stand in the way of a spoiled, over-coached high school kid. Heaven forbid anyone get a call wrong. Officials are supposed to be perfect, right?

Wrong, none of us are perfect. But here's a news flash for all you sports fans that like to verbally criticize officials: There's a real good chance they know more about the game than you do. So maybe just keep your mouth shut.

High school sports started up again this week, with basketball and wrestling action electrifying area gyms. Holding those games and meets requires a lot of people that are taken for granted, including officials.

Next time you attend a game, do me this one small favor: When it's over, compliment the official on a job well done.

Not because it's required or it's the respectful thing to do. More because that official is a human being who so loves high school athletics that he/she is willing to put reputation on the line just to help out and be part of the fun.

How many folks do you know willing to do that, knowing they might just get verbally abused?

I didn't make it back for Uncle Earl's funeral Tuesday. It's a long way to Dubuque, Iowa.

But I'll never forget him. He helped make high school sports fun and those days will always be looked upon as some of the best of my life.

I just wish I had one last chance to tell him thanks. 

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Bill Speltz is Missoulian Sports Editor and has served as Sunday columnist the past 13 years. Do you have a story idea? Email Bill at bill.speltz@missoulian.com.

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