Behind the plate: The life of a Bay Area umpire

Wayne Yoshitomi umpires behind the plate at a high school softball game in Half Moon Bay. Ashlyn Rollins/Peninsula Press

Wayne Yoshitomi knew only English and his grandfather mostly spoke Japanese, but they didn’t need to talk on summer nights in the mid-1960s when the San Francisco Giants were playing. At the kitchen table or in the backyard of their family’s Richmond neighborhood flat, 6-year-old Yoshitomi and his grandpa would tune in a Zenith transistor radio. Shigeo Ogawa would play solitaire as Russ Hodges narrated the game, yelling “Bye Bye Baby!” to call a home run.

Their shared love of baseball is the only strong memory Yoshitomi has of his grandfather, who passed away in the 1980s. Baseball has since taken Yoshitomi around the country, meeting others who share his love for the sport and for being an umpire.

Yoshitomi’s maternal grandparents and both of his parents had suffered through some of America’s darkest times. During the 1940s, they were given one suitcase, rounded up and bused to the Topaz internment camp in Utah after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. (Yoshitomi only met his paternal grandparents once and doesn’t know their history.)

Yoshitomi doesn’t know much about their time in Topaz, but his parents’ senior yearbook from their time at Topaz High School inside the camp left a few clues. His mother, Mary Ogawa, is on page 25. The description next to her name reads, “… plans to become a stenographer.” His father’s description a few pages later reads “… hopes to become the ideal husband.”

Tommie Yoshitomi, Wayne’s father, stands taller than the other students in a yearbook photo of the Junior Red Cross group. He has thick hair parted neatly down the middle, the same hairstyle his son now favors. Wayne Yoshitomi’s parents and grandparents have since passed away, but he thinks they met at this camp since his dad signed his mom’s yearbook.

“They never talked about it,” Yoshitomi said.

Growing up, Yoshitomi and his siblings could choose how they wanted to spend their birthdays. They could have a party at home, or they could go somewhere. Yoshitomi always chose to go to Candlestick Park. When he was 10, he liked to wear a black zip-up windbreaker to games, with “Giants” stretched across the chest in orange lettering. His thick black eyebrows stuck out beneath the bill of his plastic Giants batting helmet.

Baseball overlays the chronology of his life. The camp his family was sent to is the same one featured in the movie “American Pastime,” a fictional drama based on true events about the role of baseball in internment camps. He was born the year the Giants, his favorite team, decided to move to San Francisco from New York. The first Japanese man to play in Major League Baseball, Masanori Murakami, played for the Giants about the same time Yoshitomi started listening to games with his grandfather.

Now, at age 61, his eyebrows, mustache and full head of hair are speckled with gray. And he’s found a way to stay involved with the game he’s loved since childhood through umpiring.

“I can’t coach. I don’t want to coach. I can’t play, you know, physically I’m not there. I don’t want to keep score. To stay in the game, really umpiring is the only thing that I can do,” Yoshitomi said.

At George Washington High School in San Francisco, Yoshitomi played baseball, while Brian Fong, who has been his friend for about 40 years, played basketball. When Brian Fong had a son, Justin, Yoshitomi started coaching Justin’s tee-ball team about 16 years ago. Justin was rolling baseballs on the ground before he could even walk, so he learned the fundamentals from his “Uncle Wayne.”

“He would hit me ground balls, throw me fly balls, and I remember he used to come over after I got out of school and he would test my baseball IQ,” said Justin, who is finishing his last season as a pitcher for Cal Lutheran. Yoshitomi would describe or scribble out possible scenarios for Justin and ask him what he would do in each circumstance.

A few years later, Yoshitomi, who is unmarried with no children, started umpiring. Justin recalled one of his games that Yoshitomi umpired. When Justin was up to bat, he remembered people wondering if Uncle Wayne was going to favor him.

“I’m pretty sure we went out to dinner after and I was like, ‘I don’t want to go to dinner with Uncle Wayne. His strike zone was too small,’” Justin said.

Yoshitomi, who retired from being an airplane mechanic last year, is a hobby enthusiast. He spent a week in Santa Rosa to learn how to roller skate at Snoopy’s Home Ice. He’s a loyal Apple Keynote user who has traveled to three cities in one day to take classes at Apple Stores to improve his presentations for umpire training lessons.

The first weekend of every December, Yoshitomi and his sister Elaine Tong take a trip to Disneyland when Sleeping Beauty’s castle is decorated with icicles of light and artificial snow falls each night on Main Street. Yoshitomi, who is also an avid Disney-pin collector, films parades, fireworks and World of Color shows. The pair goes to the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco to attend talks by Disney animators, actors and Disney engineers.

He also taught his older sister to mountain bike nearly 20 years ago, and he even started his own bicycle business at one point. But he ended his business after realizing he didn’t want another job.

“I thought, if I ever do something again, it’s going to be a hobby,” Yoshitomi said. “It’s not going to be a job.”

While his other hobbies have come and gone, his love for Disney and umpiring have stuck. He’s spent about $20,000 going to eight umpire training schools around the country.

“I tell people it’s kind of like someone [for whom] photography is a hobby,” Yoshitomi said. “They buy all the camera stuff, go to classes, but they’re just doing it for enjoyment, right, to get better. That’s what umpiring is for me. It’s just a hobby.”

Until recently, his hobby led him to make an annual trip to Cooperstown, New York, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, where he umpired youth baseball games all day, every day, for a week. Sometimes the games would go until 1 a.m.

There, he bunked with 11 other umpires in barracks that had nothing but a pillow on the bed. Yoshitomi created a home for himself in the barracks. Every year since, he bought a portable closet from Walmart, a rug, a sheet and a fan to put in his space. One year he even got a mini refrigerator on sale. He slept on the bottom bunk and put his gear on the top, and when it was time to leave, he gave away the things he bought. He always ended his trips with a visit to the Hall of Fame museum.

Whenever he officiates, Yoshitomi sticks to the fundamentals.

“He does everything by the book,” said Kenny Kim, who sits on the board of Palo Alto Little League, “… For some people, it might be oh it’s just a kids’ game, but he takes a lot of pride in what he’s doing.”

“When I first started umpiring, I had some guy tell me I need to put personality in my calls, so I did, and when I saw the video, I go, ‘Oh that sucks. I look so stupid,’” Yoshitomi said with a laugh. “… So, I went back to the basics.”

He learned the basics from the many umpire training camps he’s attended. One particularly influential camp was Jim Evan’s training camp. The handout he received while attending the MLB umpire’s classes last October lists the many rules and procedures umpires should abide by.

“Work hard every pitch of the game.”

When he’s a base umpire, Yoshitomi leans in slightly at the start of every pitch, ready to cut to the next position if there are extra bases. Standing in foul territory, he keeps his toe right on the edge of the baseline behind first base.

“Conduct pre-game and post-game meetings with your partners.”

On strike three, open hand if the catcher dropped the ball and closed if she caught it, he told his partner before a high school softball game at Half Moon Bay High School. He’ll tap his head if he needs the count. When there are only two umpires covering an entire diamond, they have to communicate with hand signals throughout the game.

Then there’s the equipment. Behind the plate, Yoshitomi wears black steel-toed Reeboks; he bought three extra pairs when he discovered the ones he liked were being discontinued. On the bases, he prefers New Balance. He has to wear different uniforms depending on what kind of game he’s umpiring too. He had to buy two portable closets from Walmart to fit his 50 or so uniforms.

In the field, he usually wears a short-sleeve shirt, but behind the plate, he wears sleeves to prevent a rash if he gets hit with the ball. When he got hit in the arm in Burlingame at a game in April, he didn’t flinch, but the long sleeve shirt didn’t prevent the nasty bruise he had the next day. But it’s less common for him to get hit in high school softball than during Little League games, he said. In Little League, many pitchers are wild, and catchers often can’t catch.

After he finishes umpiring a game, one of his traditions is going to his favorite restaurant in whatever city he’s in. He makes sure to take a business card for each restaurant he visits and keeps a list of his favorites that includes categories titled “breakfast and lunch,” “ramen” and “miscellaneous.” He’s been exploring new restaurants with his friend Brian Fong since the 1970s.

“[We would] go down the street and see what we can find,” Fong said.

Most of the time, though, Yoshitomi gets dinner by himself after a game before heading back to his home in San Mateo.

“I don’t like to babysit people,” he said. “I don’t want somebody depending on me. What I usually do is when I go out, I always have my iPad because I’m always reading.”

Although he doesn’t mind being on his own, Yoshitomi makes friends easily and enjoys spending time with people. He’s matter-of-fact when he talks with a calming and higher register voice. He often pauses in between words and laughs easily in conversations.

“He’s just so friendly,” his sister Tong said over the phone at Oracle Park before a Giants game, “You’ll be standing in the line of any place, here at the ballpark, and all of a sudden Wayne’s talking with the person next to him, making friends with them, sending them videos.”

“If he likes you, he will give you the shirt off his back,” Brian Fong said. “I can recall any time that I had a problem with my car, it was Wayne helping me out and he’d be there no matter where it was.”

His affable demeanor makes it even more surprising when he gets on the field at a softball or baseball game. The soft voice is unrecognizable as it’s replaced with a booming, deep “strike” or “out” call.

Parents and coaches reach out to him with questions about the game. He responds to texts, emails, calls and inquiries before games explaining the rules. As conscientious as Yoshitomi is, he doesn’t escape the classic grumbles coming from players, coaches and parents.

When he calls a ball: “That was a great pitch,” a parent squawked.

When he calls a strike: “Nice take. That hasn’t been a strike all day,” the third base coach yelled clapping his hands.

But Yoshitomi doesn’t pay much attention to it.

“When a pitch comes in, it’s quiet. I don’t hear a thing,” he said.

His experiences have been mild in comparison with the stories he’s heard from other umpires who have been physically attacked by upset spectators. He’s only had someone confront him after a game once. Yoshitomi’s biggest concerns aren’t rowdy parents, upset coaches, getting hit by the ball or the minimal pay.

“There’s a shortage of umpires,” he said. “There’s a shortage of officials, not just baseball umpires but all officials because people are just getting tired of being abused.”

This shortage has been reported in the Chicago Tribune, the Modesto Bee, USA Today, the Washington Post, Forbes and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to name a few. It’s a crisis facing youth sports around the nation, and Yoshitomi and some of his fellow umpires have noticed it happening in the Bay Area too.

To combat this problem, the Palo Alto Little League started a formal umpire training program for junior high and high schoolers that Yoshitomi now leads. Scott Busch, a former Palo Alto Little League coach whom Wayne mentored, was frustrated that umpires weren’t showing up to games. After complaining to the board, he was asked to start an umpire training program for kids who had recently aged out of Little League. Yoshitomi also helped lead some of these classes. After Busch moved away, Yoshitomi stepped in.

The program has worked for Palo Alto Little League in solving the official shortage.

Wayne Yoshitomi high fives a player crossing home plate on the Menlo-Atherton Red Sox team at a Little League Challenger Division game.

“Kids rarely did not show up,” Busch said. “Maybe one or two games a season and that was because of some freak accident and there were hundreds of positions that were covered, and those kids were so diligent about being there early … I loved how serious they took it.”

Yoshitomi watches the kids officiate after they have completed the training and gives them feedback after the game. Of the 13 classes Yoshitomi led this year, three were in Palo Alto.

“He treats [the kids] with a lot of respect,” said Kenny Kim, a Palo Alto Little League board member. “He treats them as peers. I’ve seen Wayne umpire games with other kids, and he doesn’t undermine them or anything.”

He also volunteers with Little League Challenger Division games, a baseball program for young people who have physical and intellectual disabilities, to stand behind home plate in uniform. When each player crosses home plate, he yells safe with his arms spread wide, a smile on his face.

But the highlight of Yoshitomi’s career was getting to umpire at the Little League Baseball West Regionals in 2013, which is the tournament that determines what team in that region will go to the Little League World Series. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and a necessary step to umpire at the Little League World Series, Yoshitomi said.

Justin and Brian Fong, along with other friends, came to watch Wayne umpire at the West Region tournament. Although his grandpa never saw him umpire, the most important spectator was his mother Mary Yoshitomi. Mary, who was battling pancreatic cancer, elderly and unable to drive to any of Yoshitomi’s games, had never seen her son umpire and was able to watch the game on TV.

“She was able to see me umpire on ESPN, and then she passed away the following year,” Wayne Yoshitomi said. “So, for me, I don’t care if I ever do a World Series. I don’t really care. If I do, that’d be great. If I don’t, that’s fine. That was it.”

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