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All the usual landmarks were in place for Sunday afternoon’s softball game on Field 4 at West Potomac Park. The Washington Monument looked like a poorly placed foul pole in very deep left field. The Jefferson Memorial dominated the view in right. And behind the plate stood Francis Seidlinger.
The monuments and memorials will be there for next weekend’s games, too. But Seidlinger, an umpire who has long been as sure a part of Mall ball as the obelisk and dome, will not. His 25th season of working D.C.-area softball games—for beer leagues and church leagues; men’s, women’s, or co-ed; fast-pitch or slo- —will be his last.
Next week, Seidlinger, 55, will retire from the Library of Congress and move with his family from Fairfax to Florida. Leaving the job as team leader at the library’s History and Literature Cataloging Division, he says, will be tough. From the sound of things, leaving the players and coaches he’s come to know in his years in a blue shirt will hurt a little more. His collection of more than 300 softball jerseys and caps, all from area teams whose games he’s umpired over the years, will make the trip to his new home.
“I know not everybody understands umpiring,” he says. “But it’s something I love.”
It’s not the softball part of being a softball umpire that has kept Seidlinger in the game: He says he’s played softball only once in his life. When asked what it is about the umping that he finds attractive, Seidlinger admits he’s not really sure. There are the exercise benefits, he ventures, and there’s the occasional excitement of the game. But whatever his reasons, the affair with umpiring started when he was a teenager in his native Pekin, N.D., just as he absorbed the fact that his childhood fantasies of playing baseball for the Cleveland Indians weren’t going to be realized.
His D.C. umping stint began when he moved to the area in the mid-’70s to attend graduate school in library science at the George Washington University. In his final game here last weekend, Seidlinger oversaw the Alexandria Sports Pub’s beating of Armand’s Drillers in a Midtown Softball League tilt. Seidlinger, who is almost as into record-keeping as he is umpiring, says that the contest marked his 5,683rd as an umpire in the area. His records also indicate that he has umpired as many as 13 games in a single day and has had days of 10 or more games on 53 different occasions, five or more games 252 times. He’s worked 19 games over a two-day span, 22 over a three-day weekend, and 32 games in one special week. He once called games 45 days in a row—”From July 9 through August 22, 1998,” he says.
But there’s another record in his records that makes Seidlinger most proud.
“In all my years of umpiring, I’ve never missed a softball game that I’ve been assigned to work. Not once,” he says. “I’ve had to have my cars towed to games. I’ve had to leave my car broken down and walked to games. Whatever it took, I was going to show up.”
Seidlinger says he once fractured his elbow tripping over the pitcher’s rubber during a tournament, but he stayed on the field and didn’t go to the doctor until three days and 10 games later. He then worked two-and-a-half months in a sling.
After his wedding, in 1980, the honeymoon was arranged to accommodate his softball schedule. His wife and two children have been supportive of his umpiring obsession through the years, if from a distance: They haven’t been to any of his games in the past decade.
“My wife says she’d go to the games if she could cheer,” he says. “But nobody ever cheers the umpire.”
He wasn’t in it for the money. The going local rate for umpiring is $25 a game, of which 10 percent goes to an umpiring association.
As dependable as he surely was, Seidlinger did more than just show up. Down to his last game, he was dashing out from behind the plate at the ping of the bat to get into proper position to see the play and putting new balls into play by rifling them to the pitcher at hand-stinging speed. By ear alone it’s hard to distinguish his “Out!” from “Strike!” or his “Foul!” from “Time!”—all the calls are made with a similar roar, as if surgery sans anesthetic were being performed somewhere on his person. Body language and hand signs get the message across.
“Francis is the most animated umpire I ever saw,” says Chris Fialkovich, a budget analyst with the FBI and longtime fan of Seidlinger’s umpiring act. “I saw Francis work a game for the first time when I was playing on an Arlington team in the early ’80s. He’s the best. Just the way he calls a strike, to hear him yell and watch him kick his leg out and flip his arm back calling it, you can tell he loves what he does. He keeps you in the game, and he can quote the rule book whenever you want him to. He even brings new softballs to the fields, that he pays for himself. Nobody else does that.”
Ballyard wisdom holds that the best umpires are those whose presence goes unnoted. Seidlinger’s been so good for so long, however, that local softballers have already taken note of his imminent absence.
At West Potomac Park on Sunday, for example, a third-base coach for the Drillers questioned one of Seidlinger’s strike calls. From the sidelines, other Drillers quickly and loudly shouted that the call was right and told their coach to shut up. That line of defense isn’t available to every ump.
And when Fialkovich heard that Seidlinger was leaving town, he got together with fellow organizers of the annual American Legion Virginia State Softball Tournament and offered to fly the ump back to the area this fall just to work their co-ed event. Seidlinger thinks he’ll make the trip.
“I guess I have something of a fan club,” Seidlinger says.
Seidlinger’s calling skills aren’t likely to rust by autumn. His Florida home is mere minutes away from the Osceola County Softball Complex in Kissimmee. That state-of-the-art facility, rated by the National Softball Association as one of the busiest parks in the country, has features not found at D.C.-area fields, such as an umpires’ lounge
and an umpires’ locker room, complete with showers.
Seidlinger says the park’s proximity to his new residence is coincidental. —Dave McKenna