Making it to the South Williamsport to play in the Little League World Series is a monumental experience for players, coaches and their families. But the experience is equally as exhilarating for those selected to umpire the games, as well.
Umpires for each year's World Series are chosen after many years of calling games for their local leagues and also after being evaluated during sectional, state and regional tournaments, explained Cynthia Smith, an umpire from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., at this year's Series.
"And at every step of the way, there are very experienced umpires who are evaluating you. And maybe they'll say, 'OK, you're ready to go to the next level,' or 'Maybe you need to stay here for a while,'" she said.
Each year's crop of umpires volunteer their time calling games at both Lamade and Volunteer stadiums. For the most part, umpires only are selected to one World Series. So as Nick Bonnar, an umpire from Nova Scotia, Canada, explained, "It's an honor just to be asked."
"I said it numerous times, it's unbelievable just to be part of something that's so special. It's such an honor to be here because only certain people get here. That doesn't make us better than our fellow colleagues but it certainly is a great honor to be here," he said.
Both Smith and Bonnar received their start in umpiring because of family. Smith started 17 years ago because her son, Ben, was playing in a local league.
"I got out there and thought, 'Well, this is the best seat in the house. I can see everything that's going on.' I was a little nervous because I didn't know very much but some of the more-experienced umpires took me under their wing and kept helping me get better," Smith said. "And I would study because back then - 17 years ago - there weren't many woman (umpires) at all. And so I was very conscious of not screwing up. I knew the rule book backward and forward. I would read it at night and put it on my nightstand."
Bonnar began his 44-year career after his father, Buddy, a former coach and umpire, got him into it.
Now being at the World Series, Bonnar said he still gets chills just thinking about his experiences so far on the fields at the Series. The excitement is overwhelming.
"It's almost like being a kid at Christmas time. And all of a sudden you get that gift that you didn't think Santa Claus was going to get you. ... Every game I do, I'm excited for that game," Bonnar said. "To be here, it's pretty cool. We're watching a game on TV and then you think, 'Oh, we're the next game.' It's unbelievable."
Smith said she's watched the Series every year on television, so to finally be a part of it is a great feeling. She's always dreamed of getting the call for the World Series, and now she's here.
"But it's still more than you could ever imagine watching on TV. It's such a great experience. I couldn't stop grinning. You know, we're supposed to be kind of dignified but I just can't stop smiling," Smith said, recalling her memories from her first game at the Series.
She added there were a few nervous moments during her first game but she quickly got down to business.
"There were so many butterflies," she said. "Gosh, I could have opened a zoo of butterflies. Overall, I was very excited but nervous. There was so much adrenaline going through me. I kept telling everybody if I could have touched them with my finger I could have tased them. ... I was jumping up and down just trying to get the adrenaline out."
And although there isn't a lot of interaction with players during the game, Bonnar said he occasionally reminds the kids to smile and have fun.
But umpires also know that they need to bring their A-game every day.
"Every pitch is very important. The kids are here doing their best. So we had to stay sharp all the time to make sure we got the right call because one call can mean a lot here. So we want to make sure we're fair and very consistent with the kids and coaches," he said. " ... To be a good umpire, it's like a coaching, you can't be any of those things unless you have kids playing in front of you, in any sport. So the kids are what it's all about, for sure."
Smith is writing about her experiences on a blog and said she will take back "thousands of memories" with her home.
"I could go home now and still be in heaven. It's just an incredible experience," she said noting she's been on the crews during the perfect game between the West Region and Great Lakes Region teams, and Tuesday's game that saw the Czech Republic's first-ever win at the World Series.
Bonnar added that he will have plenty of stories to tell those back home, which he hopes will encourage others to volunteer.
And although the ultimate goal is to not be noticed by spectators as an umpire, Bonnar said he's been overwhelmed by the amount of support he's received from players, coaches and fans around the area.
"I find it, no matter where you walk in the park, as soon as they find out you umpire, it's, 'Thank you for volunteering your time,'" he said.