By Cam Huffman
Greg Fernett knows a thing or two about butterflies. A member of Alpha Natural Resources’ mine rescue team, Fernett is often going into a dangerous mine when others are coming out.
But some of the biggest butterflies for the 52-year-old Beckley native come when slipping on the gear and preparing to umpire a baseball game.
“I always tell my guys that when you stop getting the butterflies, it’s time to get out of it,” he said. “When you’re not excited about it anymore, you shouldn’t be doing it.”
That’s not the case for Fernett, who has been calling games for more than two decades — starting by calling youth games while still in school at Oak Hill High School. He still gets excited to call any game, and as the stage increases in size, so do those butterflies.
This weekend, Fernett will call his 13th West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission high school baseball championship. The exact assignment — Class A, AA or AAA — won’t be made until Saturday morning, but he knows he’ll be somewhere on the Appalachian Power Park diamond for one of those games.
“It’s a great achievement, but it’s more of a reflection of your association,” he said. “We do it as a team. The New River Valley Association has been selected to do the state championship for as many years as I can remember. We’re just carrying on the tradition.”
Lucky No. 13 will be Fernett’s final appearance in the state title game. He’s still going to umpire — as well as call basketball and football games, which he’s done even longer than baseball — but he’s going to take his name out of the hat for the state tournament.
“It’s time for some younger guys to get a chance,” said the former Concord baseball player. “They’ll do just as good of a job if not better.”
Fernett said he started officiating games to earn spending money as a youth. Instead of mowing grass or washing cars, he decided to get paid to be at the park, where he’d likely be anyway.
1n 1982, his brother, Keith, who was already a WVSSAC official, invited Greg to join him.
“He said, ‘You’ve always done this,’” remembered Fernett. “Do you want to learn to do it right?”
Fernett said he’s still trying to perfect the craft, learning from fellow umpires, both younger and older. But he takes a simple approach to doing his job.
“If you can get balls, strikes, out, safe, fair and foul, you’ve got 90 percent of the game,” said Fernett. “Forget all the other stuff. We like to say that we fish for whales, not minnows.”
The other key, he said, is preparation.
Like a shortstop trying to anticipate the game situation, the hitter at the plate, the wind and countless other factors, Fernett said a baseball umpire is always trying to predict what will happen next, so he’ll be in the right place at the right time.
“Then some 17-year-old kid does something crazy and messes it all up,” he laughed.
Like every umpire, Fernett has heard his share of criticism from coaches and fans. From the coaches, he expects it.
“They put so much time and effort into their teams,” he said. “So they’re biased, and they should disagree with me. It’s OK to have a different opinion.”
But Fernett prides himself on always trying to make what he believes is the right call and ignore everything else.
“When you officiate, you do it to be the best you can be,” he said. “We have to be fair. All we do is report how we saw a play happen. It’s just my opinion. I’m trained to try to get it right, but it’s only my opinion.
“People just don’t understand that we don’t have a dog in the fight. I don’t have a home school. There are good people everywhere, and we become friends with a lot of people.”
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Fernett has enough memories of state tournament games to write a book on the subject, but the one game that stands out more than any other is Herbert Hoover’s 3-1 win over Grafton in 2007.
The Huskies were leading 3-1 heading into the bottom of the seventh inning when their pitcher walked past Fernett on his way to the mound and pulled out a newspaper article that quoted one of the Grafton players saying, “Herbert Hoover has never won a state championship, and they’re not going to win one now.” The pitcher, without making a scene, simply looked at Fernett and said, “I need three outs to prove this guy wrong.”
“He threw a heck of a game,” said Fernett, who was recently named the Active Umpire of the Year, adding that distinction to the Active Football official of the year honor he won in 2008. “I’ll never forget that.”
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.