By Cam Huffman
Crab Orchard native Marty Jones knew that umpiring in the Little League World Series would be special. It’s the highest honor a youth umpire can receive. Only 16 umpires from around the world are picked each year, and having been to South Williamsport, Pa., as a spectator in the past, he knew the nationally-televised tournament was one of the spectacular events in all of sports.
But what he experienced over 10 days of calling games including teams from all around the world was even more than he anticipated.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to go to five NCAA Final Fours, and I’d rate this right there with it,” said Jones. “It’s up at that level.”
While calling balls and strikes and out and safe with ESPN television cameras focused on his every move was a unique experience, some of the lasting memories actually came away from the playing field.
Jones was especially touched by a moment in the opening ceremonies, when the players from the team from Uganda — the first African team to advance to the LLWS — saw something they’d never seen before — balloons.
“Our children see thousands of balloons by the age of 2, and these kids were literally amazed with a balloon,” said Jones, who said the players were interested in seeing how the balloons were inflated. “A little thing like that made me realize how good we do have it here.”
On the field, Jones was thrown right into the fire, umpiring a game behind the plate on his first day.
“I was hoping I wouldn’t have a plate game my first day so I could get settled in,” he said. “But the first pitch from a kid from California was right down the middle, and I realized then, ‘Hey, it’s just a baseball game. Call it the way you see it, and if the replays come in, that’s just the way it is.’”
The replays may have been the most unique aspect of the entire experience. Coaches had the opportunity to challenge close calls, and a few were overturned, including one where Jones had ruled a runner out at first base, a call that was changed to safe, allowing the team from New Jersey to score three more runs that inning.
“Those kids get down that line so quick,” said Jones, pointing out that 10 of the 12 overturned calls during the tournament came at first base. “It’s a lot different, because the best players in the world at that level get down there at 60 feet so quick.
“We’re not used to that, obviously,” he continued of the replay technology. “But I think we all liked it. It does put a lot of added pressure. I can certainly see why in the professional ranks, they don’t like it. But if I make a mistake, let’s fix it and go on.”
In honor of the 29 Upper Big Branch miners who lost their lives in a coal mining accident in 2010, Jones was granted the right to wear the No. 29 as his uniform number, and he said the gesture received a great deal of attention.
One of the first people Jones met at the LLWS was German umpire Martin Webber, who traditionally wears No. 29 but was denied by Little League so Jones could wear the number.
“He knew the story, and I told him how important coal was to our state,” said Jones. “He said I deserved the number and that he was sorry about what had happened.
“A lot of people were talking about it. It was pretty special.”
Jones said he was happy with his performance, and he was rewarded with the opportunity to be behind the plate for the winner’s bracket of the international final. He didn’t get a chance to umpire the championship game, because the USA Southeast team made the finals for the first time since 2007. Umpires are not allow to call games with teams from their district participating.
Still, Jones rubbed elbows with the likes of Dick Vitale, Steve Carlton and Wade Boggs, as well as guys who umpire softball in the Pac 12, SEC and ACC. He was one of four umpires from the Southeast Region, one of the most competitive regions when it comes to umpires, because of the Major League Baseball training schools that are headquartered in Florida, the Southeast Region’s home base.
While Jones said there were some great umpires in South Williamsport, he also realized something about his colleagues back in West Virginia.
“We have some very good umpires in the state of West Virginia,” he said. “I know the fans might not believe it, but we really do. When you get out on that stage, you start to realize how good they are.”
Jones said he didn’t tape the games, but ESPN is supposed to send all of the umpires a copy of its coverage of the LLWS in the near future. This winter, he hopes to sit down and watch the games, trying to relive the moment.
One day, he hopes, he’ll get the opportunity to watch a team from the Mountain State step onto those same fields.
“It would be nice for some kid from the state of West Virginia, or a coach or another umpire, to experience what I did there,” he said, pointing out that a team from Fairmont in 1951 was the last from the state to advance to the LLWS. “I knew it would be good, but it was far beyond what I could ever imagine. It would be gratifying to me to see somebody else from this state get that opportunity.”
First, though, he’ll head back to the gridiron. He will join his high school football crew, which called two games at last year’s Super Six in Wheeling, at Spartan Stadium in Fairlea for Friday’s rivalry game between Greenbrier East and Woodrow Wilson.
“I might be a little rusty,” Jones joked. “I told those guys I might have forgot how to blow a whistle.”