A higher ‘call’ ing

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 7, 2009


Mark Chapman stepped onto the field at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, taking it all in.

No, Chapman wasn’t a player, nor a coach, getting set to attempt to win a national championship. But make no mistake — he had reached the big time.

After umpiring college baseball for 23 years, the LaPlace native received his first assignment to officiate last month’s College World Series, one of only eight umpires nationally selected to do so.

“Walking to the plate was an eye-opener,” Chapman said. “You look around and you see 25,000 people staring down at you. I won’t say it was scary, but it was certainly a rush.

“You work for this your whole life, and then you’re there. If you don’t get goosebumps at that point, then shame on you…you shouldn’t be there.”

A Southeastern Conference official for 15 years who also calls games for the Atlantic Coast Conference, the 47-year-old Chapman was selected for the honor based on a season’s worth of positive performance evaluations by regional scouts who grade out officiating performance for the NCAA.

“They won’t tell you they’re coming,” said Chapman. “So in essence, you have to umpire every game in the season as if it were Omaha.”

Those who know Chapman will likely attest that his appointment was no shocker. A lifelong sports nut who played four sports in high school and has also coached — he ended an 12-year stint at St. Charles Catholic in 2000 — he officiated his first Little League game at 14.

“When I started, I never thought this would be something I could do for the rest of my life,” said Chapman. “You just never know.”

He’d keep it up, officiating games at various levels during his high school days and then while attending Southern Mississippi. He officiated his first collegiate baseball contest at the age of 24. Chapman also officiated basketball games at the prep and college level, but gave that up in 2001.

“Baseball season seems to get longer and longer, and the baseball thing seemed like it was going better for me than in basketball. So it was common sense,” said Chapman.

Still, it was a means for him to stay close to athletics, even after his days as a competitor were long over. And at the College World Series, he stood next to the best of the best collegiate competitors in the country.

While he admits that in this tournament setting, you may not see the eight most talented teams in the country represented in the field, he stands firm in the belief that the eight attending teams were playing better baseball at the end of the season than any others in the country.

“It’s all about who gets hot late,” said Chapman. “Powerhouses like Florida State and Miami might be two of the very best teams in the country, but you’ve got to be playing your best ball at the end. And the team that makes it to the top is the hottest at that time.”

His first game came as Cal State-Fullerton faced Arkansas — he manned second base. His first behind the plate again featured Cal State-Fullerton, this time against Virginia.

After each game, he knew he had to maintain a low profile — the NCAA insists that umpires do so as to not form allegiances with coaches, players or fans of a team — but he said he could feel the support as he traveled back to his hotel.

“There were tons of locals that made the trip and stayed for the entire two weeks,” said Chapman. “It was nice to see the people around the hotel, good to feel the support. It made me feel a little pride to represent our area.”

On a smaller scale, another source of pride for Chapman was that despite the games having the highest of stakes, not once in the eight games he officiated did he have to engage a coach or player in any kind of “blow up”.

“Not one coach left the dugout to argue a call,” said Chapman. “Of course, that speaks a lot to being lucky as well. You make a call on a banger at first, and no matter which way you call it you’re going to have a visit. But it was still a satisfying feeling.”

His stay at the series did extend through Father’s Day. But that was no problem for him — accompanying him on the trip was his wife, Heidi, and two daughters, Hailey and Morgan.

He said it was icing on the cake.

“To have them there with me on Father’s Day was pretty special,” he said. “I was able to enjoy such a fulfilling experience and have my family there along for the ride.

“The 23 years I’ve spent doing this were well worth it for the two weeks I was able to spend up there. To sum it up, it was pretty cool.”