LAKEWOOD — Quarter to three at sunny Palms Park. The umpire just drove up. He's the little man in blue wearing glasses, ol' Russ Fendley. Not as in old--he's only 48--but as in good ol' boy. He's from Alabama. They say the ball fields have a hold on him tighter than a sweetheart's. Or certainly a wife's. This life has already cost him two of those.
Half an hour later, a La Quinta High School softball player slides into home plate ahead of the throw to the Artesia catcher. She looks safe. Fendley peers down through the dust, waits a couple seconds, then shoots his right fist into the air.
"She's out of there!" he declares in a voice as Southern as grits.
A coach rushes out to protest.
A fan behind the backstop yells, "Bad call, Blue. You're starting the game out wrong."
The runner doesn't say a word.
An hour later, the game is over and Fendley lights up a Kool on the way back to his car.
"Her foot missed the plate this much," he says, holding his hands six inches apart.
"I told the coach just as calm as I could possibly be, 'Coach, she never touched the plate.' "
Fendley drives away, content that no one is angry enough to follow him. That happens.
'Threatened Many Times'
"I've been threatened many times," said Fendley, who has been a sports official for more than 25 years.
During a 1963 youth football game, coaches hit him with their fists. But that is the only time he has been subjected to violence, if you don't count being spit on with tobacco juice.
"I've been called every abusive name there is," he said. "I've had people call me at home, leaving crank messages over simple recreation ballgames."
But Fendley, who used to average 300 games (football, basketball, softball and baseball) a year, shrugs off the abuse as he would a foul tip in the shoulder.
"Once you put people between the two lines of a ball field they become totally different," he said. "But the good thing is if you have a row with them, then see them later downtown or in a store it's usually a congenial hello."
Fendley's passion for officiating has developed into his own business, the Russ Fendley Sports Officials Assn., which he operates out of his Los Alamitos home.
Under contract with the City of Long Beach, he assigns officials, including himself, to 10,000 to 12,000 games a year. These include high school softball, semi-pro and Little League baseball and recreational softball, basketball and touch football. Fendley, who is paid by the teams, also runs instructional camps for officials.
Wants People Who Are Dedicated
"We're always hurting for officials, yet we don't beg for them," said Fendley, who takes in 30 to 35 officials in each sport each year. "We want people to show initiative and dedication, because if they don't they won't last."
Fendley has almost 150 umpires but in three years 90% of them will have quit, a fact he mourns but all too well understands.
"We lose 'em because of marriage, girlfriends, job changes, lack of interest or lack of ability," said Fendley, who regularly assesses his umpires' performances. "It's hard to explain how much dedication there is if you're going to do a good job."
That dedication has cost Fendley dearly.
"I got married and had a child, and I paid more attention to officiating and being involved in sports than I did them," he said. "So it cost me my first marriage and my second marriage."
It was inevitable.
"Games are played in the late afternoon or early evening, when most everybody else is entertaining, and you're away from your wife," Fendley said. "And you'll find out real soon that your wife and kids don't care about coming just to watch you umpire. No one ever comes to watch an umpire."
And when the umpire finally gets home, he's not always perfect company.
"If you've had a bad night, you come home and want to kick the dog," Fendley said.
When Fendley gets home at 8 a.m. from his full-time job as a clerk for the Santa Fe Railroad, he calls his umpires to make sure they will be at their assigned games.
Has Coterie of Die-Hard Officials
"There are always cancellations," he said. "A guy gets a date, or a wife calls up and says, 'Did you forget it's our anniversary?'
"But I've got about 15 guys like me. They just live and die umpiring or refereeing. I call 'em up and say, 'How about working Friday night?' They'll say, 'Just a minute . . .. Honey, what we got Friday night? Susie's got an open house? Oh, I don't want to go to that.' And then he says to me, 'I'll take it.' "
Those are the umpires Fendley is proud of, the ones he tries to push into high school officiating, the ones he can be assured won't badger the players in a girls softball game for dates, the ones without chips on their shoulders.
But most find officiating too demanding.