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Answering the call

June 22, 2007|Kevin Baxter | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — There's a plaque in front of the house where Alfonso Marquez was born.

"Obviously," said friend and colleague Larry Barrett, "he's a celebrity."

But not for anything he did. Rather, the 1,800 people in Marquez's poor, dusty hometown of La Encarnacion, Zacatecas, in central Mexico, remember him for what he didn't do.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 23, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
Baseball: An article in Friday's Sports section about umpire Alfonso Marquez misidentified umpire Ted Barrett as Larry Barrett.

He didn't forget them.

It would have been easy to do just that, of course. Marquez was only 7 when he left the farm fields of Zacatecas, following his mother through a small hole in a chain-link fence separating Mexico from the United States.

That was 27 years ago, plenty of time for memories to fade.

Here Marquez learned English, bought a house and rose to the highest levels of his profession, spending the last eight years as a major league umpire. Last year he worked behind the plate in the World Series. This weekend, he'll work the series between the Angels and Pittsburgh at Angel Stadium.

Certainly he could be forgiven if he had forgotten.

But instead, like Santa Claus, he returns every winter bearing gifts he spends the rest of the year collecting.

"Bottom line is there's a lot of kids that are forced out on the street at 11, 12, 13," Marquez said. "A lot of them are forced to get out of school just to work. So ... [I] try to get them involved in some sports."

Along the way he has also provided faith, helping two other umpires turn a six-man religious retreat into a 2,000-member Christian church in Gilbert, Ariz., and charity, founding his own nonprofit group, Fonzie's Kids, to benefit poor children in Mexico.

But perhaps the most important thing he provides, to kids on both sides of the border, is hope.

"For them to look and say, 'Hey, this is one of our people. This is one of our countrymen. And he's made it to a high level.' I would definitely say he's making a difference just as people look at him," said Barrett, also a major league umpire and a former crewmate of Marquez. "But also I think the fact is, his heart is still down there. They've embraced him because his heart's never left there."

*

The first time Barrett went to Mexico with Marquez, the two worked an exhibition game in Mexico City and Marquez chartered a bus to bring in people from his hometown. That may have been the first time an umpire got a standing ovation.

"You could see how proud they were of him and what a big deal that was," Barrett said.

Later the pair went to Monterrey and ran a clinic for Mexican umpires. Marquez wound up being inducted into the city's baseball hall of fame.

"You could see how much they revered him," Barrett said.

But what really opened Barrett's eyes was his first trip to La Encarnacion.

"I was humbled by the people there," he said. "This little tiny town in Mexico, kind of just an insignificant spot on the map to us Americans, and to think a major league umpire came out of here."

Marquez's climb to the big leagues started in the parks and playgrounds of Fullerton where, the story goes, he hit an inside-the-park home run but was called out for missing second base. Amazed at the umpire's ability to spot that, he decided to become an official himself, trading in his uniform for a dark blue shirt and chest protector. By age 19 he was umpiring high school games during the week and men's leagues on Sundays, becoming so good several of his colleagues urged him to enroll in umpire school, the necessary first step toward a professional career.

So Marquez borrowed the money for the enrollment fee, flew off to Florida and finished third in his class, winning a job in the rookie-level Northwest League. He wasn't there long, progressing rapidly up the minor league ladder and reaching triple A in just six years. The next season he made his major league debut, working the plate in a meaningless late-season game between Colorado and Montreal.

In Mexico, however, the game was far from insignificant, because it made Marquez the first native of Mexico to umpire a big-league game. And in the barrios and sweatshops, on the farms and in the restaurant kitchens of Southern California, that game made Marquez a hero too.

Like many of them, the umpire came to the United States illegally, but his skill, well, no one needed documents to verify that.

"I always tell guys you should let your work talk for you," said Marquez, who is preparing to take the U.S. citizenship test his father and sister have already passed. "And if you do that people [will] look at your work and they'll start saying, 'You know what? He deserves to be here.' "

And though he has worked more than 1,000 big-league games -- not including four division playoff series, one American League Championship Series, a World Series and an All-Star game -- since then, Marquez said he has never lost sight of the responsibility that comes with breaking a barrier.

"I think it's pretty cool to show them that it can be done," he said. "It gives people hope to try to do things because it's possible."

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