When we think about baseball folks who put smiles on people’s faces, the umpires aren’t the first group to come to mind. Nothing personal there, it’s just that their job is, defined most broadly, to make at least half the people watching unhappy.
But around here, where top-shelf umpires like Jim Reynolds and Dan Iassogna grew up, we know more about the hearts that beat behind the chest protectors. Reynolds, from Wethersfield and South Catholic High, and Iassogna, who went to St. Joseph High, returned to Connecticut this week and spent Friday afternoon at Connecticut Children’s, distributing stuffed bears and accessories and, most importantly, giving their time and attention to the children.
“To come here, put smiles on kids faces in Hartford,” Iassogna said. “Jimmy and I were talking about it and we said, ‘This was the best launching pad you could have. We did it. Let’s give something back.'”
The Umps Care program does community work all over the country. This was the first “Blue For Kids” hospital visit in Connecticut, and though Reynolds lives in Arizona and Iassogna in Georgia, they hope to make it an annual event on their calenders.
“I love Connecticut and I owe this state a lot for the success I’ve had,” Reynolds said. “To have this impact in my own community, I’m super grateful for it.”
It’s one of the great Connecticut sports stories. Former UConn baseball coach Andy Baylock needed umpires for his scrimmages and got permission to teach a course on umpiring. Iassogna and Reynolds, roommates, took it, and they went on to long careers in the major leagues, both becoming crew chiefs and working multiple World Series.
Reynolds retired last year after 25 seasons and now works for MLB as a supervisor of umpires, working in development of young umps as well as evaluating the established arbiters. Iassogna is still at it. Both are 54.
And both endorse the various rules changes, most notably the pitch clock, that shortened the games and quickened the pace of action in 2023.
“Both baseball and the umpiring have never been stronger,” Iassogna said. “You can see it now in our attendance. The new rules helped. You see a lot more younger people. It used to be you didn’t see many children until school got out. Now, I see kids, because games end quicker and they can get home and get to school the next day. It’s a better product we’re putting out there. It was a fundamental change to how we present our product and it was a huge success.”
The analytics that have changed baseball have also changed umpires. They are scrutinized, evaluated more intensely and by more onlookers than ever before.
Reynolds has the “tact” to be an ideal supervisor, Iassogna says. “If he has to tell an umpire something, he’ll do it directly. Reynolds isn’t crazy about concept, which is gaining momentum, of balls and strikes being call electronically.
“Just like replay, once you introduce it, it’s going to be hard to put back in the box,” Reynolds said. “One of the things I have noticed, we used to have discussions about whether or not the technology is accurate. We don’t have those discussions any more, not because it’s any more of less accurate, but because everybody believes ‘the box’ now. We’re at a point where the box is the most believable thing.”
On the field, the umps can never win. They know that going in, and hard as it can be at times, they must ignore the internet noise. However …
“We’ve got an extremely talented group of umpires,” Reynolds said. “And when cooler heads prevail, these guys are doing an unbelievable job without the machine and I’d like to see it stay that way. They have a lot of pride in what they do.”
Reynolds and Iassogna attended the Hartford Board of Umpires dinner in Windsor Locks on Saturday.
More for your Sunday Read:
Dee Rowe in bronze
UConn’s beloved former basketball coach and guru of goodwill, Dee Rowe, has never gotten the memorial event he should have, because we lost him during the pandemic in January 2021. So it was wonderful to see UConn unveil a statue of him outside Gampel Pavilion.
“Loved the guy, miss him,” said Baylock, who has been part of the UConn scene in baseball and basketball since 1963. Baylock and Rowe would meet for coffee every day at 11 a.m. in the school’s bookstore. “People would say, ‘Dee, it’s great to see you,'” Baylock said. “And he’d say, ‘I love being seen, and not viewed.'”
Baylock called Rowe “The Pope” and Rowe called Baylock “The Monsignor.”
“People would ask, ‘What are you guys talking about?’ and we’d say, ‘Major issues, but nobody listens to us.'”
Sunday short takes
*Call me old school, but referring to national championships as “Nattys” or “‘Ships,” I’m just not there yet. Don’t anticipate getting there.
*Rough start to the UConn men’s hockey season. After the Huskies (4-6-1) melted down late in a 6-3 home loss to Merrimack Friday, Coach Mike Cavanaugh aired it out. “I’d like to apologize to the fans that came out here tonight because we completely self-destructed and that’s on me,” he told reporters. “If you’re gonna put your own selfish needs above the team, then you just won’t play.”
* Maybe the CivilConFLiCT trophy is gone forever. Or maybe it isn’t. But it appears the cockamamie story just won’t go away.
*The Yard Goats came away from the Minor League Baseball business gathering in Las Vegas with a Golden Bobblehead (no, we’re not making this up) for best alternate identity for its use of the Bouncing Pickles.
* Hal Steinbrenner actually, finally, sounded like his father this past week. A little like him.
*Serious question for baseball analytics folks. If pitching strikeouts are valued, to the point where a pitcher who averages less than a strikeout per inning is often dismissed, then shouldn’t hitters who put the ball in play, hit for average and don’t strikeout 180 times a year be more valued than they are?
If I had a vote, I would vote for fewer divisions and one less layer of playoffs in CIAC football before I would vote for doing away with the traditional Thanksgiving Day games. Maybe there is a middle ground, where non-playoff teams go ahead and play on the holiday. For me, that’s a uniquely Connecticut thing, and we should hold onto it.