Saturday, July 19, 2008
This weekend, Ashland, KY recognizes and honors one of her favorite sons, Major League Umpire Charlie Reliford.
Every year on this weekend the local Elks Lodge honors one of the local sports celebrities for their Sports Weekend celebration. Each year, the honoree is feted on Friday and Saturday evenings with a reception and a formal banquet, as well as other community activities. Usually the honoree is an older person who had distinguished themselves in various ways through local sports activities. There are a number of former high school and college star athletes, coaches, etc whose photos line the wall of fame at the local lodge hall. The interesting thing about this year's honoree is that he is still active in sports, and is, in fact, at the height of his career.
Charlie Reliford is in his 19th season as a Major League Umpire. He serves as a crew chief which boasts another Ashland native, Umpire Greg Gibson. Ashland is the only small town in America that can boast two major league umpires serving on the same crew, but that's another story for another time.
Charlie worked hard to make it to "The Show". My first memories of Charlie was when he worked at the YMCA in Ashland, a young man who toiled many hours refereeing grade school and middle school (and later high school) basketball games, and all manner of baseball games in beautiful Central Park. He toiled many years in the minor leagues, working his way up to the big time. One of the more interesting experiences was when he was calling AAA ball on the same crew as Pam Postema, who gained fame as the first woman to umpire organized Baseball at that level.
Charlie's sister, Mary Peer, was a friend of ours, who's daughter, Christina, went to school with our boys here in Ashland. In fact, both of our sons dated Christina a time or two. Christina was Benji's date to Paul Blazer High School's Homecoming dance the year before he got his driver's license. Well, Charlie was in town that weekend and he offered to drive his niece and her date to dinner and the dance in his Mazda Miata convertible. I remember that Christina looked really beautiful that night, but I honestly think Benji (who was a high school baseball player) had as enjoyable a time listening to Charlie's baseball tales than he did at the dance!
Charlie has had some great and memorable moments in his 19 year major league career. He has called a number of playoff series, two All Star games and two World Series. In one of the most high profile games ever, in the "Subway Series" between the New York Yankees and the New York Mets, Charlie was behind the plate when the whole thing nearly exploded. Tensions were already high when the most memorable event of the Series happened. The Mets' Mike Piazza was at the plate when his bat shattered on a Roger Clemens fast ball. As Piazza left the batter's box the jagged barrel of the broken bat landed near Clemens on the mound. "Roger the Rocket" picked up the broken piece of lumber and threw it toward Piazza as he ran toward first base.
Piazza charged the mound, and Clemens, never one to back away from a fight, headed straight for the Mets' star catcher. Both benches emptied and a tremendous fight would have ensued, if not for home plate Umpire Reliford stepping between the two would be combatants, restoring order to a volatile situation. Many analysts believe that may have been Charlie Reliford's defining moment. It certainly was one of the most high profile ones!
If one could measure the pride of a community, Ashland's would be at it's zenith on those occasions when Charlie and his crew mate, Greg Gibson, and former Cy Young Award winner , Arizona Diamondback's Brandon Webb are on the field at the same time. All of them are Ashland natives and graduates of Paul Blazer High School. Charlie is a tremendous (unpaid) ambassador of good will for Ashland, KY in cities all around the American and National Leagues. He proudly tells anyone who will listen of the virtues of his home town.
This weekend his hometown returns the favor.