Wounded Warrior umpire group the right call for many veterans

Clayton McDaniel has spent essentially his adult life on his toes, on point, and on guard for anything that might threaten to derail his assignment.

A seven-year career in the Marines that took him from North Carolina to Hawaii to the grinding teeth of the Taliban insurgency in south Helmund Province in Afghanistan is the obvious launching pad for that attitude of eyes forward, senses on alert. Soon after his overseas hitch of 2010-11 was completed, it was clear McDaniel could not and should not actively serve; the struggle to provide safety and protection for his country became instead a fight to navigate his own case of PTSD.

But upon his medical discharge in 2013, McDaniel heard about a program that introduced veterans to the discipline of umpiring. This notion, the Wounded Warrior Umpire Academy, was brought to life by people who saw a direct line between the protocols of military life and the rule book of baseball.

McDaniel passed the academy training regimen and has been working games this past week at the Triple Crown World Series in Steamboat Springs with eight other former servicemen. Watching him on the field, it’s obvious that McDaniel channels his previous life into this one – eyeing the action, on his toes to react and get in proper position for every call, and the precise rigor that goes into his calls of out and safe, ball and strike.

“The positive thing is this is another brotherhood, something I longed for ever since I left the Marine Corps. I didn’t want to leave the Corps, but I had to go,” said McDaniel, 30, who lives in Molalla, Ore., with his wife Sarah and nearly 9-year-old son, Clayton Jr. “As an umpire, I’m meeting new individuals, and instantly, right off the bat, we have something in common. They always tell me, we’re a brotherhood and we’ll take care of each other. If I don’t have something, they’ll help me out with it just like a Marine would. It’s an inspirational thing to have around me.”

While some veterans have to acquaint themselves with the game from the elemental level, McDaniel has loved the sport since childhood. The comfort and the benefits of focus baseball gives to those willing to open their hearts and minds may sound mysterious to others, but McDaniel is fluent in this world.

“Baseball is what I turned to if I had any issues. I looked forward to baseball,” he said. “I wasn’t doing too good in school, so baseball was the only thing that kept me going. It made me appreciate things and gave me something to look forward to.

“I tried coaching, but it was a different feeling being restricted in the dugout. Out on the field as an umpire, I’ve realized I have a tremendous sense of satisfaction. I feel like I’m a part of the game; I can smell the grass, and I can feel the dirt beneath my feet. I’m in every play, and it almost feels like I’m another player, although I’m, say, ineligible. It’s phenomenal to be a part of it.”

In May of 2014, the WWUA had its first official training week, with about 18 Marines coming to Parker, CO, and getting a taste of the task. The boot camp concept seemed like a good idea given the history of the group, and techniques and procedures were taught. Umpires were brought into live games, about an inning at a time, but it was eventually agreed upon that the trainees needed more live action.

In April of 2015, the group returned to Colorado for training, with Triple Crown’s Summer Slam tournament providing multiple games for the veterans to work and to increase the number of looks they got at the tough judgement calls. If you sat down and tried to make a shoe, even with all the right material and equipment and training, the first one off your work station would probably be a little rough – so it was at the Summer Slam, with many of the new umpires toiling hard to execute the job.

The nine most comfortable and capable veterans were hired to work the TCS World Series, and in fact two of the veterans – Kyle Bujno and Tony Mauro – worked the 13u Prime Time Bracket title game Saturday night at Vanatta Field at the Howelsen Complex.

Hal Weizman of Aurora Sports Officials, who contracts the umpire work at the World Series, was always happy to help the cause of the WWUA, although he had to keep in mind the coaches and parents of the teams required a certain aptitude out of the umpires. There could be no sentimental tug when it was time to decide who got the go-ahead to work at Steamboat.

“It was a collective concern – you have to get the event covered with the best people you can,” Weizman said. “Our plan with the Marines was, let’s not have them work together. They would work with our best guys, so we had ideal supervision. They don’t have the experience yet to manage coach interactions – the experienced guys could step in if needed.

“We saw the guys who had the personality to make it work. We are all umpires, and sometimes we make mistakes, even the most experienced ones.”

And mistakes generate complaints. That question was asked of McDaniel – with the yakking of aggrieved coaches and frustrated parents a part of youth baseball, like it or not, did it really sound like a fun and pleasurable way to spend a day?

“I would say, I don’t care about the chirping. The reason I’m umpiring, and the reason 90 percent or whatever it is that people do this, it’s not for the parents and not for the coaches,” McDaniel said. “It’s for the kids – they are supposed to be able to play the game they love. It doesn’t bother me what’s said behind me, but if it affects the kids, that’s when I’ll probably say something. I’m out there, and I like to talk to the kids if I’m behind the plate, or (in the field). The chirping doesn’t bother me.

“It’s incredible how wacky some people get; it’s incredible how stubborn people are, and amazing what people will say. I don’t remember it being that bad as a kid; maybe it was, and I just wasn’t paying attention.”

Greg Wilson, who has 23 years and counting in with the Marines and is a NCAA D-I umpire, is one of the founding administrators of the WWUA – he kicked the idea around with fellow Marine Jimmy Craig when they were at a umpire training session in Idaho, and they eventually crossed paths with Colorado resident Dan Weikle, the national coordinator for all D-II umpires. Together, they put the framework together that led to that first training run in Colorado.

Anyone connected to the military who is involved with guiding veterans into mainstream American life is horrified by the uptick in suicides by men and women scarred deeply by those years in service.

“The biggest part of what we wanted to create was not just getting more umps out there. We are, though this, a member of a brotherhood that sees the game differently,” Wilson said. “They can take care of each other. And they have no concern about the outcome, who wins or who loses. What they do want is to protect the integrity of the game.

“And that brotherhood extends later, to time at the hotel to texts and calls later in the week. It’s a way to bring these guys together.”

During the Summer Slam training, some parents expressed concern that the servicemen might not be reliable under stress, that a so-called trigger moment might lead to uncontrollable events. Wilson took great offense to that, saying the veterans who receive the proper training in the academy setting show they can compartmentalize and separate any stress on the field from previous experiences.

“I had a guy tell me, and it was pretty funny … he said, bring on the parents and coaches. That’s the kind of sniper fire I can handle,” Wilson said. “The first speech I give the guys is, service members already possess aspects that civilians would not normally have to become an umpire. There’s the established discipline, leadership, understanding of order and regulation, being held accountable. Veterans already understand that, while an average 18-year-old kid would not have half of that.”

McDaniel will be returning to school this year to pursue a degree in physical education/science, and he lays out his plan in the even tone you would expect from a military man, and a man who has seen a lot, is not interested in false drama, and wants what is best for his family.

“This is something I want to do and will do,” McDaniel added. “I’m going to run with it.”