John Hirschbeck and Wally Bell will call balls and strikes for the Tigers and Cardinals.
By JOE SCALZO
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
At 9:35 p.m. on Thursday night, umpire Wally Bell was trying to talk about the honor of working his first World Series while also watching Game 7 of the National League Champion Series on TV.
"No matter what happens," said Bell, "I'll be able to say that I worked in a World Series. And that's something I'll always ..."
Suddenly, he stopped. At that moment, 400 miles away in Queens, N.Y., a pitch by Cardinals starter Jeff Suppan bounced in the dirt, then flew up and hit Mets batter Jose Valentin in the face.
"It looks like it hit him," Bell said.
"Sorry, I'm watching the game," said Bell, a Fitch High graduate who now lives in Canfield. "I don't know if it hit him or not. OK, yeah, it hit him.
"I'm watching Timmy [home plate umpire Tim Welke] and that's a tough call. The guy stepped in front of him and he couldn't see what happened. That's not fun."
Welke awarded first base to Valentin and, quickly, Bell was back on track. It was an interesting moment. As millions of people were watching the players in the biggest game of the baseball season (so far), Bell couldn't help but watch the umpire.
And he knows it will be a similar story in the Fall Classic.
All eyes watching
"When you get to the World Series, there's not an umpire or an official at any level who doesn't watch," he said.
Today, for the first time in Bell's 13 year major league career, he'll be among the watched. He's part of the six-member crew working the Fall Classic between the Tigers and Cardinals.
And the best part is, he'll be working with his good friend and fellow crew member John Hirschbeck.
"That just made it better," said Bell. "We met because of baseball, but now we're great friends outside the game.
"To work my first World Series with him is an honor."
It will be the second World Series for Hirschbeck, a Poland resident who also worked the 1995 series between the Indians and Braves. Before 2001, umpires were chosen on a rotational basis. Now the selections are made through a merit system, with evaluators watching umpires during the season and reporting on their performance.
The best get picked for the Series.
"I'm very honored," said Hirschbeck, who has more than 22 years of major league experience. "It's kind of nice now because I can take my whole family. In 1995, my kids were a lot younger. Now that they're older, they can see it and appreciate it and enjoy the festivities."
Hirschbeck, 52, and his wife, Denise, have three children: Michael (22) Erin (18) and Megan (15). (His oldest son, John, passed away in 1993 from a rare brain disease.)
Bell, 41, has two children: Jason (7) and Lindsey (6), and they're still a little too young to grasp the significance.
"They understand that it's the best two baseball teams," Bell said, "and that I have to be gone again."
San Diego warmup
Bell worked the NLDS between the Cardinals and Padres -- World Series umpires don't work the championship series -- and was only home for a few hours on Monday afternoon when he got the call he'd been waiting for his whole career.
"It was total jubilation," he said. "You go through your career and you work the All-Star game and the divisional series and championship series and you think you have a chance. This year, when I worked the first round, it went through my mind that maybe I'll get it."
Hirschbeck remembers being nervous in 1995 -- "The best compliment you can get is when people watch the game and no one notices you," he said -- but, as is the case in big games, he settled down after a few pitches.
"Once you get out there, you get used to it," Hirschbeck said. "I worked the first game in the Mets-Dodgers [NLDS] series [this year] and quite a few people commented on how loud the crowd was. I honestly don't remember hearing them.
"But when I came off the field, I had a headache, so I must have heard it. You're concentrating so hard that you block things out."
Pitching is key
Bell has been picking Hirschbeck's brain this week -- "He's been through it before, so I've been bugging him," he said -- and, like Hirschbeck, he's hoping no one notices him over the next week.
"When you work the game, you're only as good as the pitching," he said. "If the pitching is really on that night, there's a flow. But on some of the games, the pitching's not that great and suddenly you're getting tight pitches. That's how it works.
"The best is to go out there and not get noticed. And maybe someone will say, 'Hey ump, you called a good game.' "