The founding president of the county’s largest officiating crew, Hernando Sumter Umpires Association’s Gerald “Jerry” Theilen, has called it quits.
Theilen, 58, an avid Mets fan, relocated from Queens, N.Y. to Hernando County in 1986.
He has two children, 25-year-old David and 23-year-old Carli.
The physically imposing 6-foot-5, 260-pound Theilen found a niche behind the plate after officially retiring following 16 years as a general services specialist with the Sumter Correctional Institute.
Theilen’s passion dates back to his neighborhood days on the sandlots.
“I love the game of baseball. It’s the greatest game in the country. I enjoyed it as a player, coach and umpire. Being an umpire is the best seat in the house,” said Theilen.
In 2003, Theilen began to fill a void locally by building the HSUA from scratch.
“I thought there was a need for education and training (of umpires),” pointed out Theilen. “Back then youth leagues didn’t know how to handle unruly crowds. You definitely had the possibility of violence between parents and fans at games.”
Clinic after clinic, HSUA grew exponentially from five umpires to over 100. The association swelled from covering one league to 11, spanning five counties: Hernando, Pasco, Sumter, Citrus and Hillsborough.
Theilen delights in defusing potentially disruptive situations at the ballpark.
“One of our greatest achievements is training people how to handle argumentative situations,” detailed Theilen. “To become a member, sure there’s a written closed-book exam that has to be passed, but we don’t stop there. Thanks to our board of directors, we continue giving training tutorials.
“That’s one big reason we haven’t had one violent situation in over 10 years.”
In the digital era, HSUA enjoys a popular feature on its website, ‘Ask the umpire.’ To date, over 19,000 questions have been submitted with over 150,000 visitors.
From March until the Fourth of July, Theilen points out that HSUA has remained on full throttle manning just over 1,100 games.
“No association would ever schedule that many games,” boasted Theilen. “But we have.”
In Theilen’s book, however, not everyone can be called “Blue.”
“When I coached my son, I studied the rules,” recalled Theilen. “There were so many games where the other coaches didn’t know the rulebook and neither did some of the officials doing the games.
“Before putting on the gear, you’ve got to have thick skin,” pointed out Theilen. “To me, officiating kept me in the game. I thought it was a lot of fun.”
On one occasion, Theilen went as far as throwing out both sets of fans. The main contention: fans had been arguing back and forth at each other.
“Coaches always argue balls and strikes, like it’s in their blood. But rarely do they argue about kids not touching the bases,” insisted Theilen. “And that happens all the time. As an umpire you have to establish control from the beginning of the game. In time, players, coaches, parents and fans will respect you.”
The toughest games to officiate, according to Theilen, are those involving family members, as well as dealing with extremely one-sided affairs.
On whether he’d ever do a game involving his son or daughter or grandkids, “Regardless of how well you know the game and carry yourself, you open yourself up to criticism; so I would never do a family member game,” said Theilen.
On blowouts, “Even if its 20-0, I’m not going to expand the strike zone to get out of there,” emphatically stated Theilen. “I’m going to call the last pitch like I did the first pitch.
“And I don’t like coaches throwing in the towel,” added Theilen. “In lopsided games, one at-bat or one great catch could be a turning point for any kid. How can you rob any kid an opportunity to do something on the field?”
Theilen’s last game behind the dish was during the opening round of the recent Dixie Baseball AAA Majors (ages 11-12) All-Stars District 6 Tournament at Ernie Wever Park in Brooksville.
“Doing over 400 games a season was one factor (leading to retirement),” expressed Theilen. “Physically, my aching knees and back aren’t the same as they once were.
“On the administrative side, the most frustrating thing was dealing with leagues that are slow paying,” he added. “To me, running the league was more of a hobby. But when our members aren’t getting paid a month after doing games – that’s not right.”
Theilen says he’ll miss people calling at all hours of the day or night about a rule interpretation.
“Baseball is situational; that’s what keeps my brain alive,” said Theilen. “From my end, it’s great to see the guys we’ve taught apply the knowledge they’ve been given.”
Theilen is flush with pride currently watching his son officiate games.
“David used to watch me all the time,” noted Theilen. “Everybody kids me now that he’s a lot quicker than I am. I kind of feel like my work has gone full circle.”