Minister of the strike zone

Friday, June 22, 2007

Storm Lake Little League baseball umpire approaches job, and life, with precision

Harrison Harnden is a man of many hats.

Minister. Coach. Teacher. Athlete. Air Force veteran. Engineer.

The first three are intertwined, he's quick to tell you: "The emphases are different but the context is essentially the same."

Those titles and more have befitted Harnden throughout his life, but it's umpiring for which the Wilton, Maine, native has drawn recognition among Storm Lakers.

Harnden is the man in blue behind home plate at the seventh-and-eighth-grade senior league baseball games at West 9th Field this summer. Every single one of them, with his wife seated right behind him.

And at 73 years old, there's one more hat he'd like to try on here. It's a familiar hat - he has 52 years of experience in the field - and one decorated in Panther black and white.

Harnden wants the head St. Mary's High School girls basketball post from which Ryan Berg resigned in March.

"I would hope that my age would not keep me from having an opportunity to coach," said Harnden, who guided an undersized group of Goshen, N.Y., middle school boys to undefeated regular season league and league tourney basketball marks two winters ago, teaching them the continuity offense along the way.

Harnden is also a man of precision.

"We asked him the first time to go out and chalk the field and he did it with a tape measure. It took him two hours. High school kids can do it in about 10 minutes," said Gary Ringgenberg, president of the Storm Lake Youth Baseball Association. "He seems to be very animated and very conscientious."

"I try to do things precisely. I spend a lot of my time editing scholarly Biblical studies material," said Harnden, a minister in the Christian Reformed church. "My academic field basically is in Biblical Literature and Language, so I'm pretty competent in Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic."

Harnden spent most of his time after basic training in Biloxi, Miss., where he taught electronics, played baseball and coached basketball at Keesler Air Force Base.

He also taught electronics at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, where, as a left-handed hitter with the independent El Paso Texans baseball club for a year, his coach told him he might hit close to .300 off right-handed pitching but he'd be close to .000 off southpaws. Particularly if they had a curveball.

"That was the end of my playing days," Harnden said with a laugh.

After a year at Fort Bliss, he was transferred to the missile test project at Cape Canaveral and Patrick Air Force Base in Florida, where he went down range to serve as an engineer at a Minitrack site on Antigua Island.

Harnden, who did his graduate work at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary Northwestern in Evanston, Ill., had spent time in Iowa as an interim pastor before he ended up in Storm Lake.

But he was back on the east coast, in New York, in the fall of 2006, when he and his wife, Jean Louise, decided to move here because she needed hip replacement surgery. They would be close to their daughter, Jean Louise Iordanou, who owns Malarkey's with her husband Chris.

Harnden was eager to jump right into coaching but he had one problem - he wasn't certified in the state of Iowa.

"Frankly I spent a miserable winter in Storm Lake. I couldn't coach; I wasn't registered as an official," he said. "I couldn't do much of anything except go to games. I've discovered that watching games as a spectator and fan just drives me crazy. I can't do anything."

So Harnden, who's on his way to getting his coveted coaching certificate, got in touch with Storm Laker Mike VanDerSloot and did the next best thing.

"I said, 'well, if I can't coach, I'll ump.' I said I'd be glad to call, but I really would want to work the plate."

He also has 52 years of umpiring experience, but he's quick to point out he's not calling balls and strikes at Fenway Park.

"What you're doing at a seventh and eighth grade level in umpiring is very different from the higher levels. Because a lot of what you're trying to do is teach. Some of the things you can learn in a team sport--these kinds of experiences are valuable in every aspect of life," said Harnden. "It produces a frame of thought, a way of accounting, a way of managing life. You hear people talk about sports as extracurricular--I've never called them that. I've always called them co-curricular because I think as much learning takes place in that area as ever takes place in the classroom."

Has Harnden ever missed a call?

He'll first recount Hall of Fame ump Bill Klem's famous response: "Of course not," the man known as "The Old Arbitrator" would tell people.

Harnden will then tell you that of course he's missed calls. A typical umpire misses 3-4 calls a game, he figures.

"I think (Klem's) rationale is he's the final authority. That's not entirely true because there are decisions that can be appealed, and in most instances there are situations that can be protested," said Harnden. "However, the league in which I'm umpiring presently does not allow protests at all."

If Harnden had a handbook on the no-no's of umpiring, No. 1, in big, bold ink would be this: Don't try to make up for a blown call.

"Then you've made two bad calls; it just isn't fair to anyone," he said.

Harnden had a coach tell him to open up the strike zone early this season.

"I of course refused. Not only must pitchers know where the strike zone is, but it's terribly unfair to young batters because the batter never quite learns where the strike zone is," Harnden explained. "A young ballplayer needs to become aware of where the strike zone is. There was never a major leaguer, at least during my time, that knew where the strike zone was as well as (Boston's) Ted Williams did. He was so precise with regard to the strike zone that even if it would help the Red Sox, he would not go for a pitch outside of the strike zone no matter what. He said, 'if I do that, I won't be able to manage the strike zone the way I ought to.' That's the kind of thing kids have to learn.

"If you open the strike zone you may help pitchers but you do a terrible disservice to batters. An umpire needs to be consistent about where the strike zone is, and he needs to be so grooved about where that strike zone is that it (makes those judgments) relatively easy to make."

Umpires must be decisive but not impulsive, he says.

"If I have a fault as an umpire it's probably impulsiveness. (During a game last week) I did not wait until the play was complete. You have to have a sense of absolute judicial fairness," Harnden added. "You can't allow a one-sided ballgame to lessen your own focus on the calls you have to make. Another thing that's important is concern for the protection of players."

Possessing rabbit ears is another no-no.

"When the game is over, leave the field. When you do have someone on your case, listen to them, listen attentively and when the individual has finished, nod your head, say thank you, turn away and go back to the job," said Harnden. "You can't allow your own emotions to become involved in any kind of interaction of that sort. You can't make judgment calls if your mind is clouded by some emotional aspect. (People) have to remember, too, that it's a game. It is not life itself."

Harnden will no doubt be visible around the community whether he gets the St. Mary's job or not.

He's a teacher and coach at heart, and there's a reason for that.

"My father died when I was 9. When I was a kid the individuals that most impacted upon my life were teachers and coaches," he said.

For now, though, he's enjoying calling balls and strikes at West 9th.

"I do it," he said, "because I love the kids, I love the sport, it adds a dimension to my life and I'm just very grateful and thankful to God that at my age I'm able to do it."

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