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For Wagner, umpiring is the right call.

Byline: Kevin Anthony For The Register-Guard

Sprawled out in a shaded folding chair in the parking lot of Moffitt Elementary, Todd Wagner is discussing the College World Series with a nearby colleague.

Rather than talking about Oregon State's unlikely repeat as baseball's national champions, Wagner and Jim Hawkins are breaking down a blown call from a game early in the series that didn't even involve the Beavers.

Umpires, after all, watch the game with a different eye than most fans. And, Wagner notes, running through unlikely situations and missed calls is just one part of pregame preparation for boys in blue.

`There are two ways to learn,' Hawkins says as the duo heads toward Hamlin Field to call an American Legion game. `One is by your own mistakes. The second, which is better, is by someone else's.'

These pregame rundowns are old hat for Wagner, a Springfield native who has spent the past 11 years as an umpire for high school and American Legion baseball but who first caught the officiating bug back when he was still a prep athlete.

`I love it. I love officiating,' the 43-year-old said. `It's a way to stay active for me, and I always liked working with kids, so it's a way to give back to the game, give back to the community.'

Wagner grew up surrounded by sports. His father, Dieter Wagner, was a standout receiver at Thurston High in the 1960s, when he was known as Dieter Henry. He played football at Pacific for a year before returning to Springfield, living the rest of his life here until losing a nine-year battle to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's Disease) last fall.

Todd Wagner was a three-sport athlete at Thurston High, when he also began officiating youth sports in baseball, basketball and football. After high school, he went into the Navy for 13 years and is a veteran of operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

After the Navy, Wagner came home to Springfield. While at a Colt football game, he bumped into Pat McMahon, his old elementary school teacher and a longtime high school basketball official.

`He was a wonderful kid, and I knew his dad,' McMahon recalled, adding that he was a big fan of Dieter's. `When I was in school, I always tried to get his autograph.'

He also knew that the son was an athlete in high school and thought he might make a good basketball referee.

`We're always recruiting young people to be sports officials, especially ones who played the sport,' McMahon said.

A season wearing stripes and officiating basketball turned into a job in blue when Wagner met Paul Saffell, commissioner for the Lane County Umpires Association.

`That was that, and I really got into it,' said Wagner, who now sits on the executive board of the Oregon Athletic Officials Association.

Similar to a trend in most states, one of the biggest challenges facing the OAOA is recruiting new talent to replace the generation of officials who are retiring after decades of service.

`Absolutely we could use more, and not just in baseball,' Wagner said. `It's statewide in every sport you look at that the OSAA oversees, there are not enough quality officials out there.'

McMahon, who has 35 years and 17 state basketball tournaments under his belt, said there are two big challenges to recruiting new officials.

`One, it doesn't pay enough, but it's hard for schools to pay,' he said. `Two is the atmosphere from the fans and the pressure from ... the video on TV. People are not allowed to make mistakes, and that's not right. I really wish we didn't have instant replay.'

Still, McMahon said, `In 35 years, maybe one, max two times I really did not enjoy officiating a game.'

Wagner said the degradation of sportsmanship is noticeable in the 11 years he's been an official, let alone since he was in school 25 years ago. And it's not just from athletes.

`It's a little bit of everybody,' he said. `I look back when I played in the late '70s and early '80s, and you didn't dare question an official. The only questions came from coaches. Now ...'

He's been in a few tough situations in his 11 years, Wagner said, the scariest getting caught up in the middle of a brawl in a regional game between Oregon and Washington high school players.

As he recalled, two players were jawing at each other, there was contact and then both benches cleared.

`I was able to get between the two of them, and I was working with two veteran officials, so they got the benches back until I could get (the two players) pulled off.

`But in situations like that, if you can't stop it, you step back and take numbers.'

He added that the few confrontations he has had after games have all been verbal. Good thing, considering umpires often find themselves changing in and out of their gear next to their cars, with a chain-link fence and a few hundred feet of empty air the only walls to their `locker room.'

Game checks are not large - less than $50 for a high school game. They grow a bit for summer ball: $66 for a nine-inning triple-A Legion game down to $45 for single-A.

`For a young kid going to college, it's a great way to make money, a great way to stay active,' he said. `You may like it, and you may continue it as you go on.'

Though he works the occasional small-college game, Wagner said he doesn't necessarily aspire to moving up the ladder.

`I don't know where officiating is going to take me,' he said. `But if I stay where I'm at, I'll be perfectly happy.'
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Title Annotation:Sports; Springfield native Todd Wagner is right at home on the diamond
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jul 5, 2007
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