Man behind the mask: Pittsfield native still making the right calls in 48th season as baseball umpire

Ralph Damren watches a pitch during a Bangor-Augusta Junior Legion baseball game Thursday at Mahaney Diamond in Orono.
Ashley L. Conti | BDN
Ralph Damren watches a pitch during a Bangor-Augusta Junior Legion baseball game Thursday at Mahaney Diamond in Orono. Buy Photo
Posted June 28, 2014, at 8:08 a.m.
Ralph Damren watches players warm up between innings during a Bangor-Augusta Junior Legion baseball game Thursday at Mahaney Diamond in Orono.
Ashley L. Conti | BDN
Ralph Damren watches players warm up between innings during a Bangor-Augusta Junior Legion baseball game Thursday at Mahaney Diamond in Orono. Buy Photo
Ralph Damren (left) signals how many outs there are during a Bangor-Augusta Junior Legion baseball game Thursday at Mahaney Diamond in Orono.
Ashley L. Conti | BDN
Ralph Damren (left) signals how many outs there are during a Bangor-Augusta Junior Legion baseball game Thursday at Mahaney Diamond in Orono. Buy Photo
Ralph Damren calls a player out during a Bangor-Augusta Junior Legion baseball game Thursday at Mahaney Diamond in Orono.
Ashley L. Conti | BDN
Ralph Damren calls a player out during a Bangor-Augusta Junior Legion baseball game Thursday at Mahaney Diamond in Orono. Buy Photo

Ralph Damren doesn’t remember the score of the most exciting baseball games he has umpired — or the names of most of the teams and players.

Since first donning his uniform in 1966, he has called thousands of balls and strikes and has worked from the Little League ranks up through semipro ball.

Etched in Damren’s mind instead are the memories of the great times he has enjoyed on the field with the many friends he has made along the way.

“You do it, at least from my perspective, because it makes you feel young again,” said Damren, who is 68. “You’re working around kids, you’re working a game that you love, and it’s good exercise.”

On Thursday, Damren ran onto the field for the first time in 2014 as the base umpire for a Junior American Legion contest at Mahaney Diamond in Orono. It marks the 48th year as an umpire for the Pittsfield native, who sat out the high school season after having hip replacement surgery in February.

“I wish I’d had it done five years ago,” Damren said of the surgery.

“The doctor’s pretty sure that it’s healed well enough that nothing’s going to come out of joint. I’m looking forward to getting back out there,” he added.

There is no mistaking Damren when he’s behind the plate. He barks out an unmistakable “straaiiiike” call and is the only umpire in the area who uses the traditional “balloon” chest protector.

Damren tried using the protector worn inside the shirt — once — in the early 1970s during a doubleheader in Charleston involving Higgins Classical Institute and Ashland. His partner, the late Smokey Lawrence, offered his gear for use in the second game.

“This was the era of the button-down, collared [umpiring] shirt. I bent over, and three of my buttons pop off, so not a very good start,” Damren said.

It was after taking a foul ball in the throat later in the game that he swore off the modern protector.

“For the rest of the game, I was only interested in hiding behind the catcher,” he admitted.

It is Damren’s knowledge of baseball rules, his friendly personality and his calm demeanor that have made him a fixture in the Eastern Maine Baseball Umpires Association.

“Things happen in a game, and both teams get excited,” said John Bapst coach David Gonyar. “Ralph takes that so well. If you reacted to an instantaneous play, he was awesome.”

Damren has ejected a few coaches but admits he can’t remember the last time it happened.

“I think all you need to say is, ‘coach, that’s enough,’” Damren explained. “They know what that means.

“On occasion, there’s a reason to toss somebody out of the game, but I don’t go looking for it,” he said.

He has issued ejections for crashing into the catcher, dangerous slides and throwing bats. And he enlists the coaches’ help to control fans who berate players.

“I think if you talked to 10 coaches, I don’t know if you’d get any that would say anything bad about him,” said Bangor High coach Jeff Fahey. “He’s consistent. Everyone likes him.”

Growing up, Damren was a member of what he described as powerhouse Maine Central Institute baseball teams coached by Al Card. Damren posted one hit in six at-bats.

“That was a ringing single against Hinckley-Goodwill,” joked Damren, who then attended Farmington State Teachers College.

Damren enjoys sharing baseball stories. One of his most memorable games was never completed.

In the late 1970s, Ellsworth High School was playing at Orono. With the Eagles leading 2-1, an elderly man in the crowd experienced a medical emergency.

Orono coach Dave Ekelund and Ellsworth skipper Jack Scott tried to assist the man, who was taken by ambulance to a hospital but died. He was the grandfather of Red Riots pitcher David Paul, who was in tears on the bench.

“[Scott] says, ‘I don’t expect him to pitch any more today. We’re not going to take advantage of it. We’re going to go home and give them a forfeit,’” Damren recalled.

“That was probably the most sportsmanlike act I’ve seen,” he added.

Damren, who lives in Old Town, is a semi-retired insurance and financial advisor for AXA in Bangor. For many years, he has been the rules interpreter for the EMBUA. He admits he isn’t perfect.

Many years ago, Stearns of Millinocket was playing at Bucksport. With two strikes and two outs in the bottom of the fifth, and the Golden Bucks’ top hitter at the plate, the runner at third tried to steal home on the pitch and was tagged by the catcher.

“I dance around signalling ‘he’s out, he’s out,’” said Damren, who later realized that he should have first called the pitch for strike three, thus nullifying the tag play.

When Bucksport came to bat in the sixth, coach David Gonyar sent his slugger back to the plate. Damren had to let him hit, despite the objections of Stearns coach Carl DiFrederico.

The player hit a double but was eventually left stranded.

“We never cheat, we never root for a team, but there are situations where you kind of hope that what you just blew is not going to impact anything,” Damren said. “The baseball gods were with me that day.”

“I love him to death,” Gonyar said. “Ralph is so into the games he’s doing. He’s fun, always does a superb job. Any time I had a question on any rule, it was Ralph [that I would ask].”

Damren has witnessed some funny situations, including the best “comeback” he ever heard from an umpire. During a Little League playoff game in Pittsfield, a tricky ground rule involving the batting cage beyond the center field fence came into play.

Batted balls striking the cage’s support were ruled ground-rule doubles, while those landing inside the cage were still in play. A Pittsfield player hit a ball that struck in that vicinity, which base ump Harvey Varney ruled to have hit the cage, and he was thrown out at second base.

Pittsfield’s contingent of “three coaches, the grandmother scorekeeper and the hunting dog” came out to argue. The local Catholic priest had been standing near where the ball struck and was coming around the fence and yelling to Varney, apparently to provide his view of the play.

“Harvey yells back at [the priest], ‘Father, with all due respect, out on this field, I’m God.’”

Damren’s decades of umpiring experience and his dedication have earned him the respect and admiration of his peers.

“He’s an incredible guy. He’s the glue that holds us all together,” said John Curry, veteran umpire and EMBUA president.

Damren was once behind the plate in Corinth, where an older Central High fan had set up in a folding chair directly behind the chicken wire backstop.

“Every time I called a strike against any Central batter he would go, ‘hokey Pete, hokey Pete, he needed a tennis racket,’” Damren said.

“When Central was in the field, if I didn’t call it a strike, he’d go ‘hokey Pete, right down Broadway.’”

At one point, a warmup pitch rolled toward the backstop, and Damren retrieved it. As he righted himself, his eyes met those of the man.

“I smiled and said ‘let me know if I miss any,’” Damren said. “He smiled and said, ‘miss any, I ain’t sure if you got any right yet.’”

The man didn’t say a word the rest of the game. As the umpires walked toward their car, the old man confronted them.

“He says, ‘you wasn’t so bad.’ I smiled and waved back at him,” Damren said.

Damren said baseball hasn’t changed too much in his 50 years as an umpire. The transition from wooden bats to aluminum, then back to composite bats that act more like the original wooden models is one of the changes he noted.

He also sees more hit-and-run plays and stolen-base attempts because of the less-potent bats, which he lauded for being safer.

One dynamic of the modern game he doesn’t like is the video replay and review system used in the major leagues.

“It’s a game played by humans, coached by humans, cheered for by humans and it should be officiated by humans,” said Damren.

His ultimate goal is to interpret the rules correctly and make sure all involved have an enjoyable experience while demonstrating mutual respect.

“I want to be out there to enjoy it and have fun,” said Damren, who also works as a high school football official.

“Sports officiating has given me a lot of fond memories. The camaraderie is great.”

 

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