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Former major league ump Ford still calling ’em as he sees ’em

Joe Avento • May 4, 2020 at 1:00 PM

JONESBOROUGH — When Dale Ford retired as a major league umpire, he didn’t stop calling balls and strikes.

Ford last worked in the big leagues in 1999 and officially retired in 2001. In recent years, he’s worked high school, college and Appalachian League games.

These days, at 77, he said he can see the day when he finally calls it a career.

“I’m thinking about hanging them up one of these days,” Ford, of Jonesborough, said. “But I’m 77 and I can still get around.”

Ford spent 27 years working in the American League, back when the umpiring crews were split by league.

“I had a good career,” he said. “A country boy working 27 years in the majors. I’ve got a handful of All-Star rings and World Series rings. I’m going to give those to the kids. I enjoyed it, and my wife was fortunate to come on the road. She enjoyed the travel. I had a good career. You couldn’t beat it for a country boy with no sense.”

During a recent interview, Ford spoke on a number of topics.

WILL LITTLE

Ford said he watches Johnson City native Will Little umpire whenever he can. Little will be in his eighth year as a big league ump and Ford has been impressed with his career path.

“I don’t think he misses a pitch,” Ford said. “He’s about the best I’ve seen. His concentration is unbelievable. I think he’s the best umpire in the major leagues.”

Ford said he saw Little’s potential very early in his umpiring career.

“I worked a game with him at Milligan one day and he was just out of college,” Ford said. “When you see people work, even if they’re on the bases, if they have instincts, you can tell.

“I worked with a lot of guys throughout the years. Will Little is better than any of them, better than I was. That’s for sure.”

COACHES AND MANAGERS

Ford said he likes working local high school games because of the people, most notably the coaches and kids.

“These high school coaches around here, I don’t know of one of them that’s an idiot like some of them in the majors, like Billy Martin was,” Ford said. “Billy wanted to run your game. And Earl Weaver did, too.

“I dumped Billy 12 times and Earl Weaver 14. I got Earl Weaver during the national anthem one night.”

NOLAN vs. ROBIN

Ford was behind the plate for the infamous fight between Nolan Ryan and Robin Ventura in 1993.

Ryan, pitching for the Texas Rangers, hit Ventura, the Chicago White Sox’s third baseman, with a pitch. Ventura took a couple of steps and charged the mound into the waiting arms — and punches — of Ryan, who was 46 at the time.

“They teach umpires when a guy gets hit to walk between the batter and the pitcher’s mound,” Ford said. “Walk him to first base or until you feel like he’s settled down.

“Robin Ventura was the most unlikely guy to charge the mound, really one of the best guys in the league. I said, ‘Robin, you gonna be all right?’ He said, ‘I knew that SOB was gonna hit me,’ but he was going to be all right.”

So Ford turned around and headed back toward the plate. Then he heard the commotion.

“By the time I saw it, Nolan had already given him a dozen slaps in the head,” Ford said.

The altercation wasn’t a surprise, at least Ventura getting beaned wasn’t, according to Ford

“Everybody in the ballpark knew he was going to get hit when Nolan pitched that night,” Ford said. “A week before they played in Chicago and Robin went 5-for-5 off Nolan Ryan. You knew one thing, he was going to get hit the next time.”

BILL BUCKNER

Red Sox fans might not enjoy being reminded, but Ford was also behind the plate for the infamous Bill Buckner error at first base in the 1986 World Series. Buckner let Mookie Wilson’s groundball go between his legs, allowing the Mets to win the game. New York won the Series two nights later.

Ford says he gets asked about that play often while doing speaking engagements and he always has the same answer.

“Do I feel sorry for Bill Buckner?” he said. “That was the 10th inning so I was tickled to death to get out off there, to tell you the truth.

“That was a tough ballgame, a real good ballgame for the fans.”

It just wasn’t a good one for Buckner, who lived with the play until he died last year.

POLITICAL LIFE

Following his retirement from major league umpiring in 2001, Ford embarked on a political career he insists he didn’t want.

After a failed bid to unseat David Davis in the 2002 Tennessee House of Representatives District 6 GOP primary, he gave it another try in 2006 when Davis announced he wouldn’t run again.

Ford won this time and served from 2006-2012. After losing his bid for re-election, he was back at it again eight years later, running for property assessor in Washington County, where he lost to incumbent Scott Buckingham.

“I didn’t really want to get into politics,” Ford said. “I let them talk me into it.”

Ford said politics and umpiring have a lot in common.

“You’re living in a fish bowl,” he said. “You have to be careful what you say or where you go or what you do. I never cheated anybody in my life, never done anything dishonest. A lot of people right now cannot say that. They might say it, but it’s a lie.”

Will he consider running for office again?

“Lord no,” he said.

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