A tribute to a man most deserving
Absolutely. The man.
Many would agree with me that about Gene Lewellen.
I met him in the early 1990s. He stumbled into a umpiring friend of mine at the high school state tournament and said he needed help for the coming weekend.
I first took the field with Gene for the 1993 National Junior College Athletics Association Region II Division 2 championship.
In Okmulgee, of all places.
Had it not been Okmulgee, my odds of becoming fast friend with Gene would have slipped aside.
He lived there with his lovely wife Mary and their blended family. It was not long until we met and fell in love with her, too.
Gene was one of those umpires people loved to see. Coaches. Players. Fans. Administrators.
He was sheer class and understood the game and how it was supposed to be played.
The games, I should say.
He officiated basketball, football, fast-pitch softball and baseball.
It was in baseball where he excelled.
And in basketball where he first scared the bejesus out of me.
He was working a state tournament when he crumbled to the floor. A heart attack, we were told.
I was not on hand but soon heard and was horrified out of my wits.
He told me he would not be back on the yard — that’s umpspeak for “umpiring” — until the Junior Sunbelt Series in June.
Ah. The Sunbelt.
Gene, David Crawford and I were among the handful of officials chosen to work the very first Sunbelt.
It was played entirely at Eastern Oklahoma Community College.
Soon it made its way west and is hosted now at Mike Deek Field in McAlester.
Six days of full-throttle baseball. Rising seniors. Players stay in the homes of host families. Umpires work their tails off. Two, three, four games a day.
The best Oklahoma has to offer.
Ten teams from eight states and Canada.
An absolute blast.
My dear friend David Crawford died a year ago. He died Jan. 3, 2016. One year to the day later, we memorialized Gene.
He died, you see, Dec. 29. Age 64.
I will miss him forever.
Ripped the heart out of me and many others. We gathered Tuesday at First United Methodist Church in Okmulgee. We shared stories with Mary, his remarkable, funny, tough-as-hell wife.
Gene was more than an officiating pal. We worked only one basketball game together and only a handful of softball games.
When it came to baseball, we were one with the dirt.
I was surprised when Mary said he wants his ashes scattered among the infield dirt at “legendary” Legion Field in Claremore and at Mike Deek Field in McAlester.
I assured her mine would be mixed with his.
The 22nd annual Sunbelt was the last time I saw Gene.
He anointed me as UIC — umpire in chief — in 2014, the year he retired.
The year he had his heart attack, he told me he wanted to work with me during his first game back. He was unable to work the plate so I took that at a Sunbelt game. After the plate meeting, he wrapped me into a bear hug.
“Don’t ever do that again!” I jokingly admonished him.
It was later that summer I hired him to work the American Legion state tournament in Bartlesville. In doing so, he played in, coached and umpired the event.
In the dressing room, one of our guys asked him if he had “taken a shot” on his still-healing wound on his chest. The answer: “no.”
The very next game, while the same umpire and I were sitting out, Gene took a shot.
Full bore. Fastball barely tipped. Straight to the chest.
We stared in shock at one another. Our other umpires on the field began moving toward home plate.
Gene sat, hands on knees, for what seemed like an eternity.
“Play ball!” he said, after “taking inventory.”
I have worked games with Gene Lewellen on the high school, college and professional level. One of the stories told at his funeral was of Juan Morillo, a flame-throwing pitcher in the Colorado Rockies organization who was assigned to the Tulsa Drillers.
In 2006. The same year I was asked to find umpires for the start of the season after those in the Minor League Umpires Association went on strike.
The first pitch of the game, Gene told us, was a blistering fastball. He called it a strike.
The catcher asked, “Ever seen anything like that?”
Gene’s reply: “No, but it damn sure sounded like a strike.”
A few days later, Juan Morillo broke bones in the back of my right hand when Chris Iannetta, the same catcher, whiffed on an inside fastball.
Sorry, Gene. Sounded like a ball to me.