Manitoba Umpire Named Best in Canada
Derrick Dubell was a cocky 20-year-old when he was challenged to join the ranks of the boys in blue. It was the best thing he ever did.
By Scott Taylor
Derrick Dubell has heard 'em all and he'll admit, some of the shots even make him laugh.
"Hey, Blue! How about using some Windex on that glass eye!"
"Hey Blue! I've had better calls from my ex-wife!"
"I've heard a lot more," Dubell said with a grin. "You get a real good heckler and I'll laugh under my mask. My mom goes to a lot of the games I do and she's really protective. But I think some of things people say are funny."
Like: "Hey Blue, can I pet your seeing eye dog after the game?"
"Yeah, there are a lot of things I hear, I wished I'd used some of them myself," he said. "The reason I'm an umpire today is that I was a cocky, 20-year-old slopitch player who argued just about every call the umpires made."
In late November, 41-year-old Derrick Dubell took home Baseball Canada's Dick Willis Memorial Award, emblematic of the best baseball umpire in Canada.
For Dubell, it was a career highlight, but not THE highlight. That came this summer when he earned an assignment as the home plate umpire for the gold medal game at the World Junior Championship in Edmonton.
When told by his assignor at the worlds that because he had been, consistently, the best umpire from Day 1 of the tournament, and as a result would handle home plate in the biggest amateur baseball game in the world outside the Olympics, Dubell knew he'd arrived.
"Umpiring in the Olympics would be a bigger honour," Dubell said. "And being named umpire of the year is really great, but when I went to the Worlds and earned the plate at the gold medal game, that was my career highlight."
So how does a father of two, a guy who spends his days working as a revenue supervisor at the land titles office, become the best umpire in the country? Hard work and humility, mostly, but also by having a mentor who was once "a mortal enemy."
Dubell (seen here at the 2004 Baseball Canada Cup) has been called upon for a number of premier umpiring assignments.
"I first became an umpire in 1987," Dubell recalled. "I was a mouthy slopitch player and I used to argue everything. I hated umpires and I questioned everything they did. So one day, I was playing and shooting off my mouth at (Manitoba Sports Hall of Famer) Sam Tascona. I would give Sam a hard time on every call. So he looked at me and said, 'Do you think you could do better?' And I was pretty cocky and said, 'Yeah.'
"So he took me seriously and gave me my first assignment. It might have been the toughest one I ever had. Remember George Smith who used to own and operate the North Winnipeg Pirates? He didn't like umpires either. So Sam assigned me to a senior men's baseball game – North Winnipeg against Springfield. Those two teams hated each other. I went out there with absolutely no idea. But I did it and enjoyed it. And I just kept doing it.
"Sam became one of my best friends. He was my mentor. Until he died, we'd talk on the phone for hours. He was my sounding board and now that I'm so involved in hockey, I talk to his daughter all the time. I guess that's a story in itself."
There probably aren't a dozen people in town who know this, but Derrick Dubell is the guy who creates all the schedules for minor hockey in the city of Winnipeg. He also does the website for the Winnipeg Minor Hockey Association and handles the stats for Triple A and Double A. And so, in addition to being one of Manitoba's great ambassadors on the ball diamond, he's also one of the most important hockey volunteers in the province. And he works closely with another outstanding volunteer, Joyce Webbinger.
Webbinger is a woman Dubell has never met, at least not face-to-face. Still, they spend hours on the telephone with each other every week.
"Derrick's just a great guy," Webbinger said. "He's done a lot for the community and a lot for hockey. We talk on the phone all the time and I really like him."
By the way, Joyce Webbinger's maiden name is Tascona.
"It's amazing," said Dubell, "But Joyce is Sam's daughter. She's my new sounding board. We talk all the time."
Veteran umpires Ron Shewchuk (left) and Brian Hodgson (right) helped prepare Dubell for his duties at the 2008 World Junior Baseball Championships.
With Sam gone, Dubell has looked to two other umpires for guidance and leadership – Brian Hodgson and Ron Shewchuk. Dubell, Shewchuk and Hodgson all handle professional games in the Northern League, but Hodgson and Shewchuk also represented Canada at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Shewchuk has been tremendous for Dubell's career. He and Hodgson not only sat down with Dubell before he went off to the Worlds, but Shewchuk drove to Edmonton on his own and was in the stands for Dubell's first game.
"Ron and Brian told me everything I needed to know before I left," he said. "It was great having them as a resource. The big thing they did was tell me to go out and keep a low profile, stay under the radar and do as good a job as I can do.
"That was really important for me and that's how I approached it. I was also lucky in Game 1. I was assigned the plate for the United States and Australia. It was great having two catchers who spoke English and, man, those pitchers... they were something. It was such a pleasure to do that game that it set me up for the rest of the tournament.
"Still, I was surprised when I got the assignment to do the plate in the gold medal game (Korea beat the United States 7-0). I'd been to 12 national championships and never once had I done the plate in a gold medal game. As Brian and Ron said, if you go to these types of events, it's how you prepare yourself. I was prepared. And that first game set the tone for me."
Larry Nicholls is the vice-president of umpires for Baseball Manitoba. He's known Dubell for more than 20 years and he's been quite impressed with the recent improvement in Dubell's game.
"Derrick has arrived," said Nicholls, via telephone from his home in Killarney. "He really had a great summer considering the year Manitoba had this year with the two guys (Shewchuk and Hodgson) who went to the Olympics.
"Derrick has improved tremendously in the last 10 years. Working with the Goldeyes has really made him an outstanding umpire."
Which begs the question, what makes a good umpire?
"You need a thick skin, plenty of self-confidence, knowledge of the game and a general honest personality," Nicholls said with a laugh. "I'm serious when I say Derrick is all of that."
Derrick and wife Kim have two kids, son Mitchell (the assistant clubhouse manager for the Goldeyes), 16, and daughter Hailey, 14. He has tremendous support at home, a great boss who gives him the time necessary to pursue his umpiring dreams and a terrific friend in Ron Shewchuk ("Ron kicked my butt around the ball field to make me a better umpire.").
"I owe a lot to Ron and Brian Hodgson for where I am today," he said. "I love this, and I'm going to do it as long as it's fun."
And he'll also keep doing it despite the hecklers.
"Hey Blue, Lenscrafters called…your glasses will be ready in 30 minutes!"
"Come on Blue!!! Pull the good eye out of your pocket!"
Now, that's harsh. Of course, when Derrick Dubell—Canada's top umpire—first heard it, it probably made him laugh.
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