Marines have the skills to call the shots at umpire camp

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Paul Lo Duca, No. 16 of the Los Angeles Dodgers, is out at home plate as Javy Lopez, No. 18 of the Baltimore Orioles, keeps his foot on home plate in the fourth inning as home plate umpire Kerwin Danley makes the call on June 17, 2004 at Dodger Stadium.

As the nation celebrates the contributions of the men and women of the armed forces, a group of former and current Marines is looking to make a contribution of a very different sort. They are attending a week-long training camp to learn the art of baseball umpiring.

The Major League Baseball Umpire Camp is being held in Compton. Kerwin Danley coaches a trainee.

"You’re too low, you can’t see the ball. Get up there!"

Besides being a coach at the camp, Danley is a professional umpire.

"To be a good umpire you got to want it,” he says. “It's not glamorous. People are yelling at you, at airports, your hometown, they are mad at you. Believe me, it's a thankless job.”

It is a job that requires a delicate blend of patience, discipline and cool headedness -- qualities you do not find everyday in a person -- unless that person is a Marine.

Marine Corps Capt. Patrick Keplinger is attending the camp. Based at Camp Pendleton, he celebrated his 15-year anniversary with the military this week. He says his years of training have deftly prepared him for umpiring.

"As a marine you make split second decisions,” he says. “They have to be right cause a life is on the line. It's a high stress situation. Umpiring is the same thing."

Camp Director Rich Rieker is a former Major League umpire. "What we hope to do long term is help these Marines transition back to their communities with the skill set they already have," he says.

"A lot of kids coming back from duty don't know what to do. They are 22-, 23-, 24-years-old and they served - why not show them a skill set they already have and get them traveling around meeting people in their community?"

Rieker says the first Marine signed up for the camp two years ago. By the end of that week-long session, Rieker was convinced that more Marines need to be learning to umpire. He works with Marines to recruit more soldiers to his camp. In just two years, more than 200 Marines have gone through the program.

Of course, not all military experiences transfer over to the diamond.

Matthew Koloff is a drill instructor with the Marines when he's not learning to call balls and strikes. He says in some ways, being an umpire can be even more challenging than running new recruits.

"You can't tell a fan to give you push-ups,” he says. “As a drill instructor if someone confronts me I can do something about it. As an ump you have to be a bit more patient.”

Koloff admits with a laugh that that’s something he’ll have to work on.

Later, Capt. Keplinger assesses his performance after umping a game at the camp.

“My first inning was pretty good,” he says. “A couple mistakes - those big mistakes really aren't anything. It’s just that we like to perfect ourselves as marines and umpires do as well.”

Keplinger says he’s just glad to be out in the green grass, under the sun. He still makes his calls in the blink of an eye, but for now, it’s not life or death. It’s just baseball.

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