This spring I was covering a Henry County Lady Cat softball game as well as a baseball game and track meet. I came to the softball game after it had already started and I was scrambling to get in position and get the camera settings right.
The Lady Cats’ opponents had a runner on first and I was anticipating a stolen base attempt so I focused on the base runner as the pitch was delivered to the plate. I had guessed right. The runner did indeed attempt to steal second base.
Mikaela Cline fired the ball to second and Aly Stanley applied the tag in a bang-bang play that was very close. The umpire, who was in perfect position, called the base runner out and the chirping began from the visitor’s dugout and stands.
When I looked at the picture I had taken, I realized that I had gotten the play at the very moment that Stanley applied the tag and sure enough the ump had gotten the call right. That’s when I finally focused on who that umpire was — Jim “Cornbread” Stethen.
Stethen, 72, was, once again, umpiring a high school softball game. Later, I found out that he had been called at the last minute to fill in for an umpire who had been forced to miss the assignment and Stethen had arrived just before game time.
This is Stethen’s eighth year as a softball umpire. Before that he umpired baseball for over 40 years. He is in his sixth decade as a basketball referee.
Later in the game Stanley attempted a steal herself and the play was very close. From my vantage point it looked as if she was out but Stethen called her safe and the chirping began again.
Luckily, I got the shot as the tag was applied and it showed that the visiting team’s shortstop had applied the tag high on Stanley’s shoulder, which had allowed Stanley to get to the bag safely. Stethen had gotten it right again.
I began to wonder why a man of his age would continue to take abuse from fans and coaches even when he was right.
Stethen was calling high school basketball games back in the 1970s when I played and was taking guff from the fans even then. I know coaches who think he should have retired long ago — like right after he started calling. They thought he was not a great ref even then. I remember as a coach that there were times when I didn’t agree with his calls, but I always respected the fact that he would talk to me
about a call as long as I didn’t “go over the line” and become abusive.
What I have come to realize since retiring from coaching is that he and most of the referees get the calls right the majority of the time. Fans, coaches and players never like it when a big call goes against their team and it’s hard to keep things in perspective when you are passionate and in the heat of battle.
Last winter, I was covering the Henry County Invitational Tournament and Stethen arrived early for the second game, which he was calling. I had a chance to talk with Stethen and I expressed my admiration for him. I told him I thought it was great that he was still getting out there and running up and down the floor. He said with a smile and a chuckle, “I still love it. I love being around the kids. I love the game and I guess to be a referee you kind have to be different.”
Stethen was inducted into the Eighth Region Hall of Fame during the Regional basketball tournament last season. He may be the only referee ever inducted.
I know some people reading this have witnessed my explosive outbursts directed at officials in the past and are probably laughing uncontrollably at the fact that I am expressing admiration for any referee but I truly admire Mr. Stethen and his contributions to thousands of high school games. Without people like him high school sports would not be possible.
So swallow your pride the next time you are at a game and say thanks to “Cornbread” for a lifetime of taking abuse and usually getting the call right.
David Drury Update
A few weeks ago I wrote an article about Deaf School All-American David Drury. I had tried to contact someone from the Kentucky School for the Deaf about him but because it was summer time it was hard to get in contact with someone who had seen him play.
Last week I finally received an email from his former football coach, Paul Smiley, and wanted to share his words with you.
“David was the best tight end in the 30 years that I was at KSD,” Smiley said. “He was a great blocker and also an excellent pass catcher. He had the skills to catch any ball in his area, especially the difficult ones. He had a love for the game of football and never missed the practices or drills. He was not a ‘rah rah’ guy with a lot of signing or yelling, he was a man of few words and led by example with his impeccable work ethic.
He was named to the First Team Deaf All-American Team and was one who truly deserved the honor not only from what was said above but he was loved by his coaches and teammates as one of the leaders of the team that went 7 wins and 2 losses.”