Brian Panek is the mild-mannered 38-year-old in charge of the umpires at Forest Park’s No Glove Nationals Softball Tournament.
It’s hard to believe but he was once ejected from a baseball game.
Panek was a sophomore in high school when it happened. After just missing an extra-base hit on a long foul ball, the umpire called him out on the next pitch – which was well-wide of the plate. When he turned to the ump to protest, the man behind the plate said, “If you’d get the bat off your shoulder, you might get a hit.”
Adding sarcasm to injury was too much for Panek, who hurled his batting helmet. He received a “well-deserved” ejection.
The episode taught him a lesson: umpires should not throw fuel on the fire by making comments to an already upset player.
Fortunately, ejections are exceedingly rare at the No Gloves.
Panek has been heading up the umpires at the No Gloves since 2011. He’s been umping tournament games for 13 seasons.
“It’s an honor to ump the No Gloves,” Panek said. “It’s the best tournament of the year. Nothing compares to it in terms of the number of fans it brings out. This is the World Series, with everyone having a great time.”
While attending the University of Illinois, he began umpiring Little League games.
“I loved it right from the start,” he recalled. “But I prefer 16″ to anything else. It’s top-level softball. There’s strategy involved, it’s low-scoring with situational hitting.”
In these respects, the game provides the same thrills and suspense as baseball.
Unlike baseball, however, calling balls and strikes is relatively easy.
According to Panek, the most difficult part of his job behind the plate is keeping an eye on pitchers looking for the slightest competitive edge.
“Keeping the pitchers honest with their drag step is important,” he said. “Some try to take an extra step. They do it to get a better angle on the pitch, or to get into a better defensive position. Some pitchers would move all the way back to second base if they could.”
When Panek is umping alone during regular season games, the job is particularly challenging.
“There are bang-bang plays at first (base) so we have to get out there to make the call,” he said. “As for the balls and strikes, we need to be consistent. I want to call a perfect game. I don’t want a controversial play to affect the outcome of the game.”
Two umpires are assigned to most of the No Gloves tournament games.
“With two umpires you can get the call right,” Panek said, “There’s no one to go to when you’re alone.”
Though some players will ride the umpire, most show great sportsmanship.
“The demeanor of 99% of the guys is great,” Panek said. “16” gets a bad rap for having ‘problem’ players. In the No Gloves, if you’re tossed from the game, you’re tossed from the entire tournament.
“We meet pre-game with the players. We don’t want to toss anyone. There’s only one ejection every two years. Players are ejected for excessive, abusive language, or making contact with a player or ump.”
Panek uses 13-16 umpires for the No Gloves.
“It’s easy to schedule the umps,” Panek said. “We’ll assign four for the championship game.”
Panek will be at the tournament from start to finish and will ump games every day. He doesn’t schedule umpires for more than three games in a row, due to the late-July heat. When tempers also run high, Panek is there to settle disputes – not start them.