Atascadero News File Photo • Michael Wells prepares to make a call at third base during a 2008 Little League All-Stars game in Arroyo Grande.
Atascadero resident Michael Wells has always been a baseball fan, though he doesn’t care for any particular team overmuch. Instead, he’s interested in playing the game.
“I played baseball from age 9 through my first year of college,” he said.
He had to quit in that second year due to an injury, but it didn’t keep him from loving the game or from playing during his time in the Army.
But the injury did prevent him from going much farther with it, so he picked up running and volleyball.
Wells and his wife, Leah, moved to Atascadero in 1988 and had a son, Jacob. At the age of 10, Wells signed Jacob up for a season, but Jacob just didn’t like it. Jacob picked up soccer instead, but Wells’ love of baseball was rekindled in his time as Jacob’s assistant coach, and he didn’t want to stay away from it.
“So in 2001, when [Jacob] stopped playing baseball, I started umpiring,” Wells said with a big smile.
Wells said that the worst part about umpiring is the clinic at the beginning of each year umpires have to go to. He said that his league stretches from North County all the way down to Santa Maria. And there are two days of study and two tests, including a practical test outdoors, to be relicensed as an umpire.
So maybe the study isn’t thrilling, but he gets to spend two days with 40 to 50 umpires, so it’s “not a bad thing.”
“Ninety percent of the time, baseball is baseball,” he said.
But, he added that each league has its own back-end idiosyncrasies. So he takes about 10 minutes before each game to go over the rules and make sure he’s calling for the right things.
It’s an important thing. Wells umpires for Babe Ruth, Little League and freshman, junior varsity and varsity high school baseball. He said he honestly doesn’t have a favorite because there’s so much to like about each age group.
“My involvement in Atascadero baseball is so, well, involved,” Wells said. “I know everybody. I’m friends with all these boys.”
Which means, he said, that when he makes a call that results in tears from a second-grader, “I’m the first one there giving encouragement.”
Not that tears happen often. And when they do, Wells said, it’s more often the players who know they messed up that leads to the tears, not a bad call from the umpire.
And the best way Wells said he knows to ensure good calls is to anticipate the game. That’s especially important when there’s only one umpire covering a game.
Anticipating the game means he’s got to have a hustle. So in addition to doing around a hundred deep squats while behind the plate, he’s also got to be able to run up and see a player catch a ball, make the throw to second base and know if the player who slid in is safe or not.
All the while, Wells said, he sees himself as umpire, friend and coach. As such, he asks coaches if they object to him offering a bit of assistance or advice to a player as he sees the need.
“I’ve never had a coach tell me no,” he said, smiling.
Wells also teaches new umpires how to umpire. He said umpiring teaches a person concentration, anticipation, snap decision making — and the ability to stand behind a decision — and strong personal respect. Integrity and love of the game tend to follow.
“I teach them ‘hustle and be consistent and respectful of the players,’” Wells said. “The best way for an umpire to earn the respect of everybody is to be consistent.”
But umpires being what they are and parents being what they are, he said an umpire’s got to have some thick skin.
“If you can’t take a little grief, this isn’t for you,” he said laughing.
When Wells isn’t umpiring, he’s often running. He picked running up in 1979, but took a decade off in the ‘80s. He picked it up again in part because it’s cheap and fun and “it’s an escape and a release.”
Most recently, he did the inaugural SLO Marathon, which, he said, was a pretty good race.
“I prefer running halves, but every year or two, I’ve just got to do a full. … It was a great event,” he said. “I will do it every year until I can’t get there.”
As dedicated to running as he is to baseball, Wells keeps a pair of shoes and shorts in his car in case he’s able to squeeze a run in on a break from work or between this thing and that thing. He said he’s not interested in being the fastest or the best, but he is interested in eating anything he wants.
“I’ve got an 80/20 philosophy,” he said. “Eat well 80 percent of the time, and eat what I want 20 percent of the time. And a piece of cake, too.”
But mostly, Wells is a baseball umpire. He can be found at almost any game in Atascadero, and he’ll be the one enjoying himself, wearing big smile the whole time. And you really can count on him being there. He won’t stop “until [he] can’t walk on the field.”