Prescott Valley Little League ump picked to officiate next month's West Regional
Les Stukenberg/The Daily Courier
Umpire Jeff Cook works the plate during the District 10 Majors All-Star Tournament in Chino Valley two weeks ago.
7/25/2013 6:01:00 AM
By Doug Cook
PRESCOTT VALLEY - Jeff Cook first took a stab at umpiring 20 years ago as a Little League volunteer while he was still living in Southern California.
"I started out in tennis shoes, shorts and a T-shirt with my hat on backwards," Cook said on Wednesday in reflection of his initial experiences, "and all my equipment outside."
Despite his greenness, Cook grew up quickly, if you will, as an official in the elite District 62 of his native Costa Mesa, Calif., in Orange County. His love for baseball, the camaraderie among officials and the interaction with the players on the field were, and remain, his primary motivation for improving.
After all these years, the professionally trained Cook's dedication has finally paid off.
Next Tuesday, the 58-year-old Cook - now of Prescott Valley - will realize a dream when he drives to San Bernardino, Calif., in preparation for umpiring in the Little League Majors West Regional Tournament championship Aug. 2-10.
Earlier this year, Cook was one of only 14 Little League officials in the Western U.S. selected for the tournament, which decides the West Region's representative at the Little League World Series for 11- and 12-year-olds Aug. 15-25, in Williamsport, Pa.
All of the officials who were chosen for the Western regional have volunteered in Little League for a minimum of 10-15 years. They hail from a huge region that encompasses 11 states, including Arizona, California, Washington, Oregon, Utah, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, Hawaii and Alaska.
Don Watt and Cook are the lone Arizona officials heading to this year's Western regional. Coco Minner, the Arizona District 10 administrator, recommended Cook for the assignment. After Western Region representatives reviewed his qualifications and total years of service, they selected him.
"You only get to do the Region or (Little League) World Series once," Cook said matter-of-factly of the officiating opportunity. "It's going to be the experience of a lifetime."
To prepare for regionals, Cook has been umpiring at the Little League Majors State Tournament in Gilbert over the past week, where he initially met Watt and officiated with him last Friday.
"I was invited down there to do some games, just to get back in the swing of (officiating) smaller kids," Cook said.
Earlier this year, Cook accepted a three-month paid gig traveling through Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas to umpire minor league baseball and college baseball games at the NCAA Division 2, D-3 and junior college levels.
"I put 15,000 miles on my car in 90 days," he said. "I've seen every point, every chunk of dirt, in Oklahoma."
His experience in the Midwest was another first for Cook, who has also officiated football and basketball in the past.
However, while he has a passion for umpiring, he learned what a grind it can be - even when you have occasional rainouts and breaks in between games.
Cook ultimately officiated 90 contests in only 55 days, which is the equivalent of doing a doubleheader per day. During a normal college season in Arizona, Cook will take on just 12-15 games.
"The experience alone was incredible and I met a lot of great people, but it became work. It was a job," Cook said. "By the end of the three months, I was burnt out."
He also gained a deep appreciation for minor league umpires.
"They go through a three-game series somewhere and drive 400 miles to the next place," Cook said. "They're living out of a car and a suitcase over and over and over again."
In 2007, Prescott hosted the Little League Majors State Tournament, one that determines which team from Arizona qualifies for the Western regionals.
The umpire in chief serving here at the time didn't have enough qualified officials for the tournament. So he invited several Orange County-based officials to Prescott, including Cook and the now well-known Mike Kincaid, who umpired in the 2010 Little League World Series.
Cook liked the Prescott area so much that two years later, in 2009, he sold his locksmith business in California and he and his wife - whose family lives in Buckeye - moved to Prescott Valley and retired.
The following spring, in 2010, Cook became an umpire with Prescott Little League and also began officiating college and high school baseball games. He's been doing this ever since.
Kincaid said Cook's Western Regionals assignment is well deserved and "quite an honor." Hundreds of officials apply for these 14 spots every year. Over the past five years, Kincaid and Cook have officiated high school baseball and all levels of Little League together.
"He's a dedicated, longtime Little League volunteer," Kincaid said of Cook, "and that kind of stuff needs to be rewarded at times. He's worked hard at his craft, and he's a good guy."
Cook grew up around baseball. As a young boy, he lived on a cul-de-sac where he and some 20 other kids would wake up on a Saturday morning and head to the elementary school field to play pick-up games all day long.
He later played pony league ball in Costa Mesa, Calif. As he got older, Cook coached Little League for years before delving into umpiring. He eventually became the umpire in chief for Costa Mesa American Little League.
In 2012, a few years after he moved to Prescott Valley, Cook was named the umpire in chief for Arizona's District 10.
As he grows older, Cook said that even if he decides to stop umpiring, he'll at least teach at the local Little League umpire clinics each year.
"Anything that I can do to help them (new umpires) get better and get more comfortable and make their job easier," he said, "I'll just continue to do it."
As for Western regionals, Cook said he has had some past experience at the tournament site in San Bernardino. He has instructed weekend adult umpire clinics and a junior-umpire training academy there.
Next month, ESPN will televise all of the Western regional games, Cook added. But he won't know his schedule until the night before the action begins.
About 1,000 fans are expected to watch the opening-round pool play games. Although once the elimination contests, the semifinals and the finals roll around, the crowds could swell into the 10,000-15,000 range.
The 14 officials at the tournament, who will be separated into two seven-man crews, will live in a dorm together for two weeks.
Besides Watt, Cook also knows regional official Tim Weil, an old friend of his from Southern California with whom he used to umpire high school games.
"We're going to have a blast," Cook said. "The goal of every umpire that goes to the Western Regional Tournament or goes to the World Series is to try and be picked the plate umpire for the championship game.
"Is that my goal? You bet it is."