At 66, 'Jocko' is still an enthusiastic 'kid's umpire'

SIDELINES

July 05, 1992|By Pat O'Malley

Frank "Jocko" Svoboda likes to call himself "a kid's umpire," and his enthusiasm after 35 years of making decisions on balls and strikes, safe and out plays has never waned.

He still has a lot of kid in him at age 66 as he celebrates his 50th year in sandlot baseball.

Jocko coached in East Baltimore for 15 years before moving to Glen Burnie with his wife, Antoinette, 35 years ago to start a family of six children and to become an umpire.

The example he sets for his colleagues has established a norm of striving for excellence.

"I still love it and can't imagine not doing it," said Jocko. "I'm a kid's umpire and never wanted to be a professional umpire."

His beat is covering games involving youths aged 13-14, 15-16 and 16-18, and he worked 21 high school games this spring for the Anne Arundel Baseball Umpires, an association he founded in 1977.

Jocko's eternal professionalism at the amateur level has had a profound effect on the local organization, and most of all, the kids.

"I like to talk to the kids and be out there with them," said Jocko.

Jocko wears that genuine desire to be out on the baseball field with the kids on his sleeve. To this day, the man gives every coach and team their money's worth and more. It's amazing the fire is still there after all these years.

He truly has fun out on the baseball diamond, but also knows when to be serious and tough. Jocko's reflexes and ability to hop and skip into position to make a bang-bang call are surprisingly good for his age.

But you wouldn't know he was 66 by watching him work. He has maintained the 5-foot-8, 165-pound frame he started with 35 years ago and is mentally keen, maybe more so than when he first started as a Baltimore City Bureau of Recreation umpire.

The kids of 35 years ago whose games he officiated heard the same thing he frequently yells out even today. When a game and its players appear to be dragging or letting up, it's not uncommon for the coach in him to show when he bellows, "A lotta life, fellows."

"I guess I've hollered that out during a game a couple million times," laughed Jocko, who finds games lacking in intensity as being despicable.

"There are a couple men I work with who don't like it when I yell that out, but I try to keep the kids hustling to make it a better game."

Jocko knows no other way, and his attitude was reflected in a former player of his who played 22 years in the big show with the Detroit Tigers, hit 399 home runs, had 3,007 hits and a lifetime batting average of .297. He was inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 1980.

His name is Al Kaline, and at that time he was only the 10th player to be elected to the Hall in his first year of eligibility.

Kaline played for Jocko's Gordon's Stores 16-18 teams at Patterson Park in East Baltimore in 1951 and 1952.

Jocko had started coaching at age 17 on the 14-16 level with the Lincoln Athletic Club that went on to win three of the first four Baltimore City Cardinal Gibbons championships.

Moving up to the 16-18 level without a car and hopping on buses and street cars with his equipment to get to the games, Jocko's success continued with such teams as Butta Brothers and McKenna Pontiac.

His 1949 McKenna Pontiac club was unique. That season Jocko's team went 67-0 in the regular season and advanced to the All-American Amateur Baseball Association 18-and-under Tournament in Johnstown, Pa. McKenna Pontiac won the first three games to move into the finals of the double-elimination tournament at 70-0.

McKenna lost the last two games to the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Cadets, led by Joe Torre (now the St. Louis Cardinals manager). Jocko's team couldn't get Torre out and went down hard.

Jocko picked up the pieces and carried on. He coached to about 1958 when he started taking umpiring seriously and decided to make a change.

It proved to be the right decision for him and the hundreds of kids who have played in front of him. Jocko learned early to be fair, not give breaks nor hold grudges, just hustle and aim to get every play right.

Imagine if you will the number of calls Jocko has had to make in 35 years and about 2,000 games. Well, let me tell you that even now, he takes the games and calls home with him.

He never has been satisfied with just showing up, calling the game and getting out of there with no afterthoughts. If he has a close play and misses it, that bothers him even after 35 years on the job.

"There are some umpires who think working the bases is like being on vacation," said Jocko, who became a base umpire specialist five years ago because of bad knees.

"It's not vacation to me. I believe in hustling to get into proper position to make the call and in helping the plate umpire anyway I can. I think I do as good a job or better than most. Even though it's not humanly possible, I want to get every play I can right."

The pride he has in his job as an umpire has enabled him to keep going when most wouldn't want to put up with teen-aged kids and their coaches who sometimes act like teen-agers.

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