Murdz makes lasting impact on youth sports

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 4, 2013 

Don Murdzia poses for a photo at Joe Martin Field on Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013 in Bellingham. Murdzia, who recently got to ump at a youth camp in Cooperstown, N.Y., received a Hall of Fame ring for calling the championship game of the camp.

ANDY BRONSON — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

BELLINGHAM - Friends and colleagues know him as "Murdz." Some call him "Pops." Josh Kraght and the rest of the recently graduated senior class at Lynden High School tagged him with the nickname "Grandpa."

Fans and parents usually choose to refer to him as "Blue," "Ref," "Ump" or something unprintable when they question one his calls or shout insults from the stands.

But the best way to describe the humble Don Murdzia is simply "Legend."

If you've played, coached or even watched a football, basketball or baseball game in Whatcom County in the past five decades at any level, from the youth levels to high school or even college and semi-pro, chances are Murdzia has officiated at least one - likely many - of your games. And if you've had that privilege, chances are Murdzia made an impact on you with his knowledge of the sport, his professionalism towards it and the unforgettable way he keeps the fun in the game with his sense of humor.

"What he's meant to sports in this area, in my opinion, is to keep the level of sportsmanship high and keep the game about the game and having fun, not about being overly serious and trying to win at any cost," county coaching legend Jerry Smoot said in a phone interview. "When I see that he's doing one of my games, I get excited. I know it's going to be an enjoyable game and there's certainly going to be a little bit of entertainment. He's usually got a comment about something, and more often than not it's going to be a hilarious comment, but you also know the game is going to be well officiated."

Murdzia began umpiring area baseball games in 1959 at the prodding of former Sehome teacher Milt Clothier, and he's now in his 55th year calling balls, strikes and outs. He's also refereed football and basketball - both boys' and girls' - the past 53 years.

During those 161 seasons of officiating, he figures he's called an average of 60 baseball games per year, 20 football games and approximately 40 basketball games at all levels in the Whatcom, Skagit and Island county region. That would add up to nearly 6,500 games - a number he jokingly said he "thought would be a little higher."

But even with that many games and all the years that have past, Murdzia remembers just about every young athlete he ever met or interacted with on the field of play - not just remembers, but cares about, often calling them "one of my kids" when he refers to them or meets them around town years later.

"It always comes back to sports when it's somebody you met," said Murdzia, who lives in Bellingham. "It's a big universal circuit. ... It's amazing that I have the memory I have that I can bring all these kids up. My one regret is that I wish I would have kept a diary after every day or every game and wrote something down. That would have been glorious, because so many neat things have happened. I mean 55 years is a long time, and it just seems like yesterday."

But of all the events he's officiated - including numerous Washington Interscholastic Activities Association state playoff games and a handful of championship showdowns - Murdzia said what he experienced just last month was his "No. 1" on-field experience.

CAMPING WITH MURDZ

Murdzia, who currently works as a security guard at the Intalco Aluminum Corporation in Ferndale, received an invitation this summer to umpire at a week-long camp session at the Cooperstown Dreams Park just outside the small New York village that any fan will proudly tell you is the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

The camp was opened in 1996 by Lou Presutti, who actually played on the same Little League team as Murdzia 61 years ago when they were growing up in Oneonta, N.Y. - just 25 miles away from Cooperstown.

Thirteen times every summer, the Cooperstown Dreams Park welcomes 104 teams from around the country to its 80-acre complex for camp. Murdzia makes sure to let you know it's a camp, not a school - each team is guaranteed seven games during the week, even if rain forces them into the early-morning hours.

Over the course of the summer, nearly 17,000 players come to the camp at $850 per head to stay in the team barracks named after Hall of Fame players, but the waiting list for teams is still nearly three years long.

In a July 26 ESPN.com story about the Cooperstown Dreams Park, Presutti estimated 190,000 players have participated in the camp, including the children of Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux and Wayne Gretzky. Albert Pujols' son was expected to play there this summer, and current major league alumni who have graced the fields include Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, David Price and Chris Sale, as well as nearly half of the first-round selections in the 2013 MLB amateur draft.

"It's kind of like it should be - really at its finest," Murdzia said. "These kids are 12 years old, and they played so well. It's like doing a high school game."

And the facilities are nothing short of equal to the level of talent.

Murdzia called the 22 ball fields "spotless" and said there was plenty of room in between the fields to play catch or hit fungos without tearing up the game fields. There also are 20 batting cages.

Stands for parents at every field, except for the field reserved for the weekly opening ceremony and championship game, are down the foul lines so that parents and their opinions won't get in the way of the teams and their coaches.

While Presutti provides his campers a professional environment, he requires the same level of professionalism from everyone lucky enough to get a chance to come to his camp.

"He practices what he preaches," Murdzia said. "If he's driving along in his golf cart, and he sees a candy wrapper, he'll stop, jump out and pick it up. If he sees a kid Ken Griffey with his hat on backwards, he'll tell them, 'You're fined two games.' They know the rules."

The same goes for wearing their socks low or the shirt of their uniform untucked.

"We have a thing here at Cooperstown Dreams Park," Presutti said in the ESPN.com article. "The most important thing is to be your own hero. Look in the mirror. That has got to be your hero. You have to be your own hero, and you need to dream dreams. ... (If) he looks like a ballplayer, maybe he'll feel like a ballplayer. Just think, maybe he'll wind up being a ballplayer. And then he'll have respect for the uniform and have respect for himself."

The 88 umpires who are either invited to the camp each week or who are sponsored by one of the teams attending the camp are held to that same high standard, Murdzia said, adding that Presutti is not afraid to put anybody "out on Highway 28 with their suitcase" if they can't live up to the camp's standards.

But for those who do measure up - players, coaches and umpires, alike - Murdzia said the week is an unforgettable experience.

"I learned how much baseball, itself, is a game," Murdzia said. "If you bring it down to that level, instead of the money that's involved with it, I found out it's a game, and it's supposed to be fun. There are heartbreaks in it, sure, but it's supposed to be fun. These kids were out there trying to live their dreams."

And so were the umpires.

Murdzia said he came back with a "drawer full" of pins he traded for with young players and a camera full of pictures he took with kids he met at the camp.

He also got a chance to interact with some of the country's best umpires, who are graded by coaches and umpire supervisors after every game.

"There were some pretty good umpires there," he said. "They're very serious about what they do, but they didn't take themselves too seriously. It was neat sitting around after games and talking about things and listening to what some of those guys had to say. Of the 88 umpires, about 52 of them were in from major league umpire schools, and they let you know it. ... I just tried to keep quiet and do my thing, and I ended up ranking pretty high."

Each field received a five-man umpire crew, allowing them to rotate one guy out each game in the mid-summer heat. Because some got overwhelmed by the heat, Murdzia said he ended up working 13 games during the week.

But the highlight was being selected to umpire the championship game on Field 1 - a game that was won on a walk-off three-run homer by the Salt Lake Heat's Ethan Fowlks, who has autism.

"The game was amazing, but so was the entire experience," Murdzia said. "It was really neat, because they had fireworks and they paraded all the teams out. Then they introduced the umpires, and Louie Presutti came out to shake our hands and he surprised us with a ring."

The Hall of Fame style ring is inscribed with the words "American Youth Baseball" and "Little Majors" on it.

Though the camp is located just outside Cooperstown, it has no affiliation to the Hall of Fame, but each camper is granted a pass to visit the Hall during their stay.

"Lou asked me himself what I thought about the Hall, and I told him honestly, 'The first 15 minutes were really gratifying. After that it was all PR,'" Murdzia said of making his first visit to the Hall of Fame. "But the plagues on the bottom floor of the guys that did make it, it was just beautiful. When you walk in, it's just like going to a funeral service - everybody is just jabber, jabber, jabber walking in, and then it's quiet as a church mouse. It was unbelievable. Even the young kids were quiet."

Murdzia said he is considering an offer he's already received to return to the camp next year to work all 13 weeks as an umpiring crew chief.

LEARNING THE ROPES

If Murdzia accepts that honor, it would be just the latest in a long list of accomplishments by the legendary umpire and referee.

He received the Dave DuVall Award from the WIAA Northwest District in 1997 for his citizenship and service and has received a Washington Officials Association Meritorious Service Award in all three sports. Murdzia said he believes he is the only living official to call a football, basketball and baseball state championship game in the Kingdome.

"I've been lucky to do quite a lot," he said modestly.

Though he's not yet in the WIAA Athletic Hall of Fame, a strong case could certainly be made for his inclusion in the next couple of years.

"I've always had him at the top of a very high-caliber list," Smoot said. "The way he relates with young and old. He has a knack for that. I've heard a few people who didn't know too much about him question his ability on the floor at the junior high level. ... I had to tell myself these people just don't know this man or understand how long he has been around. They just don't come any better than Don."

But Murdzia is not the type to look for credit.

In fact, he'd prefer to remain anonymous behind his home-plate umpire's mask.

"I don't need any notoriety, because I do this for the kids," he said. "That's what it's all about for me."

That's an attitude Murdzia has held for all 55 years he's been calling games.

Murdzia and his family moved from New York to Ferndale in 1954 during his sophomore season. He played catcher for the Golden Eagles, as well as football, basketball and ran track - yes, that makes four sports - during his senior year.

After graduating, Murdzia said Clothier got after him about becoming an umpire, and he "finally went and did it in '59."

Murdzia quickly learned what it took.

"I go way back with Mal Walton and guys like that who were very good officials," Murdzia said. "I was his apprentice, and he made me a really good official. Those were the days where you stuck with a guy for two years and he ripped you apart every game and told you what you could do better. After a while, he couldn't think of anything, because I did get better. But I was blessed to have him as a mentor."

Fifty-five years later, Murdzia has mentored more than his fair share of up-and-coming officials as well as just about every player he interacts with.

TOUCHING LIVES WITH HUMOR

The best way to do that, Murdzia has found, is to use his unmistakable sense of humor.

Though he takes his job very seriously, Murdzia never takes himself too serious.

"I always have to laugh when I think about him doing this game in the old Mount Baker field house," Smoot said. "This was back in the day before they had the separate wrestling room, so they would leave the mats out on the north side of the court and wouldn't even put the bleachers out on that side. He was doing this varsity basketball game, and he was running down the court and he tripped over one of those mats. He did a complete summersault and looked at the crowd and said, 'It was a 10, right?' He didn't miss a beat. That's just Don."

Though Murdzia's sense of humor on the ball field is well known around the region, he said he really didn't start to realize how important it was until one of the saddest moments of his officiating career nearly made him give it up.

Murdzia was a side judge during a Bellingham-Sehome football game at Civic Stadium in 1982 when he saw Phil Millard tackle and hit his head on the thigh of another player.

"I was right there when he went down," Murdzia said. "I remember him saying 'Murdz, it hurts,' and those were the last words he said. He died in the hospital that night. Three doctors and me helped him off the field on a stretcher. He was there for like 50 minutes. I was ready to quit right there. ... Ron (Millard, Phil's father) came up to me and said, 'I know you're feeling remorse, but you had nothing to do with this.' He said, 'You're good with kids. Keep up the good work.'

"I think it was that that made me realize this is just a game, and you might as well have fun. So that is what I try to do. There are a lot of people that don't like my style. They think I should be more professional all the time. I'm professional when I'm down there when it really counts and a call needs to be made. Other than that, I'm promoting the game. That's what it is - it's a game. It's not life and death. You play hard, and I work hard to make the right call, but you might as well have fun doing it."

In doing so, Murdzia has been able to get close enough to the kids and coaches he works with to make an impact on their life.

He even uses his sense of humor to deflect criticism.

"He's an icon, no question about it," Smoot said. "He's always very supportive. I don't think I've ever seen him come down on somebody. I've seen him in arguments, but I've never seen him loose his cool. It's just not in him. You may not always agree with him, but you go away with a smile on your face."

In essence, Murdzia has found the perfect balance between professionalism and fun.

"You'll notice as soon as I'm done kidding with people, I'm right back to serious," he said. "Baseball should be fun, but it also should be honest. I can't make a homer call. If I miss a call, I tell the batter, 'I missed that one. Maybe it was out of the strike zone.' I think that makes them more comfortable. ... I give them my professional best. You can't get them all, but I give it my all."

By doing so, Murdzia continues to touch the lives of young people around the county by getting to know them and interact with them.

You can't argue with the results.

Murdzia, who worked 42 years in the pulp mill at Georgia Pacific before it closed, turned 74 on Monday, July 29. He said he received 192 Facebook messages wishing him a happy birthday - more than half of them were from former ballplayers.

"I have been privileged to get to know some wonderful kids and get to touch their lives," Murdzia said. "I get pretty nostalgic and I get embarrassed when people talk about everything I've done, but I am proud of the impact I've been able to have on all these kids' lives. That was the one thing I wanted to do, and I think I've been pretty successful."

Reach David Rasbach at david.rasbach@bellinghamherald.com or 360-715-2286.

Reach DAVID RASBACH at david.rasbach@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2271.

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