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Former Umpire Playing Political Hardball

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AP
As a big league umpire, Dale Ford got his way on the field. He once tossed Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver _ during the national anthem.

As a newly elected lawmaker in the Tennessee General Assembly, Ford is adjusting to the more subtle etiquette of parliamentary procedure.

"You can't run people out of the game down here," he said. "You can't knock them on their rear end _ even though you feel like it sometimes."

The 64-year-old Ford was hired by Major League Baseball in 1974. He twice worked the World Series, and was behind the plate for the famous Bill Buckner game in 1986.

Ford was one of 22 umpires who lost their jobs in 1999, part of their union's failed mass resignation plan to force an early start to contract negotiations.

After decades of traveling 200,000 miles a year, Ford said he was ready to retire from baseball. He spent a while on speaking tours and training umpires, and also made an unsuccessful run for the Tennessee House in 2002.

The Republican from Jonesborough won the primary last year and ran unopposed in the November general election. He represents his hometown district in northeast Tennessee.

"This is a good way to give something back to a community and a district that had been good to me," Ford said. "Believe me, if it weren't for a baseball pension, I couldn't come down here and work for the folks. But I'm glad to do it."

Ford comes from a rock-ribbed conservative district that has been voting Republican for more than 100 years.

"I promised the people in my district that I would look at all sides of an issue and then try to do what's best for most people," he said. "If I don't do what most of the people want me to do, then I've lied to the people."

On the field, Ford always had the final word. In the legislature, he understands that work is all about consensus and compromise.

"There's been a few times down here where you know you're right, but that doesn't mean that you're going to have cooperation," he said.

Ford still takes pride in his battles with fiery managers Billy Martin and Weaver.

"Umpiring is like any other profession: You see people that don't give you a hard time, and you're going to give them the benefit of the doubt," he said. "Billy Martin and Earl Weaver did not get the benefit of the doubt, I promise you."

Martin was suspended for two games in 1983 after calling Ford a liar and offering a $100 bet that the umpire was illiterate.

But Ford figured out how to keep some managers from taking out their worst frustrations on him: "If you stand out in the grass, they can't kick dirt on you," he said.

For all his baseball stories, Ford said he faced his greatest challenges working as a college basketball referee.

"There's nothing any tougher than a Tennessee-Kentucky or Duke-North Carolina basketball game," he said. "In fact, we should have had combat pay."

Ford said he gave up basketball refereeing about eight years ago, partly because of the four surgeries he's had on each knee.

He continues to give free clinics to high school and college baseball umpires, and said he recognizes a new era has arrived for umpires in the major leagues.

"Every day when you walked on the field you knew you were going to have a fight," Ford recalled. "Now I see some of these young guys making calls, missing it by two steps, and (managers) don't say a word to them," he said.

Even so, Ford said he had fond memories of his umpiring experience.

"All my times in the big leagues I had a good time," he said. "I guess I wasn't smart enough to feel pressure."

As for ejecting Weaver before the game even started, Ford said the Baltimore manager started needling him while a woman was singing the national anthem.

"Weaver stood to my immediate left and he's talking out of the corner of his mouth and says: 'Dale, how many plays you gonna screw up tonight?'
"I talk back out of the corner of my mouth and I say: 'It don't matter, because you're not going to be around to see it. As soon as the fat lady is done, you are, too.'"