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Umpire McManus a man of the people

Dave McManus didn't umpire games so much as he managed people.

"I think that's what people have considered to be my biggest asset in all the sports," said the affable McManus, who truly was a man for all seasons in an official capacity, refereeing hockey and basketball in the winter, softball and baseball in the summer.

"I was able to talk myself out of some pretty tough situations by understanding what the player and the coach are going through, and giving them that extra minute."

Next Saturday night, he'll take a few for himself as he accepts the prestigious Ward and Patch Lifetime Achievement Award from Baseball Canada at the annual general meeting in St. John's, N.L.

"Five minutes," he said. "Maybe six. I don't want to bore anybody."

McManus is only the second recipient since the award was created in 2007. His friend Howard Chapman of Richmond, B.C., was the first.

"It was created to recognize the most prestigious, best of the best umpires and administrators," said Baseball Canada Supervisor of Umpires Corey Davis of Edmonton. "It's the greatest honour that an amateur umpire in Canada can receive from our perspective."

Candidates have to have umpired or supervised at a minimum of 15 national or international events. You are also required to have made a lasting contribution to the umpiring development program in Canada. To that end, McManus served as the Supervisor of Umpires for Canada, the position Davis now holds, for six years, from 1989-1995. He formed and was part of the Baseball Canada Umpires Committee for a decade.

"I don't know him really well, but I know a lot about him," said Davis. "Certainly, I know that our program is better for having had him involved."

The award is a handsome crystal trophy, suitably engraved.

It's fitting recognition for a career which took McManus to nine Baseball Canada national championship tournaments - and the home plate assignment in the gold medal game in every one of them - and 11 international tournaments, including the 1982 world amateur baseball championship tournament in Seoul, South Korea, and the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the event he considers the highlight of his career.

He actually came within hours of working the plate in the major leagues in 1995. With major league umpires on strike, he and his crew were in the umpire's room being fitted for uniforms hours before the Toronto Blue Jays' home opener against the Oakland A's. However, labour laws at the time prevented them from working the game.

But more than the places he's been - he made it to all 10 provinces as an official in three different sports - his memories wander to the people.

McManus considers former Marysville baseball legend Don Johnson his mentor.

McManus was "at best a so-so player" at second base for the Marysville Royals in the late 1960s when Johnson, a straight shooter told him, "you can't play this game," said McManus. "He was right."

But Johnson would talk with McManus "for as many hours as I would want" about the nuances of umpiring.

"He was the best baseball umpire I've ever encountered, and he was my mentor by far," McManus said. "Whether I was working a baseball game with Donny or not, I would always stop at his house on the way down the hill, expecting to get a pat on the back for the good games. Never. He would tell me things that were wrong with my game or things I had to work on.

"But at the end of that two-hour conversation, he would mention some little tidbit that would make me go home and say 'I'm going to work to become better.' "

The other person McManus mentions as having a profound effect on his career was Scott Harvey Jr.

"He never let you relax," McManus said. "If he was pitching . . . don't miss one. If you missed one on the bases, you had another couple of hours to put up with him."

While pitchers/sluggers of the Harvey stripe and umpires of McManus' pedigree would seem like strange bedfellows, McManus appreciated Harvey's approach.

Harvey, in fact, was the man who presented McManus for induction when he was ushered into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame in 2002.

"Over the years, we've developed a really great friendship," he said. "He was tough to deal with at times, but I always felt he was a guy who made me work harder. He was the guy I wanted there, because I think he helped."

McManus is also a member of the Baseball New Brunswick Hall of Fame, the Fredericton Sports Wall of Fame, and is now the winner of a Lifetime Achievement Award, a crowning accomplishment on a great career.

"I pretty much credit all my success to Dave McManus," said David Cass, the president of the New Brunswick Baseball Umpires Association. "Dave was a mentor for me. I have all the admiration in the world for him. When the award was created, I knew instantly we'd be going forward with a nomination. He's a great man. Not just the baseball stuff . . . he's a great man."

McManus was a quick study. He broke in in 1970, was working at the national championship tournament in Edmundston in 1973 and was on his first international assignment, the Intercontinental Cup, in Moncton and Montreal, the next year.

"From then on, it's been fantastic," he said.

McManus knew all the rules, of course. Harvey once told him he worked balls and strikes as well as anyone. He always presented himself professionally. Never appeared to get too ruffled.

But what competitors respected most were those people skills. He rarely used the thumb.

"I could count the number of ejections with one hand," he said. "I've always thought, if you let them wind down a bit, you've got an opportunity of trying to talk them out of a worst-case scenario, which is putting themselves in a position where you had to react the way you don't want to react.

"I can remember really tough situations in games between Marysville and Chatham . . . blood and guts baseball . . . and getting out of them by taking some time."

McManus had the ultimate authority, of course. He could get rid of problem players. He preferred a gentler approach.

"Most players are too important to the game to just decide to throw them out," he said. "I think a lot of our younger officials could think about that."

There were managers like that too. Billy Saunders comes to mind.

"He was wonderful for the game, and he was one of those guys you had to keep in the ball game," said McManus. "He was too good for the game to try to find an easy way to eliminate a nuisance. And that's really all Billy was."

McManus did try to remove him once.

"He threw the hat up in the air one time and I said 'Billy, if that hat hits the ground, you're leaving the game,' " said McManus, chuckling at the memory. "Friggin' Hike MacPherson caught the hat. And he was standing behind Billy laughing his head off and there was not a thing I could do. You had to laugh."

And then there was 1996. McManus was behind the plate for the gold medal game in Managua, Nicaragua, between the host Nicaraguans and arch-rival Cuba.

"Bottom of the first inning, 0-0 at the time, Nicaragua has the bases loaded, and the guy hits what appears to be a grand slam home run. From my position at the plate, the ball was six or eight feet foul, and the first base umpire called it a fair ball to give Nicaragua a 4-0 lead.

"Out came the Cuban bench. It took us 20 minutes of having interpreters, and having this fellow down the first base line realize the ball was foul. We got together and reversed the call. The guy grounded out. As it turned out, Cuba won the ball game 4-3. But the first place I went from home plate was directly to the TV truck. It showed the ball was foul.

"But I was down at breakfast the next morning and the Nicaraguan manager came over and told me 'You have guts . . . you weren't getting out of the stadium if that ball was fair.'"

McManus has had off nights. They happen. Off nights led to sleepless nights.

"I don't know that I had many, but the ones I had were sleepless," he said.

In those situations, he was anxious to get back at it.

"It always seemed like I got a smile when I showed up," he said.

He gets a smile when he gets home too.

His family - Gail, his wife of 45 years, daughter Shelley, her husband of 11 years, Greg Francis, and his nine-year-old grandson Jordan - learned to go with the flow as Dave worked ...and worked...and worked.

"It's a sports family," he said. "She didn't know what she was getting into, but she was patient, God love her. Both she and Shelley . . . when I was umpiring, they were at the ballpark, and when I was refereeing, they were at the hockey rink. Thank God they're sports fans."

Even now, retired after a 38-year career at NCR and out of uniform - blue in the summer, stripes in the winter - since 1996, McManus feeds his sports fix by working in the pro shop at Mactaquac.

"I was gone too much," he says now. "But would I do it again? Darn right. They just said 'Sooner or later, this guy's going to start to stay home.'

But I wouldn't trade it for the world, and I don't think they would either."