Bob Lutz: Garden City umpire gets the call to make the calls

01/26/2012 5:00 AM

01/27/2012 7:15 AM

The first thing that pops up on Google about Todd Tichenor is a photo of him tossing Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire from a game early during the 2009 season. That’s when Tichenor, from Garden City, was a call-up umpire from Triple-A, subbing for a regular big-league umpire who was on vacation.

Gardenhire was the second person to be thrown out of the Twins’ game with the Boston Red Sox by Tichenor that day; earlier the home-plate ump had dismissed Minnesota catcher Mike Redmond for arguing a close play at home plate.

Later in the same inning, believe it or not, Tichenor — now remember, he was just a guy replacing a guy at the time — ejected Boston catcher Jason Varitek for arguing balls and strikes. Then — then — he booted Red Sox manager Terry Francona for carrying on Varitek’s argument.

Four kicked out in one game. In one inning. By an umpire who was just getting his feet wet after several seasons in the minor leagues.

“Boy, I tell you what, I learned a lot that day,’’ said Tichenor, 35, who recently learned he was being promoted to being a full-time major-league umpire. “I would say that was a really good defining situation in my baseball career. Especially with everything that I had to go through.’’

Tichenor said he received online death threats and that his kids were heckled by classmates in Holcomb, where Todd lives with his wife, Kelly, a Holcomb native, and their three young children.

Talk about being rattled.

Tichenor wasn’t looking for a fight when he went to the Metrodome in Minneapolis that day. An umpire never goes to the ballpark expecting to toss two players and both managers from a game.

“And there were just three games that day in the big leagues,’’ Tichenor said. “So you know what ‘SportsCenter’ was rolling with for an entire 24-hour cycle. Michael Jackson died about a week later; I need him to die a week earlier.’’

Tichenor said he was reassured by MLB umpire supervisor Richie Garcia that he had been within his bounds by ejecting the players and managers.

“Richie read all my reports and I think that event defined myself to him to some degree,’’ Tichenor said. “Yeah, it sucks, but I was just sticking up for myself. It was definitely a growing moment.’’

Tichenor must be doing something right. There was one umpire opening this offseason — long-time arbiter Bill Hohn retired — and Tichenor was the chosen one. He’ll report to spring training on March 1 and ready himself for a 130-game haul.

For the past three seasons, he has been one of 22 Triple-A umpires who have come up to the big leagues to work games for vacationing umpires. That experience, he said, is priceless.

“What I learned from the incident in Minnesota was that the media can spin anything they want and turn it into hateful things,’’ Tichenor said. “Work was work and that’s what that was. I’ve talked a million times to all four of those guys. It was just a normal day at work with those guys. Everybody expects you to work hard every day.’’

Tichenor grew up in Lincoln, Neb., but his father got a coaching job in Holcomb in 1980, then died from cancer a year later. Tichenor’s mother moved the family to Garden City, where he graduated from high school in 1995. His mother’s second job was supervising at a ball field during the summer.

“I started out shagging balls and then I grew to being the scorekeeper,’’ Tichenor said. “Then I started umpiring and it became a passion. And I didn’t have to ask my mom for 10 bucks to go to the movies on Friday nights.’’

It wasn’t long before Tichenor established becoming a major-league umpire as a goal. Kelly, then Todd’s girlfriend, did not understand.

“She thought it was the weirdest thing in the world,’’ Tichenor said. “But she’s been with me through it all. And I’ve wanted to quit a thousand times. I’ve called home to say I was done, that I was hanging it up because I was tired and this is not for me. She always told me, ‘No, you’re not doing that. You’re not quitting.’ ’’

Even though Tichenor’s career is not family-friendly, Kelly Tichenor, an elementary school teacher, is happy because her husband is doing what he loves.

It’s nice, she said, being near her family in Holcomb, where help is just a phone call away.

“It’s definitely long when he’s gone,’’ Kelly Tichenor said. “Coming up through the ranks, he hasn’t gotten a lot of time off.’’

Tichenor will have 30 days of vacation during the season, he said. He’ll finally get to see his 12-year-old son, Kaden, play summer baseball. Being apart from family is a drain, but getting the call to a full-time big-league gig, where he’ll work on Brian Gorman’s crew with Larry Vanover and Tony Randazzo, is the thrill of a lifetime because so many umpires get stuck in Triple-A and never make it.

“I want to be that guy who people say is one of the neatest guys around,’’ Tichenor said. “But they also know that if they cross that line, something will happen. I don’t want to be that way, but sometimes you just have to stick up for yourself.’’

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