Umpire Prentiss has reason to dance

Umpire Prentiss has reason to dance

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- He danced.

He swung his hips like a disco king, gyrating to music that blared overhead. The crowd at Lamade Stadium cheered each twist that clung to the beat. His dance partner, "Dugout the Mascot," couldn't keep pace. It didn't matter; he danced on -- danced till the music died.

Umpire Dale Prentiss then turned from his dance partner and headed straight to his position in right field. He was now ready to do what he was here for: to call a game at the Little League World Series.

His dance was perhaps a celebration of life. A reminder, in a way, of a time when Prentiss thought he might never dance again. He thought he'd never walk either. And umpiring? He could all but forget that, too.

For doctors had told Prentiss six years ago, "You'll never walk right again. We're going to have to give you a walker. If you can get rid of the walker, you're probably going to use a cane the rest of your life."

His doctors were wrong.

But on the early morning of Aug. 28, 2002, the doctors had no choice but to believe their prognosis. How could they not? The man they saw with the shell of a .44 Magnum in his gut wasn't just fighting to dance again; he was fighting to live.

On that date, Prentiss, a sergeant with the Shirley, Mass., Police Department, had responded to a call of an attempted sexual assault. He patrolled the town looking for the suspect, identified later as a 38-year-old mechanist from Shirley.

He found the suspect driving on Squannacook Road.

Prentiss pulled the man over outside his house and got out of the police cruiser to talk. The man was sitting in his vehicle. Prentiss got out of the cruiser and walked around the car's bumper. As he did, the driver opened the car door, gun drawn, and shot Prentiss from nine feet away.

The bullet ripped apart his innards. Prentiss, badly injured, fired his gun. He wounded the suspect, who ended up in a Boston hospital.

Prentiss, too, ended up in a hospital -- his situation so dire that nobody knew what its outcome might be. He didn't.

For most of his life, Prentiss had been the bedrock of his family. He was the person they'd call for support. He was the thread that kept the family ties tight.

Little League World Series

Now, as Prentiss lay fighting for something that resembled the life he once knew, the thread was fraying; it needed help and plenty of it.

"When you have injuries like I had, your manhood goes away," he said. "You just lose it. I guess that had to be one of the real low points in my healing."

The bullet ended his career as a Shirley policeman; the doctors had warned Prentiss that was a certainty. He hoped he'd have the rest of the life that he'd known -- as much of it as a man can have with injuries like his.

"I said, 'Well, if I can't be a cop, can I still do my other passion, which is umpiring baseball?" he said.

The not knowing ate at Prentiss. He was depressed.

His depression didn't last long. For when Prentiss needed support, he found it in the family and friends who'd always gotten support from him. They did all the small things that he needed them to do, and slowly, steadily, he made progress.

From walker to walking, Prentiss was getting back his life, thanks to the support from his twin brother, friends and family.

"They're the ones who pulled me through," he said.

None of their support could help get back the job he loved. Prentiss was a cop, and he loved his job. But his police career was finished, just as a gunman's bullet had finished the career of one of his colleagues, a Shirley officer who'd been shot eight years earlier.

Now, could Prentiss' career as an umpire be finished, too?

He needed two years to answer that question. The answer came in 2004 when Prentiss took the field as an umpire.

"It meant the world to me," he said.

Prentiss is now six years away from the shooting on the Shirley streets. He is four years away from his return to umpiring.

He is five days away from completing the once-in-a-lifetime experience of umpiring at the Little League World Series. Six years ago -- even four years ago -- Prentiss didn't think that was possible.

A couple of days before Christmas, Prentiss learned he'd been picked as one of the 17 umpires for the '08 World Series.

"It means a lot to me," he said, tears welling in his blue eyes. "It really does. Everything I do down here, I represent Massachusetts and the East Region. This I do for my wife and family."

So, for a man who sees each day as a blessing, who squeezes the last second out of every minute of every day, he can enjoy moments like these. They are the bonuses in his life, a life that umpiring Little League games has been a big part of now for 23 years.

He's promised his wife, whom he met while recovering from the gunshot wound, he'll soon slow down. He's told her he won't take every umpiring assignment that comes his way; he'll find more time for her and for golf. She likes golf.

But he's told her he won't give up umpiring altogether -- no way. As long as he can run down the first-base line, he'll umpire if some baseball league will have him. He does it because he enjoys the youngsters, the mini-Mike Lowells, the mini-Coco Crisps and the mini-Jason Variteks who try hard to play baseball with passion.

His passion remains umpiring, a fact his wife understands all too well. And so must the thousands of people in Lamade Stadium who watched Prentiss dance with Dugout behind home plate before heading to the right-field line.

He had reason to wow them with his groove thing; he was alive and umpiring a baseball game. So he danced, shaking and twisting his hips to the music like a man on "Dancing With the Stars."

"I could've used a little hip rub after that," he said.

Justice B. Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.