It was a moment like many others, where you meet a new face and know -- instinctively -- that you'll never see this person again.
But I could not have been more mistaken about my first and only lengthy encounter with former big league umpire Wally Bell. I only wish fate could have brought us together one more time.
Now, after Bell's tragic death at age 48 on Monday, that will not happen.
I was 15 years old in the spring of 1984, and my passion for baseball was in full bloom. For a little more than a year, I had been a regular guest on a Friday night sports talk show on WKBN AM in Youngstown, Ohio. The host, Steve Hook, and I would play trivia games with the listeners and then we would chat about whatever was topical in sports.
One Friday, I arrived at the station early to find Hook doing a segment with a local man who had just finished umpiring school and was heading for the New York-Penn League to begin his pro career. He was from nearby Austintown, and his name was Wally Bell.
As Hook chatted with Wally, I knew this: The odds against him ever making the big leagues were astronomical. With umpiring careers lasting as long as 30-plus years and only (at that time) about 52 MLB positions, young umps faced a grueling test just to advance to the high Minors.
The segment ended and I shook Wally's hand, and I can remember having this very thought: "He is going to disappear into the baseball wilderness, and I'll never know what became of him."
Nine years later, I was working for a newspaper in Ashtabula, Ohio, about an hour north of Youngstown. As I went through the baseball wire stories one March evening, I noticed a blurb about new umpires who had been hired by MLB to fill positions created with the addition of games necessitated by the birth of the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins.
To my amazement, one of those umpires was Bell.
I immediately flashed back to that day at WKBN -- and marveled how Wally had beaten the odds.
Three years later, I attended a Pirates game at Three Rivers Stadium where Bell happened to be the home-plate umpire. Between innings -- in a largely deserted park -- I walked to the first row behind home plate and called out to Wally through the screen, asking if he remembered our meeting more than a decade before.
He looked bemusedly at me, shrugged, and returned his attention to the game.
As the director of communications at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, a dream job I landed in 2008, I always thought I might run into Wally again. With this story in my back pocket -- just waiting to be told -- I figured it was bound to happen.
It was not to be.
But Bell's triumphs -- his three All-Star Games, seven Division Series, four League Championship Series and the 2006 World Series -- live on in Cooperstown, where every umpire to ever don the gear is documented in a file in the Museum's Giamatti Research Center. And the next time I think something just can't be done, I'm going to take a walk through the Plaque Gallery and into the Library for a peek at the clippings that record Wally's professional life.
That kid from Austintown surely beat the odds. A better legacy would be hard to find.
Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less