September 9, 2022

Sparkling on the Diamond

For 50 years, CYO umpire strives to make the right call in sports, in life and in faith

One of Mike LaGrave’s greatest joys in 50 years as an umpire is working kickball games for the archdiocese’s Catholic Youth Organization. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

One of Mike LaGrave’s greatest joys in 50 years as an umpire is working kickball games for the archdiocese’s Catholic Youth Organization. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

As Mike LaGrave marks his 50th year as an umpire, including his longtime dedication to the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO), there’s a certain irony to how he began this career which has brought him so much joy:

It all started when he was thrown out of a game as a player for arguing an umpire’s call.

That moment unfolded when LaGrave was in his early 20s and playing first base for a team from St. Joan of Arc Parish in Indianapolis in an adult fast-pitch softball league. When the umpire missed an obvious call at first base because he was out of position, LaGrave bluntly told the ump about his mistake.

And when the ump said, “You do the ball playing, let me do the umpiring,” LaGrave replied, “As bad as you’re doing, I could do both.”

The umpire tossed LaGrave out of the game, and as they talked about the call after the game, the ump told him, “If you think you can do better, here’s a number to get into it.”

LaGrave took the phone number to start the process of becoming an umpire, called it and by the next spring, he was umpiring his first game—a CYO baseball game on the diamond at St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis.

“I was just the one umpire, and I hustled all over the field,” recalls LaGrave, now 72. “I must have done good because they’ve kept asking me back. Ever since, I’ve always said, ‘It’s in my blood.’ I’m a born umpire.”

Since that first game 50 years ago, he has umped more than 17,000 games in softball, baseball and kickball in youth- and adult leagues, an umpiring journey that has taken him to 32 states in the country, and beyond—to Australia, Canada, Ireland and New Zealand.

He knows because he has kept 50 yearly calendars of all those games. And he insists that he has always strived to keep the same approach to every game during those five decades.

“I treat every game as important because I know it’s important to the teams,” says LaGrave, a member of St. Christopher Parish in Indianapolis.

A fun time in the epicenter of kickball

In late summer, there is no place LaGrave would rather be than back home in Indiana—to umpire kickball games.

And on a beautiful, sunny, late afternoon in August, he couldn’t wait to get to the kickball diamonds at

St. Jude School in Indianapolis, because he knew he was the umpire for one of those intense rivalry games that has long marked grade-school kickball on the south side of Indianapolis—the epicenter of kickball in the archdiocese and, some southsiders would add, “in the world.”

“These games you really get pumped up for,” LaGrave said before the matchup between the Cadet A teams from St. Jude and St. Barnabas Parish, also in Indianapolis.

People were also pumped up to see that he was umpiring this rivalry game.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and he’s one of my favorites,” said Joan Bartley, the scorekeeper for the St. Jude Cadet A team and a coach for the parish’s fifth- and sixth-grade team. “He knows the game, and he’s good to the girls. And he treats everybody with respect. He’s just great.”

After the girls on the St. Jude team joined in unison to sing the national anthem before the game, LaGrave strode across the diamond to take his place of command behind the pitcher’s circle. And then the fun and the intensity began.

The St. Jude team surged into an early lead with some thunderous kicks, but the St. Barnabas team kept chipping away at the lead, with players on both teams showing their speed and their fearlessness in running the basepaths and their toughness and athleticism in making some great defensive plays that led the moms, the dads and the grandparents beyond right- and centerfield cheering and yelling their approval.

In the midst of it all, LaGrave kept a calm and quiet command of the closely-contested game, with occasional gentle reminders and moments of support to players on both teams.

When the quick-paced game ended, St. Jude earned the win, 14-11. After talking to the coaches from both teams, LaGrave noted, “Two good teams. Well-coached.” He also wondered aloud about whether he had made the right calls on a couple of extremely close plays—moments of doubt that left no doubt about how much he still cares about giving teams his best after 50 years and more than 17,000 games.

Taking a drink from a bottle of water, he watched two younger teams practicing for the next game he would ump. Moments later, a look of joy filled his face as he again headed onto the diamond, the place where he has always felt at home.

A formula for finding joy and success

LaGrave has a simple explanation for why he has continued to umpire for 50 years. It all starts with his threefold formula for finding joy in a job:

“If you’re good at what you do, and you enjoy what you do, and they pay you for it,” he says.

Add one more element to what matters for him, “I take pride in what I do.”

That approach has not only served him as an umpire for 50 years, it also guided him as a mail carrier for the United States Postal Service for 33 years before he retired in 2013.

“I loved delivering the mail, and my customers liked me,” he says. “I went the extra mile. It’s the same way with umpiring.”

He has especially gone the extra mile for the CYO, according to Bernie Price, a staff member who previously served a long time as the organization’s athletic director for girls’ sports in the archdiocese.

“The CYO is so fortunate to still have Mike in the mix, and his love for the game of kickball is never-ending,” she says.

LaGrave’s dedication to CYO shows in a routine he followed when he was a mail carrier. As soon as he finished his route, he rushed to the games he was umpiring, calling the games while still in his postal uniform.

“I’d get calls from coaches telling me about this great umpire they had for a game,” Price recalls. “I’d say, ‘Was he wearing a postal uniform?’ They’d say, ‘Yes,’ and I’d say, ‘That’s Mike LaGrave.’ The respect level is way up there for him. People love to see Mike LaGrave out on the diamond.”

He has the same respect and admiration for the CYO—a reality that becomes clear when he shares that he leaves his winter home in Florida and returns to Indianapolis during the spring and summer so he can umpire kickball games for the CYO.

The key to umpiring—and life

“The CYO is just a great organization, and you have great people in it,” LaGrave says. “There’s the people who work for it and all the volunteers. There’s a lot of dedication. Bernie came into the CYO in the first year I started. People stay around because they’re dedicated to CYO. It’s not just a paycheck, and it’s the same way with me.

“It’s a Catholic organization, and being Catholic and Christian means something. I’m proud to be Catholic. I want to make sure I’m working to get to the kingdom of heaven. Look, we’re all sinners. But I’m trying to do the best that I can.”

He keeps that attitude whenever he steps onto a diamond. And while he understands how special it is to do something he has loved for 50 years, he’s far from ready to see the fun end. He mentions he will turn 73 in November. He also envisions himself continuing to umpire until he’s 82—at least.

“I’ve put a lot into this, and there are a lot of places I’ve gotten to go because of this. I’ve been all over the world. And I’ve met a lot of great people. I don’t know if I will ever retire. I’ve been blessed with wonderful eyes and good, strong legs. I don’t think I’ll ever give it up as long as I can physically do it.”

He pauses before adding, “I probably will end up dying on the diamond.”

Actually, that thought sounds good to him.

His thoughts are also positive toward the one person who led him into his umpiring career—the ump who missed a call more than 50 years ago. In the time since then, LaGrave has learned one of the realities of umpiring and life.

“Do I get all the calls right?” he says. “Of course not.”

The key, he adds, is to acknowledge the mistakes, to move on, to continue to do the best you can.

His path as an umpire even crossed at different times with the ump who threw him out of a game.

“I worked with the guy, and I even thanked him,” LaGrave says. “I told him, ‘If it wasn’t for you and I having that little disagreement, I wouldn’t be out on this diamond having fun and making a little money.’ We got along fine and even laughed about it.

“The rest is history. I’ve had quite a career.”

No one will argue that call. †

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