With television cameras trained on each call he made at first base, Gary Panozzo wanted no mistakes in his most important game as an umpire.
The civil engineer from San Antonio experienced a once-in-a-lifetime thrill working the championship game of the Little League World Series on Sunday in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
The 57-year-old Panozzo worked multiple games during the 11-day tournament as part of a 16-member team of umpires who were selected in January for this year’s World Series. However, he didn’t find out until late Saturday night that he would be on the field for Sunday’s title game in which a team from Honolulu beat South Korea 3-0.
Working first base, Panozzo made numerous calls on close plays as base runners tried to beat throws to the bag. He also ruled a South Korean player had failed to check his swing during one of the final at-bats of the game.
The internationally televised game ended with euphoria on the Hawaiian side and heartbreak in the South Korean dugout. It also ended with no reason to question the umpires, who did their jobs without sparking controversy and celebrated the experience together once they left the field.
“I was surprised I made it this far,” Panozzo said in a phone interview after he left the stadium with his wife of 30 years, Lorraine. “It’s definitely an honor. A lot of people try to do it and don’t get the opportunity. So it was definitely a surprise that I finally did.”
An umpire can work the Little League World Series just once; after that time, he is ineligible. Little League likes to reward new umpires each season with the honor of working the tournament held each August in the picturesque town along the Susquehanna River. Panozzo said that reality made his opportunity Sunday bittersweet but a fitting payoff for years of volunteer service in Little League baseball.
Panozzo and his wife settled in San Antonio 19 years ago. He works for Jacobs Engineering, a company of 70,000 employees with an office in San Antonio of approximately 100.
He fell in love with baseball 50 years ago when his father, Leslie, coached him in Little League games. When Gary Panozzo became a father, his dad helped him coach his two sons.
Panozzo didn’t start umpiring until about 10 years ago. Before that, his connection to youth baseball came as a board member of the McAllister Park Little League. He helped that league build its new complex.
Panozzo and his wife live on San Antonio’s North Side. His parents live just a few blocks away. Lorraine Panozzo sat in the stands watching her husband call the game Sunday.
“It was an honor to watch my husband fulfill his dream,” she said. “I was very proud of him for being one of the six umpires selected to do the championship game as it took lots of dedication to get there.”
Panozzo used to call as many as 180 games a year but has pulled back a bit and now calls about 100 games per year at levels ranging from Little League to high schools and select travel teams to college games. He is paid to umpire some of those games, but he works Little League games on a volunteer basis.
“You probably use 20 percent of the rules 80 percent of the time and then there are 80 percent of the rules that you almost never use,” Panozzo said of Little League’s extensive rulebook. “For me, those differences help me remember them, actually.”
Panozzo said the magnitude of his assignment wasn’t lost on him Sunday. As much as he wanted to pretend he was calm and cool before the game, he wasn’t. He said he was “freaking out” as he drove to the stadium, but once he parked and got settled into the locker room with his fellow umpires, he was able to calm down.
“When you’re on the field … I always say, ‘Don’t make the game bigger than it is.’ You got to just try to think you’re just calling another 12-year-old baseball game,” Panozzo said. “That’s what you’ve got to do. You just have to focus. As an umpire, speed kills you, right? If you get too fast, that’s when you make bad calls. So you just got to keep your timing and everything is fine.”
While the championship game was a thrill he will never forget, the entire tournament was memorable. Earlier in the tournament, Panozzo was on the field for two come-from-behind wins by the Great Lakes team from Michigan. He was the home plate umpire for one of those contests.
“Those were both pretty amazing,” he said.
So what will he remember about the experience years from now?
“It’s definitely the kids,” he said. “They’re so awesome there on the field making great plays. That Hawaii team had some real characters on it. That coach from Hawaii was awesome. I was on the first-base side and that was their dugout, so I was up close and personal with them.”