Some people have enviable office locations and then there is Mike Maconi, the Phillies official scorer.
It would be hard to find a more maligned group of tradesmen than umpires at the youth and high school level. It’s become sport for parents, fans, coaches and even players to ride umpires for every perceived indiscretion.
As someone who has covered and scored games at those levels since 1977 – yes, I know – I can tell you the nature of the amateur game makes for more close calls than you’ll ever see at the professional level. Many more.
And sure, there are near misses and straight out bad calls because we have human beings, not robots, calling balls and strikes, out and safe. At the youth level, umpires are often learning on the job. Umpires are human and have lives just like you. They want to go home after their games, their work on the field complete, and enjoy their evening. Just like you.
And we want them to come back to our fields, because we can’t play without them. We are losing umpires by the droves nationally because of the treatment they receive as they try to ply their trade.
Many of these men and women umpire for the love of the game and a little extra cash to supplement their income. No one is buying a house at the beach off his or her amateur umpiring gig. As a longtime baseball reporter, I’ve found it fascinating to learn about what makes players and coaches tick, what makes them good at what they do. Umpires are no different. They are teachers, businessmen, lawyers, viable members of our communities, as you believe you are. Our umpires really do come from all walks of life.
“Umpiring is a part-time job,” says veteran New Jersey arbiter Marty Clark, now the Director of Tournaments at Diamond Nation. “People aren’t understanding that. Umpires don’t care who wins or loses. The guys just want to make a few extra bucks and they love the game.”
We figured, perhaps, if we took a bit of a dive into the life of one of our Diamond Nation umpires, our competitors, coaches, parents and fans would get a better sense of the uniquely human side of all of our arbiters.
Mike Maconi has been umpiring at Diamond Nation since 2017 and has been wearing the blue for 20 years in all. Mike is very much a baseball junky, the kind of guy you’d have a hard time walking away from once you started chatting about what we all know is the best game. Mike is addicted – hook, line and sinker – to the game of baseball. What more could you ask of an umpire.
For example, Maconi is still playing baseball in an Over-65 league. Yes, young lads, Mike is proof that, at the age of 69, you can still swing it and catch it. Yes, the Over-70 league beckons. Another thing about Mike, he’s the official scorer for the Philadelphia Phillies. So, as you can see, Diamond Nation simply has Mike on loan from the Phillies and his baseball team. And, before he retired, as the Director of Facilities Management at Rider University.
“I’d been playing baseball my whole life,” said Maconi. “My former boss at Rider had been umpiring for a long time and he asked me if I wanted to umpire. That was 2002.”
Maconi, like he always has in regard to anything baseball related, dove in head-first, taking the required class to become certified to don the blue.
“I figured it was another feather in the cap of my baseball resume,” said Maconi. “I really enjoy it, just being around the game of baseball.” Maconi umpired high school games from 2002-2005 and again from 2016-2018 and would soon jump into the youth-level pool.
Along the way, Maconi met Clark, who himself put aside the gear after 47 years umpiring moments after working the plate in the 2021 NJSIAA Group 4 championship game. Clark’s busy job at Diamond Nation includes running a large umpiring crew that is put to the test through the hot summer months. Tournament games begin at 8 a.m. each morning and continue through 11 p.m., seven days a week.
“If you’re from Mercer County and you don’t know Marty, you aren’t getting out enough,” said Maconi. “I met Marty through umpiring and I owe much of my umpiring career to him.”
Clark knows a good umpire when he sees one and didn’t hesitate to land Maconi for his Diamond Nation crew given the opportunity.
“I really enjoy umpiring at Diamond Nation,” said Maconi, who has yet to say he doesn’t enjoy something related to baseball.
And Clark feels fortunate to have the reliable Maconi as part of his crew.
“Mike is very consistent as an umpire,” says Clark. “He understands the game and the level of play he is working with. He treats a 9 year-old game with the same respect as an 18 year-old game. That’s what I love about him. He has a love for the game and does what’s right for it.
“He has a great demeanor and a great attitude toward the kids. He just does his job and is never in trouble out there. He’s a great person. We have to remember these guys are people. They are more than just umpires.”
Maconi says he worked 115 games at Diamond Nation last year and the Over-65 league catcher does enjoy being behind the dish.
“I umpired 82 of those games behind the plate,” he said. “I think playing catcher for my Over-65 team keeps my legs in shape. Truthfully, umping the bases, you are not in every pitch as much. I love the thorough concentration required behind the plate.”
While Maconi enjoys the umpire-catcher in-game relationship, he reminds us there are limits to that interaction.
“As an ump, you are trained that you are not there to talk,” says Maconi. “You want to establish a good rapport with the catcher, though. Learn his first name, etc. I love that. But you need to just do your job. The best umpire is a quiet umpire.”
Will Maconi “run you” given the opportunity?
“I’ve thrown out just one person in 21 years,” he says. “I’m very low key and my boiling point is way up there. You’d have to do something stupid.”
Maconi will turn 70 this year and has been “retired” from his 15-year job as facilities director at Rider University for almost seven years. He fills that free time with, uh, work. And a lot of play.
Maconi jets off to Florida in late January or early February and it’s not to lay on an ocean or gulf beach working on his tan. “I’ve been a snowbird since I retired,” he says. “My brother has a place in Fort Myers and I stay with him. My girlfriend has a place there, too.” Maconi uses Fort Myers as a launching pad to satisfy his baseball Jones. He plays in Over-65 baseball tournaments and umpires during his five weeks in the Sunshine State.
“I’ve been playing in tournaments in Florida since 1995,” said Maconi. “I was talking to the umpires there and they told me how they travel to tournaments to umpire. That’s how I got started umpiring down there.” While Maconi plays at the Over-65 level, he umpires in Florida at the Over-35 level and up.
Maconi had a health scare recently that required surgery and delayed his start at Diamond Nation this spring, but he’s returned and, in fact, umpired three straight 12U games on Field 6 on Saturday afternoon, all 3 behind the plate.
“I used to ump four games in a day at Diamond Nation, but not anymore,” he said. “My limit is three. If Marty is short, I’ll do four but three is usually the max.”
Jim Rueb, Diamond Nation’s Operations Manager, is thrilled to have Maconi in his rotation as well.
“Mike is well respected as the elder statesman of the staff,” says Rueb. “He will show up after catching a seven-inning league game and then umpire the plate in back-to-back games because his partner took a foul ball or errant pitch and is hurting. He’s the ultimate professional.”
Maconi plays in his Over-65 league locally on Sundays and, of course, his responsibilities with Major League Baseball in Philadelphia take priority. “When I have days open and Marty assigns me, I’ll jump all over it.”
You’d think someone in their late 60s would be satisfied keeping busy with either an umpiring job, playing a little ball or, perhaps, preoccupied with an enviable assignment as the Phillies official scorer. Not Maconi. He wants a piece of every working pie. And isn’t that an example to us all on how to embrace life?
In fact, Maconi has five grandchildren and their common refrain is, “Where’s Pop Pop?” Mike has three children, Alyssa, 46, Lyndsay, 37, and Philip, 34.
Maconi’s Mercer County, Rider University and Trenton Thunder contacts would lead him, mostly by chance, to the official scorer’s job with the Phillies.
To reconstruct the genesis of those relationships, we begin with Maconi, a history major, at Trenton State College. In the mid 80’s, he met a man there very familiar to baseball fans both in Philadelphia and New York. Broadcaster Tom McCarthy, who has been the play-by-play man for Phillies broadcasts since 2008. He spent the two prior years as the Mets’ play-by-play man on WFAN radio. And before that, he was the Trenton Thunder play-by-play man.
“Tommy was my all-star catcher in a summer league we played in during the late ‘80s,” said Maconi. “I was the player-manager of the team. We were in a fraternity (Alpha Chi Rho) together at Trenton State. I was the fraternity advisor. I’ve known him ever since. He’s the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off his back.”
Maconi’s background in his dad’s woodworking shop saw him gravitate toward that field. He worked in the college housing and operations field at the University of Delaware from 1978-1982.
“I was a housing manager in charge of two dorms at Delaware,” he said. “My dad was a carpenter by trade, so I grew up around a lot of trade guys. I got into the physical plant field at Delaware. After five years at Delaware, Maconi landed at what was then Trenton State College. He settled in as Director of Housing Operations for 18 years. That would lead to his final career stop at Rider.
Maconi was in charge of all of the physical parts of the Rider campus; buildings, grounds, maintenance, housekeeping and construction. “I owed it all to my dad,” he said. “I worked with him as long as I could remember in his woodworking shop. I would carry the lumber and sweep the sawdust when I was young. My best field is carpentry.”
The past rushed forward when Maconi received a call from McCarthy out of the blue in 1997. “He asked me if I ever thought of being an official scorer,” said Maconi. “The (Double-A) Trenton Thunder needed an official scorer, he told me.” McCarthy was still working his way up, broadcasting Thunder games. “A week later he called again and said they are really looking for someone. So I gave it a shot.”
Maconi was interviewed, quickly hired and spent 10 years as the Thunder’s official scorer. He may still be there if it wasn’t for McCarthy, who dialed Maconi’s number again one day in 2005.
“Tom calls and says, ‘The Phillies need an official scorer.’ I said, are you kidding me? Tom gave me the number for the Phillies director of baseball operations. I called her, got the interview and was hired on the spot. I’ve been there since.”
It’s been a terrific run for Maconi with the Phillies, capped off by the team’s 2008 World Series championship. Then there is the incredible experience of scoring Roy “Doc” Halladay’s no-hitter in the first game of the 2010 playoffs. That’s pretty significant considering the only other postseason no-hitter was Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series.
“I’ll never forget how it ended,” said Maconi. “The Reds were batting with two outs in the (top) of the ninth when Brandon Phillips hit a nubber down the first base line. The catcher, Carlos Ruiz, made a throw from his knees for the final out. He threw a seed to Ryan Howard at first. That was not an ordinary effort.” Score it 2-3 for Maconi.
Maconi still has the scorebook from the no-hitter. “I got permission from MLB and Halladay signed it for me.” Incredibly, Halladay tossed a perfect game in the regular season that year against the Florida Marlins, but that game was in Miami.
Maconi is the lead official scorer of the three official scorers used by the Phillies. “Most teams have three scorers, one per-game. MLB hires and pays all scorers,” he said. “Double market teams have four or five scorers. I used to do 50 of the 81 home games but I’m down to 34 games now. I make the schedule and assign the games. I want to give the newer guys games.”
Keeping score of a baseball game may not be a precise science, but being precise is critical. Each official scorer has his or her own method in preserving the details of a game.
“Everyone has their own shorthand,” says Maconi. “You have to be able to rebuild an inning, in case there is an error in the field and you need to determine an earned or unearned run. It’s become second nature to me now. It’s like brushing my teeth.”
Keeping an accounting of game details is also as open a book as a player’s or manager’s every move on the field.
“We have a mic so we can announce our decisions,” Maconi said. “(The audio is) carried in the press box, owner’s boxes, TV boxes, radio boxes and the executive offices.”
Maconi and his fellow official scorers utilize a tablet and a laptop. “We have a program that allows you to watch a replay from different views. You may watch a replay three or four times before you make a call into the mic.”
The one call Mike Maconi will always uphold is the one on whether or not to continue playing ball, even as a catcher at an age when most men are resigned to the strenuous activity provided by a golf course or chasing a grandchild around a swing set.
Maconi will do so despite the injuries that pile up as a course of playing ball for such a length of time and at an age when even age-defying athletes are more susceptible to the injury list.
“We play seven inning games and I catch all seven. Why wouldn’t I,” asks Maconi. “I was a center fielder and when I was about 45 our catcher got hurt. We needed somebody so I said I’d give it a shot. I fell in love with the position. That experience behind the plate has really helped me as an umpire.”
But the injuries do rear their ugly head.
“Injuries are part of the game,” he said. “I’ve had four shoulder operations and I’m still throwing well. I’ve had work done on my ankle, elbow and I’ve broken my nose in two places. I didn’t play from age 61-to-63 because I was recovering from rotator cuff surgery. I did not hesitate to come back.”
The best news on the injury front for Maconi is his knees are in good shape. “I think that’s from being an outfielder when I was younger.”
Still, Maconi plays as often as he can. His Over-65 summer league team, the South Jersey Spikes, keep him busy but not busy enough. He plays on two tournament teams, one is Over-65, the other Over-70. Yes, Maconi is “playing up.” Maconi is also playing in a baseball tournament over Memorial Day holiday in San Diego with a team from New Mexico. Maconi and two of his Spikes players were “recruited” to participate in the tournament.
“We won our tournament in Florida this year, the Roy Hobbs Sunshine Classic,” says Maconi, “both the 65 and 70 divisions.” There’s about nine of the same players on those two ageless juggernaut clubs.
And Mike does keep his boys, or should we say, old boys, in line in regard to the umpires his team encounters.
“It’s old man baseball and they tend to whine,” says Maconi. “And the umpires talk. I’m the player-manager, the GM. I tell the guys, ‘I don’t want you to say one thing to an ump. Umps make mistakes. They miss pitches.’ They know I’m an umpire.”
Last summer, for example, Maconi played in two leagues. Each league has a 20-game schedule, plus playoffs. He played six or seven games in Arizona and 12-to-14 games in Florida.
Now the little ones know where Pop Pop is.