By Chad Wingert
MIDLAND — Most people go to the ballpark to watch talented baseball players while soaking up some summer sun.
But last week, fans from around the Thumb area traveled to Dow Diamond not to watch the baseball players on the field, but to watch the umpire crew.
During the Great Lakes Loons mid-week series with the Bowling Green Hot Rods, Mayville’s John Libka and his squad took the field in front of family and friends every night during the three-game series. Libka, now in his third year of umpiring Minor League baseball, is making his first tour through the Midwest League and last Wednesday through Friday, he made his only stop of the year in Midland.
“I was kind of disappointed when I got my schedule and saw that I was only going to Midland once. I realized this week though, that only being here a few days made the experience more special,” Libka said.
Friends and family of Libka’s filled the stands for each and every night of the series. But Libka said that his biggest crowd came Thursday when he worked home plate in a 12-3 loss for the Loons.
“ People came to watch me every night but Thursday night there were 50 or more people there to watch me work the plate, and it really wasn’t an interesting game,” Libka said with a laugh. “But, to look around and see so many familiar faces was very special. I’ll never forget it.”
After graduating from Wendelstedt Umpire School in Ormand Beach, FL, Libka hopped on the fast track to the minors.
Libka, a 2005 graduate of Juniata Christian School, spent his first year in the Gulf Coast League, his second in the New York Penn League and now, Libka has made his way back to the Midwest region of the country.
However, Libka’s stint in the MWL will be a short one. One year around home and then it’s back on the fast track to the Majors.
“I was assigned to this league at the beginning of the year and I’ll just work games in this league for a year,” Libka said. “We are all evaluated during the year and ranked by our level at mid-season. Then, at the end of the season, we are promoted accordingly.”
Libka has loved every inning of his umpiring experience, including the past two seasons in the Gulf Coast League and the New York Penn League. But Libka admits that ever since he got his start in Minor League Baseball, he’s been anxious to work a league that’s a little closer to home.
“I’ve been looking forward to being in the MWL ever since I broke into pro ball. It’s just a really calming feeling being in an area that you are familiar with and comfortable with as well,” Libka said. “It’s always fun having family and friends come out to games.”
“Last weekend (May 19-20), I worked the plate for a West Michigan game in front of a crowd of 9,200 and my dad and uncle were there. That was the biggest crowd I’ve worked in front of in my entire career and it was special to have them there for that.”
Libka may have only had one short stop in Dow Diamond in Midland but since the beginning of the season, he has also been able to umpire games for the West Michigan Whitecaps in Comstock Park and the Lansing Lugnuts at Cooley Law School Stadium.
“All three towns in Michigan are fun to work in. West Michigan has a very large stadium and they draw well. It’s just a good atmosphere. Lansing has kind of an ‘old school’ feel to it, and they also draw good crowds,” said Libka. “But, the facilities at Dow Diamond are second to none. They have a first-class organization and facility. Plus, it’s closest to home. I have really enjoyed working at all three places.”
Libka is enjoying working his way through the ranks of Minor League Baseball and enjoying seeing the country through America’s pastime. But, for as much fun as Libka is having on a daily basis, he is still very focused on his goal of becoming a Major League Baseball umpire.
“Making it to the big leagues is still the goal. It’s a long road, and very tough at times. But, when times get tough I just think ‘What better job for a 24-year-old, single guy?’ I get to travel the country, see all of these cool places and experience baseball as it was meant to be. And, I get paid to do it,” Libka said with a smile. “I know I’m very blessed and I’m very thankful for every opportunity I’ve been given.”
“I’ve moved up a level every year, which is a good pace. So, if I can continue like this, I’ll be just fine.”
There are still a lot of games left on Libka’s MWL schedule. But, he’s already circled a particular set of games that’s set to take place in the beginning of July.
“I’m really looking forward to our mid-summer series in Lansing. Being a weekend series in the middle of the summer, I’m sure the atmosphere will be second to none,” Libka said. “We are actually there on the Fourth of July, so I’m sure that series will be a special one.”
Chad Wingert is the Sports Editor of the Advertiser and can be reached at Sports@tcadvertiser.com. For Wingert’s original story done on Libka in July of 2010, go to www.tuscolatoday.com and search “John Libka”.