For baseballers growing up in Crozet, Gene Sandridge’s strike call is something they all heard and likely haven’t forgotten. This is because, for over 25 years, the 69-year-old called baseball games from behind the plate for the Peachtree and Babe Ruth League, as well as the Virginia High School League. “I first started up at the field at what’s now the Field School which, when I was coming up, used to be the old elementary school,” said Sandridge. “Back then, it was an open field that didn’t have a fence, so if an outfielder made an error, a player might score a homerun when he should’ve probably only had a single.”
Sandridge’s three-decades-long love affair with Crozet baseball didn’t begin until his oldest son, Chris, turned six. “I’d always loved baseball and as a kid I used to listen to the Yankees playing on the radio whenever we could pick up the station,” he said, recalling the evenings he spent riveted to the news of now-legendary figures like Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and others. “I wanted to play, but we didn’t have the money and daddy said he needed my help with the chores. But I always listened to the games and, later on, watched them on television. I was a big, big fan.” When Chris expressed interest in the game—he’d been asking to play since he was four—Sandridge wanted give his son the opportunity to play baseball that he himself never had: And when the league needed an extra coach and Chris asked daddy if he’d do it? Well, Sandridge couldn’t say no.
That was 1985. Sandridge was 37 years old.
“As a coach, my biggest concern was to teach the kids how to play, and winning always came second,” said Sandridge. “If a kid wanted to learn, I tried to teach him as much as I could about how to play. I was inspired and I wanted to see all the kids have a good-time and get the opportunity to go as far with it as they wanted to go.” When Chris asked him to do it all over again the following year, Sandridge said yes.
By 1989, his second son, Troy, was entering the league. “I never wanted to force it on them and I wanted to make sure they still wanted me there, so every year I’d ask them, ‘Do you want me to be your coach?’ And they’d say, yes dad, we do,” said Sandridge. “That always made me feel really good. Like I was doing the right thing.” Ultimately, the cycle continued for 13 years, ending when both boys aged out of the league at 15.
When Chris entered high school, there came a new development. “He came to me and said he wanted to be an umpire, and he wanted me to go get certified with him so we could do it together,” said Sandridge. “Now, I’d been pulled out of the stands to call games at the league sometimes when we had a no-show, but I’d never really given any thought to becoming a certified umpire. However, I wanted to support my son, so I did it.” After acquiring VHSL certification, considering the fact most games required at least two umpires, Sandridge continued to support Chris by offering to serve along with him at games. “The problem with it was, if I didn’t do it, he’d have to rely on other people, which made for a lot of phone calls and scheduling, and even then, a lot of times, the other guy would end up not showing up or getting there late,” explained Sandridge. “I felt like that wasn’t something that was good for the kids, so I just told Chris I’d be his partner at it and that’s how we started calling games together.”
Working both the area high school and Peachtree games kept the two busy for nearly a decade. During that time, despite working the night shift as a police security officer at the University of Virginia, Sandridge was constantly seeking to improve as an umpire. “I hate to say it, but so many times you go somewhere and you see an umpire that favors one side or the other,” he said. “I didn’t think that was right—the umpire shouldn’t be the one that decides the game. So, I tried to learn as much as I possibly could, keep consistent, and be fair to the kids.
“Of course, when you’re umpiring, people are going to blame the ump. It took getting used to as a new umpire—when someone insulted you, you wanted to blow up. But you didn’t want to make a bad example for the kids, so you just had to keep a cool head and calm things down and keep your composure.”
Take, for instance, Sandridge’s approach to the strike zone. It’s not the easiest thing to judge an 80 mile-per-hour fastball relative to the batter’s true height (they tend to hunch) and the ball’s position over the plate. “What I realized after a while was the perfect way to place my head so as to be able to see the ball coming in without the catcher getting in the way,” he said. “Also, I’d position my line-of-sight even with the batter’s chest, so that way I could see exactly where the upper part of my strike zone was and simply glance down to see the plate. It’s a system I have, and while it definitely took some time to perfect, I think it keeps me consistent.”
Over the years, this emphasis on fairness and integrity—not to mention dependability—defined Sandridge’s reputation among coaches, parents and players. Once, while attending one of Troy’s high school games in Greene County, an umpire didn’t show. The coaches talked and, knowing Sandridge was certified, the opposing coach asked him to call the bases. Only, thing was, Troy was pitching. “I didn’t really want to do it, but I knew the boys needed me and so I went ahead and said yes,” he said. “I was afraid someone would wind up accusing me of cheating, but I tried to envision the game as if it was a different situation, like Troy wasn’t even there.”
Another time, at a Babe Ruth League game, a home plate umpire didn’t show. Sandridge was disgusted by the delay, and hunted down an old set of catcher’s equipment in the park’s storage shed. It was filthy and barely fit, but Sandridge dusted it off and jumped in behind the plate. “For me, it was always about the kids,” he said. “They wanted to play and I wanted to make sure they got to do that. It wasn’t their fault someone didn’t show up. They were there to play ball and I did what was necessary to make that happen.”
Sandridge’s dedication led him to be named coordinator for scheduling all the umpires at Peachtree Baseball league games. With three separate divisions, over 400 players and dozens of teams, to say the gig—which was a volunteer position—was demanding would be a drastic understatement. “Each division would play a couple games during the week and then three or four on the weekend,” said Sandridge. “Sometimes I’d be up late working on the schedule and every week I’d umpire at least a couple of games. But a lot of times someone would call in on a Monday and tell me they couldn’t make their Wednesday or Thursday game, and I’d call Chris and he’d look out for dad and come help me out. So yeah, it was a lot of work. But I loved every minute of it.”
Sandridge held the position for around six years before retiring. On his watch, an umpire never had to be pulled from the stands. And while that was largely due to his own willingness to step in, the point illustrates the selfless dedication for which Sandridge will be sorely missed. “We can fill his position, but we’ll certainly never be able to replace him,” said Cheryl Madison, the current president of the Peachtree Baseball League. She’s worked with the organization for 23 years. “Gene was always thinking about the kids and went above and beyond to put them first. He did so much for this organization and our community, and we’re just so grateful for his contributions. He was sort of a quiet hero, and definitely a great role-model for our kids.”
After Sandridge announced his retirement last fall, the league held a surprise ceremony at his final game and presented him with a commemorative plaque.
“I feel like I’ve put in my time,” he said. “It’s not so much that I can’t do it any more as that I feel like it’s time for the young folks to step in and take over. I feel privileged to have been able to do this for as long as I did, and to have had the opportunity to get to know so many great kids. The fact that they still come up to me today and want to say hello and thanks, that makes all the time and energy I put into it more than worth it.”
Meanwhile, with his first grandchild approaching baseball age, when pressed, Sandridge revealed his retirement from umpiring may be freeing up space for a coaching comeback. “My grandson is three years old and will be turning four this June, and already he loves to play catch and swing the bat,” Sandridge confided with a laugh. “If he comes to me next year and says, ‘Granddaddy, will you be my coach?’ I can assure you that little voice will be tough to say no to!”