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Vanisko: Striking out against the elements for some baseball

When the temperature is about zero and there is a foot of snow – or so – on the ground, there are a lot worse ways you can spend your evening than venturing out to listen to guys talk about baseball.

That was the case as The Old Timers Baseball Association and about 500 attendees battled the elements to attend the annual Baseball Reunion Jan. 31.

The Old Timers, who are celebrating their 70th anniversary this year, do great work in the community. Each year, they provide tens of thousands of dollars in financial support for numerous baseball and softball organizations. A good chunk of the money they raise each year comes from this annual event.

The guest speaker for this year’s event was Mark Carlson, who has spent the last 20 years as an MLB umpire.

The Joliet native has worked multiple playoff series, including the Cubs’ 2015 division series win over the Cardinals. Carlson went on to work the World Series that year as well.

His résumé is filled with everything imaginable for an umpire who has earned his stripes.

Carlson went to Joliet West and Parkland College and began his career officiating youth and high school sports in the area. I spent my younger years as an official as well.

It’s unlikely he remembers, but we worked a weeknight JV football game together in the early ’90s at Morris High School.

As it turns out, there was a controversial fumble in that game. Mark and I had the recovery for Bolingbrook, and the other official had it for Morris. We huddled up and gave the ball to Bolingbrook. Legendary Morris coach Dan Darlington was none too pleased with our decision and spent the rest of the evening jawing at us. By the way, Morris’ JV team won the game.

Obviously, that experience pales in comparison with what Carlson has dealt with in his 20 years as an MLB umpire. During his presentation, he shared a few tidbits, including the infamous story about former Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano, when he threw the ball from home plate into the outfield stands to protest a call Carlson had made.

Carlson took questions about myriad topics and steadfastly maintained he was a “Chicago fan” and not necessarily a fan of either the Cubs or Sox.

There was one consistent line of questioning – instant replay. He toed the company line when responding, saying “we want to get the call correct,” but you have to wonder what he really thinks. Then a question was asked about an electronic strike zone. Carlson had an interesting response, saying the “K-zone” you see on TV is really inaccurate. He said the electronic grading system MLB umpires are judged by showed an over 97 percent accuracy rate for all umpires during the 2018 season.

Wrapping up, he was also asked about his favorite ballparks. He mentioned PNC Park in Pittsburgh; Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City; and a few old parks that had been rehabbed, including Wrigley Field.

Then, he quickly pivoted and said he liked Guaranteed Rate Field, too. After all, he’s a “Chicago fan” and has to be impartial.

• Steve Vanisko is the publisher of The Herald-News. He can be reached at or 815-280-4103.

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