On October 25, 2016, as the Cleveland Indians prepared to take on the Chicago Cubs at home, Owensboro was abuzz at the sight of a familiar face. After 37 years in professional baseball, 24 of them as a major league umpire, Larry Vanover was working home plate in his first ever World Series.
Vanover’s resume includes three League Championship Series, three Division Series, and two All-Star games, before being selected for arguably one of the most historic World Series of all time. Now back in Owensboro for the next three months, Vanover says of the experience, “I was honored that Joe Torre and Commissioner Manfred had the confidence in me to assign me the World Series. To open this historic series on the plate, and be in charge of replays for five games was a tremendous honor and privilege…(a feeling that) cannot be described!”
Growing up Baseball
When he was a young boy, Vanover “ate and slept baseball.” He played third base and pitched for Daviess County High School and was a walk-on at the University of Kentucky, after spending two years at Brescia in Engineering. Vanover only played one year at UK before a new coach took over. Sensing that it was a good time to take a break, he responded to an invitation from a few scouts and went to Florida to try out with both the Reds and Cardinals. Although Vanover really enjoyed playing the game, it was actually his side job that would eventually pay off for him. While in Daviess County, he had umpired at night for both Owensboro and County Babe Ruth Baseball. Then, when he got to UK, he took on part-time jobs refereeing basketball and umpiring lower level college baseball. While he was working a game in Lexington, one of the scouts saw him and suggested he give umpiring a try. He attended The Harry Wendelstedt Umpire School in Ormond Beach, Florida, and went on to serve as an instructor, as well.
Doing His Time
Someone once told Vanover that, “If you can find a hobby to do for a living, you’ll never have to go to work.” While this may be true, he soon found that it did not seem to apply to umpiring in the minor leagues. He spent twelve grueling years in the minors making very little pay in a “put up or shut up” environment. The goal for umpires is to make it through all five levels of baseball, and reach the majors. Unlike players, umpires may not skip a level, meaning the promotion rate for umpires is only about one per year. In his eleventh season, just when it seemed that Vanover was finally going to have his shot, his world came to a screeching halt. The day before he was supposed to report to the National League, he was in a horrific car accident in Denver that caused him to spend three weeks in the hospital, six months in rehabilitation, and miss the entire season. Against all odds and doctors’ predictions, in March of 1993, he returned full time and never looked back.
Welcome to the Bigs
One of the humbling benefits about working his way through the minor league system was that the same players that Vanover idolized as a small boy were now up close and sharing the same ball diamond. He recalls being at AAA Dodger Camp and seeing childhood hero Sandy Koufax walking around as a pitching coach. He also remembers the first game that he ever worked behind home plate, where he found himself in the company of legendary players turned managers Pete Rose and Whitey Herzog.
However, it was in 1997 that Vanover feels he really started to understand the reciprocal relationship that exists between umpires, players, and managers. He was a young umpire “getting into it with Bobby Bonilla,” and would eventually throw Bonilla out of the game. Marlins manager Jim Leland came out and had a talk with Vanover and helped him to see the situation from both perspectives. Vanover says, “My dad taught me to get respect, you give respect. Jim reminded me of that. Over the years, I got along very well with Jim Leland.”
For Love of the Game
While Vanover has had some incredible experiences that could fill hundreds of ESPN reels, he does have a few favorites. One of his proudest accomplishments is being named Crew Chief, and, in March 2014, he was the first umpire to rule on expanded instant replay from MLB Advance Media headquarters in New York. Another experience that he values occurred during Mariano Rivera’s last year with the New York Yankees. Rivera wanted to have a Spring Training game between the Yankees and Marlins in his home country of Panama in order to raise funds for a children’s hospital he was building. Vanover was not only able to work those two games, but also take both of his boys to see the Panama Canal and a beautiful new country. In July of 2016, Major League Baseball transformed what was once a golf course driving range at Fort Bragg, the largest Army base in the United States, into a regulation major league ball diamond. Vanover says it was a whirlwind of a weekend, playing four games in three days, but it was worth it to have that experience surrounded by the men and women who proudly serve our country.
During Derek Jeter’s last game in Boston, Vanover was working behind the plate. “It was really neat to see how Boston handled that game, they were very classy.” Jeter’s last hit was down the third base line, a hit most would refer to as a swinging bunt, but Vanover says, “The whole game stopped. He walked around the infield shaking hands and I just sat back and watched the whole thing unfold.”
Another significant moment in his career was the opportunity to work Vin Scully’s last game at Dodger Stadium. The legendary “Voice of the Dodgers” has a reputation for showing the umpires of the game a tremendous amount of respect, and they show him the same. At every Dodgers game, for over ten years, it has become customary for the umpires to tip their hats to Scully as they cross home plate, while he salutes them back. Vanover says that he usually went up to Vin’s booth and talked baseball when he worked the Dodger games, and that is a relationship that he will dearly miss.
Aside from magical moments, Vanover has also seen historic eras of players, from the home run era of Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa to legendary pitchers Greg Maddox and John Smoltz. Vanover says, “I have started to see some of those players retire…and I’m now umpiring for sons of former players,” mentioning the late Hall of Fame hitter Tony Gwynn, as well as Prince Fielder. “The neat part is, I’m now seeing a whole new generation come along. I remember the first time Rizzo stepped onto the field…A few years later he is playing in the World Series, and has become one of baseball’s premiere players.”
Striving for Perfection
Whenever a game comes down to the wire, there are times that the umpire’s calls tend to come into question. Vanover says, “You are expected to be perfect in every game every night. No one can be perfect all of the time, but we do our best.” Vanover says that over the last ten years, his office has been “doing astronomical work,” and has made great strides towards getting better and better in accuracy, increasing to an average of 96% behind the plate and 98-99% in the field. As far as staying fit, Vanover says that “the job itself is not real conducive to physical fitness,” but he tries to maintain a consistent sleep, diet, and work-out regimen. Vanover has also been lucky on the field, saying that, aside from a few twists and strains, the worst injury he has endured was a bad concussion from a foul ball off of the top of his mask.
The constant travel away from home during the months of March through October makes it hard on family life, but Vanover considers himself a very lucky man. “I have to give Dianne all of the credit in the world…she is the glue that holds everything together.” But he also realizes that, “It takes a full family effort to make it work.” When his boys, Tyler and Austin, were younger, he tried to be there for their sporting events. “I made a point to get home as much as I could…I had the experience of watching them play and they had the experience of going with me to the ballpark.” His boys have had a lot of enviable experiences, aside from attending regular season and World Series games. They have been in the batting cage with sluggers like Albert Pujols, David “Big Papi” Ortiz, and Evan Longoria, and have also had the opportunity to tour Air Force One.
As far as the future is concerned, Vanover says that his family is doing well, and he still loves what he does. Overall, “I consider myself an American success story. I’ve done everything you’re supposed to do. I set a goal. I worked hard. And finally, you wake up one day and you’re there.”