By Bill McCaughey
For the Fort Bend Star
Last Christmas, Bruce Hicks casually opened a letter from Little League International, an organization Hicks has been actively involved in for over 22 years.
“As I read the letter, I just started yelling and jumping up and down,” Hicks said. “My wife, Jan, and my daughter, Lexi, came running into the room to see if I was OK.”
Hicks was more than OK. He had just been selected to be one of 16 umpires at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Penn., in August.
“For a volunteer Little League umpire, being selected to go to Williamsport is the greatest honor you can receive,” Hicks said. “There are so many umpires who are deserving to go, but they only select 16 each year.”
Bruce blames his son Ben for getting him started as a Little League umpire.
“When Ben was in Little League, I wanted to be involved but didn’t really want to be a coach,” Hicks said. “I started umpiring 22 years ago and have stayed with it long after Ben out-grew Little League.”
Little League baseball has several age levels but the one most familiar to everyone is the 11 to 12-year old age group. The First Colony Little League has five teams in the major league, or 11 to 12-year old league. After the local season ends, an all-star team is selected to compete in district play. First Colony is in District 16. The winner of the district tournament advances to sectional play and the sectional winner advances to the state tournament.
For Little League purposes, Texas is considered two states, Texas East and Texas West. The state winner then advances to one of eight regions. Texas East is in the Southwest Region along with Texas West, New Mexico, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. The region winner is one of eight United States teams to advance to the World Series.
Hicks began his umpiring career at First Colony Little League. After four years he was selected to umpire in the district tournaments. After another four years, Hicks was selected to umpire in the sectional tournament. In 2005, 2007 and 2008, Hicks umpired in the state championship, and in 2010 and 2016, he was selected to umpire in the Southwest Regional tournament.
To be selected for any of the tournaments, an umpire must apply and receive recommendations from the tournament directors at the various levels. To be selected for the World Series, Hicks was recommended by the Southwest Region director and his previous tournament evaluations were analyzed.
Jimmy Goldman, a former umpire with Hicks, believes Hicks is at the elite level of Little League umpiring.
“He is at the top of the scale when it comes to umpiring, but more importantly Bruce is involved in helping children all over the community, not just those in Little League,” Goldman said. “His devotion to kids is matchless. He is the model for fun in baseball.”
Hicks and Goldman are both on the Board of Directors of the Dream League, the Challenger Division of the First Colony Little League. The Dream League enables kids with physical or intellectual disabilities a chance to play baseball. In 2015, the Dream League was invited to Williamsport to play in an exhibition game during the Little League World Series.
“Our players were well received by everyone at Williamsport. The Pearland Little League team was playing in the championship game later that afternoon, and they skipped their final practice to come watch our Dream Leaguers,” Hicks said.
A tradition at the Little League World Series is to trade pins. A pin is the size of a coin and has a design on it typically related to the person’s hometown. Hicks’ pin has an umpire with a longhorn cattle head making a call. He intends to take several hundred pins with him to trade with the kids.
A pin he won’t be trading is that of his umpiring mentor, Bob Hatter.
“Bob helped me tremendously when I was just starting out as an umpire, and he continued to help me over the years,” Hicks said. “Bob was selected to umpire the Little League World Series in 2006. Unfortunately, he died of leukemia before he could make it to Williamsport. I will have Bob’s pin in my ball bag when I umpire behind the plate at this year’s World Series. He will be helping me call the game just as he has for the past 22 years.”
Hicks will also honor his son, who will be traveling with him to Williamsport.
“My son Ben also umpired after his playing days were over,” Hicks said. “When Ben was an umpire, his uniform number was 68. Since he was the one to get me started in all of this, I will be wearing number 68 at the World Series.”
In addition to enjoying being around the kids, Hicks said the camaraderie of the umpires is unforgettable.
“During a game, we act as a crew and we all have each other’s back. But after the games are over for the day, we get together over dinner, and maybe a (soft) drink or two, and enjoy needling each other,” Hicks said. “We can be merciless, but we are a very select fraternity and we enjoy our time together.”
Hicks will arrive in Williamsport on Aug. 15. Jan, Ben and Lexi will be there for parts of the two weeks.
“Little League baseball has been a family activity for 22 years. Jan, Ben Lexi and (my other daughter) Jennifer have helped me so much, I want them there to share the experience,” Hicks said.
The Little League World Series will run from Aug. 17-27. All of the games will be televised by ESPN and ABC.