STRATTANVILLE, Pa. – Hopefully, I don’t screw up on ESPN.
That was what Justin Skiba said – mainly joking – when talking about an experience of a lifetime that will be taking place over the next week.
Skiba, a Strattanville resident and Clarion-Limestone and Clarion University graduate, will be umpiring in the Little League Major Division regional tournaments in Bristol, Conn.
“That is how I keep myself grounded,” Skiba, who has been umpiring for nearly three decades, said of remarking about not screwing up on ESPN. “This is going to be fun, it is going to be fun. I want to go up there and do a good job. It is a big step in my ultimate goal, and I am really looking forward to this.”
The regional tournaments are a step before the Little League World Series in Williamsport, which is Skiba’s ultimate goal. There are three regional tournaments going on at the same time in Bristol including the Mid-Atlantic Region (Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Washington, D.C.), the Metro Region (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island), and the New England Region (Massachusetts, Vermont, Main, and New Hampshire) with games running Saturday, Aug. 5, through Friday, Aug. 11. Skiba will find out which games he will be doing when he gets to Bristol.
And while this will be Skiba’s fourth Regional tournament – he umpired in the 2012 Senior League Regional, the 2016 Junior League Regional, and the 2019 Junior Softball Regional – this will be the first time he is umpiring in a Regional tournament of the division everyone thinks about and associates with Little League, the 11- and 12-year olds.
“It’s been a long process,” Skiba said. “You have to do it for so many years before opportunities like this come along. You get recommendations and then fill out a form with your experiences. You then wait to see if you get selected. I found out in mid-February that I was selected.”
Finishing up his 27th year in umpiring, Skba, got his start on the Little League field at Clarion’s Paul A. Weaver Park.
“I was 16 when I started umpiring,” Skiba said. “I started umpiring the bases in the Clarion Little League. It was probably in year two that I started doing behind the plate, but it could have been in that first year. It is so long ago, I can’t remember.
Umpiring in the Major Division comes with a bit more prestige and a bit more pressure but also with a lot of excitement for the veteran umpire.
“This is the one everyone wants,” Skiba said. “Honestly, I did a double take when I found out I was working. Henry Ho, who is doing the Junior League tournament, texted me that he had received his assignment. I was sitting at the light at the (Clarion) Mall going to work at the Psych Center. I don’t think words could express how I felt when I got the email. This is the one I have been working on getting.”
Working on getting to Regionals or the World Series, wasn’t always on Skiba’s mind.
“When I first started in the 1990s, I don’t think it was even a thought,” Skiba said.”As I did it longer and longer it started to become a dream of mind to go to Williamsport. I think it has been a while since I have gotten goosebumps on a field, but the first time I step on Breen Field in Bristol, I am going to get goosebumps.”
Part of what will cause those goosebumps is the attention and importance put on the games.
“It’s going to be a different experience with replays and challenges, etc.,” Skiba said. “It’s going to be fun. I have been looking forward to it and keeping everything in perspective. The nerves will be there for the first time in years when I step on the field for game one, but it is going to be fun.”
Skiba said it is important to keep reminding himself that these games, which are televised nationally on ESPN, are just baseball games involving kids.
“Yeah, you feel extra pressure,” Skiba said. “But it is a ball game. I have umpired 100s of ball games in my life. Once the nerves get out and I get a few innings in, it is just going to be another game. I will do the best I can do.”
Skiba said he wants to do a good job not only for himself but for the umpires he works with all year long whether at the Little League or high school level.
“I want to go and do a good job for the umpires in this area and, hopefully, get a World Series recommendation by the time it is all said and done.”
According to Skiba, officiating isn’t easy. Sometimes, calls don’t go the way of a team and fans, coaches, and players can get upset. But he takes it all in stride because he loves doing it.
“It wasn’t always easy,” Skiba said. “I almost quit one time. But you get this feeling inside you. You enjoy it, and you keep doing it. You don’t make a lot of money, but you absolutely do it for the love of the game.”
According to Skiba, it takes a lot of hard work and dedication to become a good official.
“It has been a work in progress,” Skiba said. “Officiating isn’t easy. We have to make quick decisions. It’s like any craft, music, whatever. It is a craft, and we have to work to be perfect. Am I perfect? I would be lying if I said I have never blown a call. That would be BS.
Skiba said a big appeal to him in officiating – he also referees high school basketball – is it gives him a way to stay in the games he loves.
“I don’t care what game it is, whether it be baseball, football, basketball, or something else,” Skiba said. “I played baseball through American Legion, and this gives me a way to stay with the game. I have made great friends through the officiating ranks, and there is great camaraderie from people that comes from this. It keeps me involved in the game, and, honestly, I enjoy it.”
Skiba will have his biggest supporter, his wife, Karen, with him in Bristol.
“I love her to death,” Skiba said. “She is going to Connecticut with me for this awesome ride, and she is my biggest supporter.”