By Lori Gottula
When long-time umpire Doug Kottich decided to retire, he told no one but his wife, Diana. He wanted the sun to set on his umping career without fanfare. He wanted to just walk off the field after his final game, and drive home to his recliner without notice.
“I didn’t want to make a big deal about it,” he said.
That’s why, when he donned his chest protector for the final time last Thursday night, no one knew. It was Falls City’s last home softball game of the season, and the Tigers were playing Syracuse. But no one on the field knew that it was Doug’s last game. Neither did anyone in the press box, the dugouts, or in the stands. No one, that is, but Diana.
She casually mentioned to Randy Gottula that the game would be Doug’s last, and Randy told Falls City’s baseball coach, Kory Huppert. Before the bottom of the fourth inning, as Syracuse took the field, Kory picked up the announcer’s mic, and asked for everyone’s attention.
“I’ve just learned that tonight’s game is the last for umpire Doug Kottich, who is retiring,” he said. “Please give him a round of applause for serving as an umpire for 43 years, with 20 of those for high school softball.”
With those two sentences, suddenly everyone knew. Fans throughout the stands jumped to their feet with raucous applause. The players for both teams did the same. Then Syracuse’s assistant coach, who had pitched for Syracuse several years prior, walked out from the visiting dugout, took Doug’s hand, and raised his arm in the air, like a referee signaling the winner in a boxing match.
“You umpired when I pitched,” she said to Doug, “And I just felt like I needed to do this.”
That simple act elicited even more applause. Then, when she left the field, Syracuse’s catcher turned around and asked to shake Doug’s hand.
“No visiting catcher has ever done that before,” Doug said. It was a magical moment. And it was just the beginning of a very special night.
Doug began his career as an umpire in 1973 when his dad, Sterling Kottich, told him that he needed to get involved with summer recreation. His first game was behind the plate for a Pee Wee League game. As he gained experience, he advanced into the older age groups in summer rec, then started umpiring American Legion ball games, as well as Travelers’ softball. He started doing high school softball games in 1996.
Doug’s primary job for the past 31 years has been as a salesman/warehouse worker for
Falls City Mercantile. Most nights during the warmer months, though, he could be found on a
ball diamond somewhere calling strikes and balls, and yelling “She’s ooouuuuuttt,” in that
gravelly voice that long-time umpires earn.
His third job involves his main passion in life (besides his family!), and that is music.
With a degree in music education, Doug was trained as a classical pianist, and serves as the
organist/pianist at Zion United Church of Christ, and the First Christian Church of Falls City. He
also accompanies and sings with The Clefsmen, and plays for weddings and funerals in the area.
Needless to say, Doug is a busy man. But no matter how busy he has been, he just
couldn’t envision his life without his blue shirt. Until, that is, some of his 11 grandchildren
started playing sports.
“All of them live away from Falls City,” Doug said, “So I knew when they got
involved in activities, I would want to be watching them rather than working behind the plate. I
just decided to keep doing it as long as I could.”
But there was one other reason that he decided to stick it out this long. That reason was
Falls City High School’s first baseman, Erin Brewer.
“She has the most natural swing I’ve seen in a long time,” Doug said. “She was and is
one of the best hitters I’ve ever worked with. When she was 14, she would pound homers over
the fence all the time. Her team that year went to the state tournament, and defeated Fairbury by
ten runs in the championship game. I told my wife that I wanted to stick this out long enough to
see her hit one over the fence for Falls City High School.”
Erin, who is a junior this year, has done so several times. So Doug decided that
Falls City’s final home game this season would be his last, too. Like everyone else at Hartman
Field, Erin Brewer had no idea. But when she led off for the Tigers in the bottom of the fifth
inning, she drilled a sweet one over the fence.
“It was as if it was meant to be,” Doug said.
Erin’s homer, and the way that the game ended, made Thursday night’s game Doug’s
most memorable game ever. The air was crackling with excitement as the Syracuse Rockets and
Falls City Tigers battled it out neck-in-neck, and entered the top of the seventh inning tied at 2 –
As an umpire—especially the official behind the plate—Doug remained impartial and
just did his job. But his heart started pounding when Syracuse scored a run in the top of the
seventh, and went up by one. The Tigers then hustled to the dugout, and the fans rose to their
feet. The players gripped the home team fence, and cheers filled the air. The Tigers refused to go
down without a fight. The lead-off batter hit a pop fly to second base for the first out, but Falls
City still had two more chances.
Catcher Molly Brown then walked up to the plate and hit a triple, and suddenly Falls City
had its tying run on third base. Shortstop Rylee Scholl came up to bat next. She had already
pounded a homer over the fence in the first inning, and there were several batters behind her who
could do the same, including Erin Brewer. But Rylee sauntered up to the plate, swung the bat
like she meant it, and sent the ball sailing out of the park.
Doug remained the ultimate professional as he watched Molly score, watched Rylee run
the bases, and listened to the home crowd roar. But when Rylee’s foot crossed the plate, and
Doug declared the game over, he was officially an umpire no more.
“All I felt was complete bliss,” he said. “It was the perfect game to end my career. I
couldn’t have choreographed it any better if I had tried.”
Several people shook his hand afterward, and thanked him for his services. Then the man
in blue walked off the field, quietly thankful that everyone now knew. And the sun set on a very
special game—one that ended a man’s career the way he deserved. With fanfare.