Joe Winniford has been umpiring little league for 32 years and high school baseball for 29 years. He still hasn’t gotten tired of it.
The 61-year-old Port Orchard resident and Gig Harbor restaurant owner has served in the United States Navy, including two tours in Vietnam during the war. He has owned a construction business, which he recently sold, as well as owning JW Restaurant in Gig Harbor. He has lived in California and the Pacific Northwest, and has led a successful and busy life.
But there’s one thing that’ll make him beam with pride perhaps more than any of those things: Umpiring baseball.
Winniford is the Umpire in Chief for Washington’s Little League District 2, which spans from Gig Harbor to Port Angeles.
He has umpired games for most, if not all, the 14 leagues in that area.
“I have a passion for baseball,” Winniford said. “I love the camaraderie between the umpires. Little league is special in my heart.”
Winniford also umpires high school baseball and in the past, has done some college baseball. But little league is unique.
“It’s priceless,” Winniford said. “At all levels, they’re just out there to have fun. … It’s a program that was created to build character, citizenship, loyalty and just good people in the community, to bring them up as good citizens. It’s not always a positive experience, but it’s the negative things that happen that form our personalities, they form our character, who we are and what we will become. That’s the beauty of little league. When I hear people complain that the umpire cost us the game today, what I reply to people is use that as a teaching moment. Things are going to happen like that in life, teach them how to deal with that.”
Winniford had the chance to be part of a special situation the past spring. He was selected as the home plate umpire for the Class 3A state title game at Safeco Field. And who happened to make (and win) that game? The Gig Harbor Tides.
“It was phenomenal, very exciting and very rewarding,” Winniford said. “I have known (Gig Harbor head coach Pete Jansen) for probably 25 years at Gig Harbor. Being of having Gig Harbor in the championship game, being close to the community, having a restaurant in the community, and knowing a lot of fans in the stands, that made it extra special.”
Winniford said he had no issue remaining professional and calling the game fairly.
“My job is to do my job so that one team doesn’t gain an advantage over the other,” Winniford said. “So I did that. But you’re only human. In the back of your mind, you’re only human, you’re rooting a bit for a certain team. I was rooting for Gig Harbor, I have to be honest. It made it extra special that they were there.”
Winniford has umpired other local teams deep in the state playoffs, such as South Kitsap.
He also has umpired games in the 1999 and 2006 Little League World Series, which were in Arizona and Maine, respectively.
“There’s no way I could do any of this without my wife and my family’s support,” Winniford said.
For Winniford, umpiring little league is a labor of love. It certainly isn’t a money-maker.
“People ask me all the time, ‘You must make a lot of money doing little league, right?’” Winniford said. “I spend more money doing little league than I’ve ever made in college and high school combined. I maybe made $4,000 or so from high school and college, and spent 7 or 8 (thousand) doing little league. We’re very proud of the fact that we’re pretty much an all-volunteer organization.”
As Umpire in Chief for District 2, Winniford’s responsibilities are generally administrative now, rather than calling games. He travels around the country training umpires and locally, assisting umpires and working to retain umpires.
“I’ve worked very hard at doing what I do,” Winniford said. “I think I make a difference. I want to come back and keep making that difference.”
He has cut back on work, spending more time with his wife, Karen. But little league? He plans to keep doing that.
“As long as I have my health and my wife’s support, I don’t see a retirement date,” Winniford said.