You had to wonder just how far Jean Shoppe manager Dal Sanders was prepared to go with this.
Rusty Bumgardner was in the opposing dugout. National home run leader Jeff Wallace was across the hill on Field 3 at Sandy Springs Park in another.
Sanders was losing his cool with home plate umpire Patty Giffin on a disputed call at second in a Smoky Mountain Classic elimination game last Saturday night. It was getting loud. The language was getting ugly.
Sanders seemingly towered over the 5-foot-6, 110-pound Giffin, still the only female to umpire a game at the Classic in the 41-year history of the tournament.
Bumgardner and Wallace, two giants of men’s major slow-pitch softball nationally, both literally and figuratively, have a genuine soft spot for the 57-year-old Giffin. They ask about her by name when they return each summer.
If Sanders goes to far …
Oops, there he goes.
Out comes the hook.
Sanders is tossed.
“My partner got blocked on the play,” Giffin said. “That’s why he came to me. That’s why you have two umpires. That’s what he’s supposed to do if he thinks I have a better view.
“I said, ‘I saw a catch; he had control of the ball; I have an out.’ That’s when that guy (Sanders) went ballistic.
“When they get up in my personal space, I’m not going to be abused. Whether you get the call right or not, I’m not going to let a coach or player abuse me. I’m not going to put up with somebody cussing me or that kind of thing.”
Had their assistance been needed, Wallace of tournament champion Resmondo and Bumgardner of third-place finisher Dan Smith/Menosse would have been quick to come to Giffin’s aid, Blount County Parks & Recreation superintendent of athletics Chris Clark said.
“She’s earned the respect of a lot of players,” Clark said. “Rusty Bumgardner asked how’s her health as soon as he got here. Jeff Wallace did the same thing.”
Giffin, a 6th grade science teacher at Madisonville Middle School, is both loved and respected by some of the biggest names in the game for a couple of reasons. They trust her work. They know she won’t be pushed around.
“If you’re intimidated, you’d better not go out there,” Giffin said. “If they see you’re intimidated, they’re going to walk all over you.”
Giffin played basketball at Maryville High School back in the early 1970s. She made the all-county team her senior season with the Lady Rebels, but her love had always been softball, a sport the school didn’t offer at the time. Giffin stayed with softball through the Maryville Tomboys, a parks & rec-sponsored summer team.
After high school, Giffin played softball wherever she could. She fell in with a team in a Knoxville league in the early 1980s. There she would strike up a longtime friendship that would change the course of her sporting life.
Cartha Doyle Childress was already one of the best umpires in Knoxville by the time Giffin came along. Childress, 79, had a storied history in both baseball and softball. A true maverick, she’d played for the Rockford Peaches of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League during the World War II year. The story of that team would become the subject of the Hollywood film “A League of Their Own.”
Childress saw an eye for detail she liked in Giffin right away. There was a real shortage of female umpires in softball. It didn’t take much convincing for Giffin to decide to give it a shot.
“I knew her from playing ball, and I was trying to get some females into the umpires association,” Childress said, “and she’s been umpiring ever since.”
When Giffin informed her what happened at the park on Saturday, Childress said she applauded her friend’s decisive action.
“She told me what he said,” Childress said. “I said, ‘That’s the thing to do; put him on the hill.’ You can’t take stuff like that.”
Not bad for a 79-year-old, huh?
“She doesn’t act like it, does she?” Giffin said.
Giffin’s reputation as one of the area’s top umpires soon spread after she moved behind the plate. She began working bigger and bigger tournaments. In 1982, a tournament director from Nashville called, extending Giffin an invitation to officiate a national event.
“He said, ‘Are you ready for the big time? Are you ready to do a national event?’” Giffin said. “I was so nervous, but I was excited. If you get so nervous you can’t do the job, that’s bad, but some nervousness keeps you on top of your game.”
It’s hard not to be impressed with Giffin, parks & rec executive director Joe Huff said. She shows up for work on time. Her uniform is always - always - creased and sharp. She knows the rules and how to apply them.
“The thing about Patty is she’s strictly by the book,” Huff said. “She does everything professionally. If you ever have a question about rule interpretation, you ask Patty.
“It’s not that she’s one of the best female umpires. She’s one of the best umpires. Period.”
Giffin worked her first Classic in 1983. It was tough in those early years, she said.
But something more dire five years ago would endear Giffin to players and officials in a way respect for her talents as an umpire could never approach.
Cancer would prove even tougher than umpiring.
She found the lump on New Years Eve, 2004. It was probably be nothing, Giffin said she remembers thinking. A mammogram four months earlier had come back negative. She’d always been pretty healthy, but just to make sure, she said, she decided to have it checked out.
Soon after, Giffin got a call at her school. The biopsy had returned positive. At 52, she had breast cancer.
“You don’t ever want to hear that,” Giffin said. “The doctor was straight forward, though. I like doctors like that.”
Getting rid of the cancer required a mastectomy and chemotherapy. Her friend battled, Childress said, but it was tough.
“I did my best to keep her spirits up,” Childress said. “She was real good about that.”
Last week’s tournament marked a significant milestone for Giffin. That Tuesday was the fifth anniversary of her being diagnosed cancer free.
“That was a big milestone,” she said.
Giffin is decidedly candid in discussing her ordeal with cancer, even the mastectomy.
“Anybody that wants to talk about it, I’ll talk about it with them,” she said. “Some women, it freaks them out. It didn’t me. I said, ‘This is what I’ve got to do to get well.’”
She has no idea how long she’ll continue to umpire, Giffin said. She loves the game as much as ever, although she worries, sometimes, just where it’s headed.
Technology has taken softball by storm in her time behind the plates. The bats are now super hot, she said, something USSSA, the national governing body that sanctions the Classic, is working hard to curtail.
The speed of the ball off the bat has become so extreme many pitchers in the unlimited home-run tournament have taken to wearing hockey-style goalie masks to protect themselves.
“I noticed that more this year than ever before,” Giffin said. “You don’t have as many home runs, but the ball sure does get off that bat quick.”
A machine to test for illegal bats was on site at the tournament. Several bats would be removed from play. The governing bodies of softball are making progress, Giffin said, but there’s still a long way to go.
Encounters like the one with Sanders are few and far between, Giffin said, but she’s learned how to deal with them through the years.
“You’ve just got to say what you saw and let the chips fall where they may,” she said.
Huff said he wasn’t surprised with how Giffin handled the exchange with Sanders.
“She’s never backed down,” he said.