Rookie Representative Calls 'Em Like He Sees 'Em
By Chris Hamby, Special to Stateline
On the baseball field, Dale Ford ruled with an iron fist.
These days, he's using a diplomatic handshake.
After 27 years as a Major League Baseball umpire, Ford has traded calling balls and strikes for casting "ayes" and "nays" as a lawmaker in the Tennessee House of Representatives.
With the recent conclusion of the General Assembly's session, he closed out his rookie season batting 1.000 - one bill introduced, one passed.
"Freshmen are supposed to sit down and shut their mouths and learn, and that's basically what I did," said Ford, now a vibrant 64-year-old who also has 25 years of college basketball refereeing experience. "Some people try to be real hot shots at first, but trust me, that doesn't work. It's kind of like in the big leagues - they don't accept anything you call for three years."
The straight-shooting, storytelling Republican representing his home district in East Tennessee did garner some attention, though, when he joined 13 other GOP House members in breaking with the party by voting for a controversial cigarette tax hike to help fund public education.
"Dale seems to have a good bipartisan attitude," said Democratic state Rep. Gary Odom, the House Majority Leader.
Although it is not uncommon for baseball players to enter politics - Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning, a Republican U.S. senator from Kentucky, may be the most prominent example currently - Ford's road from the umpiring ranks is less traveled.
During his career behind the plate, Ford had notorious scuffles with cantankerous Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver, whom he once ejected during the national anthem, and the late Billy Martin, tempestuous skipper of the New York Yankess, who was suspended for two games in 1983 for calling Ford a "stone liar, someone I'll bet $100 doesn't know how to read."
"Dealing with Billy Martin for long makes you wish birth control was retroactive," Ford said.
Ford's love of baseball sprouted during his youth, when he was the seventh of 13 siblings growing up on a farm. He played catcher in high school, and, though he didn't think he was good enough to play professionally, he wanted to stay close to the game. He completed an umpire development program in Florida and within a few years was one of the American League's men in black.
He went on to work numerous All-Star games and World Series, including the infamous sixth game of the 1986 series, when Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner let a ground ball dribble through his legs in the 10th inning, allowing the New York Mets to score the game-winning run.
Ford is not hesitant to admit that he may have missed a few calls along the way.
"I don't know how many strikeouts Nolan Ryan had, but he should have had one more," Ford said. "After a two-strike pitch, he said to me, 'What was wrong with that one?' I said, 'It was too hard.' That's all you can do when you miss one - say something goofy."
In 1999, Ford was one of 22 umpires who lost their jobs during a labor-union dispute. After a 2004 agreement with MLB, he and five other former umpires were given severance pay and benefits.
Ford's background as an umpire served him well in his first legislative session, said state Rep. Kent Williams (R), who has known Ford for about 20 years and considers him a close friend.
"He's stern," Williams said. "If he votes a certain way on an issue and you question him on it, he'll let you know, you're outta here."
Asked if he ever toyed with the idea of tossing someone from the General Assembly, Ford said: "Oh, you can count on it. … Sometimes you want to tell someone to sit down and shut up because they're not making sense and they're making an ass of themselves, but you can't really do that. (As an umpire), when you walk on the field, you're pretty much the man. In the General Assembly, you have to work with both sides and try to negotiate things out."
That need to compromise may be the most difficult adjustment for a former umpire, Ford's wife, Joyce, said.
In his baseball days, Ford split the year between home and the road, she said, and "it would take me six months to train him to where he didn't think he was always right. Then I had to send him back to baseball where he was again."
State Rep. Doug Overbey, a fellow East Tennessee Republican who sits behind Ford on the legislative floor, said that, like an umpire, Ford "calls the issues as he sees them. It's a frankness that is refreshing and that we need more of in politics and government."
But Ford's political career has made him "maybe more patient, more laid-back," Joyce said. "He has to be since he's in meetings all day, which is very unlike Dale," she said.
When trying to decide how to vote on certain contentious issues this session, Ford sometimes turns to impromptu surveys, randomly choosing from the phone book 100 names of people from his district and calling them to get their opinions.
Ford still umpires high school and college baseball games on weekends, refusing to take any money for his services. He also volunteers regularly with community and church groups. Hearkening back to his days as a mess sergeant in the Army Reserve, he often undertakes massive culinary tasks. Before the General Assembly demanded much of his time, he cooked for 50-60 people every Tuesday night, Joyce said.
Ford's other talents include golfing - he says he shoots in the 70s for 18 holes, a claim Joyce substantiates - and raising money - "He can get more stuff donated than anyone you've ever seen in your life," his wife said.
As he prepares for next year's legislative session, Ford hopes to avoid a sophomore slump.
"I've got a bunch of ideas for next year," he said, elaborating only to say they involve drug trafficking and assistance for the disabled, before adding with a chuckle, "If I tell you and they show up in the paper, someone might steal my ideas."