Top New Zealand softball umpire on Olympic Games alert after winning major award
16/09/2020 3 Minute Read

Top New Zealand softball umpire on Olympic Games alert after winning major award

Athletes aren't the only ones on tenterhooks ahead of the Tokyo Olympic Games - officials, like top New Zealand softball umpire Mark Porteous, are too.

The North Harbour umpire - named Softballer of the Year this week ahead of the nation's top players - has been named to umpire at the Tokyo Games, where women’s softball and men’s baseball will return after being out in the Olympic waiting room since Beijing in 2008.

But, the 60-year-old's not sure when - or even if - the tournament will go ahead with the 2020 Games postponed a year.

"I was surprised, and honoured, to be selected, especially considering New Zealand aren't represented there,’’ he said. “To have two Oceania umpires, it was quite special.’’

Porteous said he was "looking forward to that happening'', but, like everyone else associated with the Olympics, he is basically waiting for the call on when the Games will be held.

The uncertainty over his plum assignment hasn't detracted from a stellar season or so for Porteous, who was the first base umpire for the 2019 men's world championships final in Prague and the under 18 boy's championship in Palmerston North last March.

It was "full circle'' for the lifelong softballer, when he took the diamond in the Manawatū. He began his senior representative career at Colquhoun Park, for Waikato in 1977.

Porteous' father, Seph, was a leading New Zealand player in the post-war period, a prominent coach and a former New Zealand Softball Councillor.

He followed his dad onto the diamond, playing for the Cambridge Blue Streaks and Waikato representative team, "when [New Zealand pitching great] Kevin Herlihy and Carl Mossman were there''.

Porteous moved to Auckland in 1984, playing for the Glenfield and Northcote clubs as "a third baseman or utility'', and representing the North Harbour provincial team.

He donned umpiring ‘blues’ in 2006, just after hanging up his glove, as a player.

"But I'd done some umpiring when I played two seasons in North America, in Arizona in 1981 and Vancouver in '99. You can't earn much money when you're away, so umpiring was a way to make a few dollars. And, like all junior coaches, I’d done my share of umpiring.’’

Tutored by the late Bill Smith, a former Softball New Zealand chief umpire, Porteous found "as an ex-player, I knew my way around the diamond, and it came a little bit more naturally to me.

"My dad did a bit of umpiring, although he was too busy coaching to take it seriously at national level, but I still use his 'clicker' [a device allowing umpires to keep track of balls, strikes, outs and innings].''

Porteous got his national umpire's badge in 2008 and international accreditation in 2011.

His first world championships final - the 2012 under-18 boy's tournament in Argentina, proved an unforgettable experience before a parochial Parana crowd of "6 to 7000''.

"The fans were whooping and hollering, there were drums, fireworks, trumpets. The place went absolutely crazy.''

Porteous officiated at the 2015 men's and world's championships, but could not get a coveted berth in the gold medal games because the New Zealand Black Sox made both finals.

The Black Sox's semifinal exit in Prague in 2019 had a silver lining for their umpiring compatriot. After calling the balls and strikes in Argentina's semifinal win over Canada, Porteous got the nod at first base for the final, where the South Americans won their first world title, over Japan, who had beaten the Black Sox.

Porteous admits the Black Sox's fourth-place finish and the White Sox's failure to qualify for the Olympic Games had helped him become only the second umpire to win the Softballer of the Year award for the top overall contribution to the game.

He got the gong ahead of other category winners, including the two players of the year - Black Sox slugger Thomas Enoka and Stefanie Smith, the White Sox's top batter at the 2019 Asia-Oceania Olympic Games qualifying tournament.

"It's great to see that [Softball New Zealand] actually recognises the third team, so to speak, officials, as well as players and coaches,'' Porteous said.

Current chief umpire Wiremu Tamaki, "who did it twice'', is the only other umpire to win Softballer of the Year.

Tamaki was "on the dish'', as plate umpire, for the last Olympic Games final between winners Japan and the United States in 2008 - a feat Porteous would dearly love to emulate.

Porteous knows many of his Olympic Games colleagues because "most of the umpires were at Palmerston North, so we all got together for a bit of a warm-up, and we've continued to meet on Zoom regularly since''.

It's been a busy time since, boning up on technical issues and "best practice'' and keeping fit by jogging "because I wasn't able to get to the gym during lockdown''.

A credit manager who's worked for ANZ Bank for 43 years, Porteous reckons he's "fitter now than I was 10 years ago'' and doesn't see Tokyo as his swansong.

"I'll keep going. I think I'm still performing reasonably well, I'm fit, healthy and keep on top of things.

"The next men's world championships are here at [North Harbour's] Rosedale Park in 2022. I'll be involved in some capacity, but I would like to still be umpiring ... That would be a target goal.''

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