Darnell Kelly has been umpiring softball and baseball games since 1982, and he, like the athletes who play them, the coaches who coach them, and the fans who watch them, is missing the regular rhythm of spring.
The COVID-19 pandemic has indefinitely suspended Kentucky High School Athletic Association spring sports in 2020, and in the process has left Kelly, his umpire colleagues, and so many others to wonder what might have been.
“I miss being out with the kids, and for me it’s never been about the money,” Kelly said. “What I miss is seeing young athletes pursue their dreams, playing the sport they’re so passionate about.
“For me, personally, it’s like, ‘What do I do?’ I’m lost. This has been such a part of my life for so long that it’s become ingrained in me. It’s a big part of who I’ve become through the years.
“Not being able to interact with the kids and coaches, is very hard, extremely hard. Like so many others, I’ve never encountered anything quite like this.”
Complicating matters is the fact that Kelly, 63, has been temorarily laid off this week from his full-time job at Daramic, which makes battery separators. He’s expected to return to work on Monday.
Through it all, Kelly understands the essential nature of social distancing.
“This is necessary at the moment, I get that,” Kelly said. “Sports is secondary right now because we have to put everyone’s safety and well being above everything else. You have to take precutions to do that. I mean, this is about keeping people alive, and under the current circumstances the measures that have been taken to ensure this are very understandable.”
Kelly has long been regarded as one of the best umpires in the business, and in 2010 he was selected Kentucky’s High School Umpire of the Year. He has no set timetable as to when he plans to hang up his whisk broom for the last time.
“I still feel good,” Kelly said. “I had knee replacement surgery three years ago, but I’m healthy now and I still have a passion for the game. I made a promise to myself a while back that I’m not going to stay past my time — when my skills go, I’ll go.”
In 1982, Kelly was living in Rockport, Indiana, watching a Pony League baseball game at the Fairgrounds when he became inspired about umpiring.
“I was watching the game, watching the umpire, and I said to myself, ‘I can do that,’ ” he recalled. “Soon after, I was umpiring myself and it’s something I’ve really enjoyed doing through the years.”
Like everyone else, Kelly wonders when it will be safe again to gather in groups, to play softball and baseball again — his approach is a cautious one.
“I don’t think it would be wise to jump the gun on this,” he said. “It needs to be a safe environment we’re playing and working in.
“This is a time to understand the difference between playing games and saving lives.”