AUSTINTOWN - For five hours on Saturday afternoon, people paid their respects to Austintown native and former Major League Baseball umpire Wally Bell, who passed away on Monday after suffering a heart attack at the age of 48.
Bell is best known around the country as a respected Major League Baseball umpire. He was promoted to MLB in 1993 and umpired the 1997, 2000 and 2013 All-Star games. He worked seven divisional series - most recently the Pittsburgh Pirates-St. Louis series just a few weeks ago - four league championship series and the World Series in 2006. He also was a part of the group of umpires that worked the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
However, to many around the Mahoning Valley, Bell was much more than a Major League umpire. He was a man who left many fond memories with ones who knew him well.
"Anybody that met Wally was going to remember him as a team person," local umpire Bernie Profato said. "When you went out there, you had his back and he had yours."
Profato, a member of the National Softball Hall of Fame, never worked with Bell on the diamond, but he had the pleasure of working with him on the basketball court. Yes, before Bell became a big-time umpire arguing calls with multi-million dollar coaches and players, he was refereeing high school basketball games and arguing with high school basketball coaches.
"Wally and I would work three or four games a year together," Profato said. "Wally was a good basketball official. He had great judgement and great control. That's what it takes to be a good official in any sport."
Bill Nicholson, a high school basketball referee of 30 years in the Mahoning Valley, also has memories of Bell on the hardwood.
"One of my first games I had with him was up at Ursuline," Nicholson recalled. "I was told that a guy I was going to be working with was a minor league baseball umpire and he's really good. And I finally met him, and he was so funny and just non-chalant, and came in and bounced the ball behind his back to the free-thow shooter and I asked, 'What are you doing?' But it was what Wally did."
Nicholson also remembered that being a part of the brotherhood was something Bell enjoyed. And though he stopped working high school basketball games for $40 per game once he he was promoted to the Major Leagues, he never let that go to his head, according to Profato.
"One thing about Wally is that he never let the Major League thing get to him. It never made him think he was above people."
There will be additional calling hours today from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Austintown Fitch High School. The funeral service will follow.