© — Submitted photo
By John Browne
Len King belongs in Newfoundland. Clearly. King spent eight years teaching in the Caribbean, with the last four in the Cayman Islands.
“It was just fantastic, but nothing like being home,” said King, who returned to this province a couple of years ago.
King enjoyed the long, sunny days but admitted, “It got kind of boring after a while and the warm-water fish just doesn’t cut it.”
Now a retired teacher, King, 62, spends a lot of his time doing what he did before he left. He’s umpiring softball again and enjoying every minute of it.
Oh, and he still has his infamous beard.
Infamous because refusing to shave it cost him the opportunity to officiate at the Canadian junior softball championships 33 years ago.
King was one of the top umpires in the province with plenty of potential in 1980 when he was invited to officiate at the championships in Scarborough, Ont. But there was one caveat — he’d have to shave his beard.
The controversy took on a human rights spin. The story blew up across Canada and made the front page of the Globe and Mail.
King’s refusal to get rid of the beard cost him a chance to officiate at the national tournament and he was never invited back to another one … until now.
An active member of the Metro Umpires Association from 1976 to 1982, King returned to umpiring in 2011 and officiates at every level of the sport since getting back in the game.
To his surprise, he was recently notified that he’s been invited to officiate at the U17 women’s championship Aug. 12-18 in Charlottetown, P.E.I., and he can keep his beard.
King says the “nonsense” of the beard controversy is behind him and he’s happy to officiate at the national level in the game he loves.
“It was foolish and it died a natural death, I guess,” said King, who doesn’t know when the rule changed to allow facial hair.
King also took some kidding during the time the story was making headlines across the country.
“The funniest moment I remember was at a senior game one night,” recalls King.
“It was pretty quiet on the field and then Robin Short Sr. shouts out from the bench, ‘Hey King, few Newfs make it to the front page of the Globe and Mail. The last one I remember was the big drug bust up the Shore. You keep good company.’
“It was hard not to laugh and it was one of the few times I found the whole thing funny,” said King.
King explained it was also “funny” how he got back into umpiring.
“I was at school in the Cayman Islands when the Phys Ed teacher made the comment, ‘You Canadians all know about softball.’
“The school was in the finals and they needed an umpire, so he asked me. Naturally, I said yes. Getting back on the field was a feeling that I had forgotten about. I’d forgotten how much I missed the game.”
That’s when he decided to “forget the past” and give softball umpiring another shot.
“My umpiring qualifications were, understandably, taken from me because of inactivity and I’m working at getting them back and to reach the highest level I can. I’m getting a lot of support and help from the Metro Umpires Association and Softball Newfoundland and Labrador.
“When I came back home, I contacted then Metro president, Keith Pender. I started part way through the season in 2011 and came back full time in 2012,” he explained.
King says the calibre of softball has changed since the days of Ross Crocker, Len Beresford and Dick Davis.
“There’s been so many changes, it’s hard to compare then and now. The ball has changed, the bat has changed, etc. There’s a lot of talent at the senior and intermediate level.”
However, he’s also noticed, “Softball doesn't have the wide-spread participation it had years ago. Suffice it to say, there’s still a high calibe of ball being played at Lions Park and I’m glad to be a part of it.”
King said he’s looking forward to umpiring in P.E.I., “as it will have a big bearing on what happens next with me. But, regardless, I’m back umpiring and have full intention of staying. I simply love the game.”