Wins and losses are for players, coaches. That’s what we've been taught. One set leaves the game celebrating, the other simply leaves. Most of us have done both.
The officials leave as well, sometimes to angry words. What we forget is they also have losses.
Tim Griffin of Normal experienced two big ones in mid-March. Within a few days, Griffin lost his brother and a friend of 30-plus years. Jeff Griffin, 57, died of cancer after a long, determined battle. August Demma, 73, died suddenly at his home.
Folks throughout Central Illinois know Tim Griffin as the guy in referee’s stripes or the man in blue with a mask and chest protector.
He can live with that.
In fact, he says, being an official helps you live through most anything, even a week when your heart aches and tears flow.
“You start off as officials, but it becomes so much more, whether it’s a deep friendship or like a second family,” Griffin said. “With officials, you know you can always count on them. They’ll not only be there for you during the game, but after the game when something else in life is throwing you a curveball.”
It especially helps when life knocks you down with a high fastball, then follows with another. A number of Griffin’s longtime fellow officials came to his brother’s visitation and/or funeral.
“It really means a lot to me,” he said.
That’s how this works. Officials are common enemies for fans. Thus, there is common ground for those who tweet whistles or ring up hitters. They are in it together, have each other’s backs.
Griffin has been on both ends in 40 years as an official. He has helped others through marital issues or problems at work or the loss of a loved one.
In turn …
“I’ve been through a lot of things and very close friends have been there for me,” he said. “With sports, whether it’s playing together or officiating, it really is the beginning of lifelong friendships in a lot of cases.”
Griffin and Demma shared an officiating bond, working slowpitch softball together for several years. They were friends before and after that stretch, attending Illini football games together, traveling to Cubs games, sitting at a bar next to one another.
To Griffin he was “Augie,” and when Griffin had trouble reaching him for a few days in mid-March, he went to Demma’s house. He found newspapers out front and Demma’s car in the driveway.
Fearing the worst, he called police. His friend was gone.
Demma’s family asked Griffin to be a pallbearer. He agreed, but had to cancel. Jeff Griffin had become gravely ill.
Three years younger than Tim, he had fought colon cancer since 2008.
“He was declared cancer-free at one point, but by the next checkup it had come back,” Tim Griffin said. “I did not know until just before he passed that it was stage IV colon cancer. I did some research and saw where about 14 percent of people last five years. He lasted 11 years. He had a long haul with that, but he had some good years in there.”
There was comfort in that for Tim Griffin, who a month later is hoping for a stretch of good weather that will get him back on the baseball field. He was scheduled to umpire a game at Prairie Central on Tuesday, another at Eureka on Wednesday.
For many years he worked with Kevin Mallehan, his former teammate on Heyworth’s Corn Valley League baseball team. The two became friends and began to umpire together.
Mallehan fell ill in 2012 and by late March, high school baseball season was starting without him. Griffin called him on his way to their scheduled season opener.
“It was just to see how he was feeling. He wasn’t feeling the best,” Griffin said. “When I got home, his wife called and said he passed away. It felt right that I talked to him on our opening day a few hours before he passed.”
In 2018, Griffin lost another official and friend, Dave Yockey, to cancer. The losses are difficult, but Griffin, who retired from State Farm Insurance a year ago, is not ready to leave the game.
Officiating, and officials, lift him up. So Tuesday, at 60, he was eager to strap the gear on.
“Get back to the tried and true … forget all your troubles,” he said.
Call it a win.