Bill Nataro, nearing 80, still making the call

Torrington’s Bill Nataro is still an all-star softball umpire just before his 80th birthday next month.

Torrington’s Bill Nataro is still an all-star softball umpire just before his 80th birthday next month.

Peter Wallace / For Hearst Connecticut Media

TORRINGTON — Bill Nataro turns 80 next month. This weekend he’ll umpire 10 games in three days at a college softball showcase in Southington.

Argue with him if you want on the field, but he’s been a softball umpire for 55 years, along with 35 years of baseball umpiring. You’re not going to win the argument, nor should you.

The Connecticut High School Coaches Association honored him as its Umpire of the Year last month at their All-State Banquet at the Aqua Turf Club in Plantsville.

And part of the reason the Torrington resident is in demand for such special events as this weekend’s showcase as well as regular duties for Northwest Corner high schools is: he’s got one of the most consistent strike zones in the area behind the plate.

Player or fan, it’s worth paying attention to him in a long conversation Monday evening at Torrington’s Armory while assistants oversee the raging Torrington Summer Basketball League Nataro has directed since he founded the league 39 years ago.

But on this day, the subject is umpiring, softball and baseball.

First, let’s get rid of the most common argument: “Fans think they can see balls and strikes from 100 feet away,” he says. “They can see high and low, but not in and out.”

Nevertheless, 55 years has taught a certain amount of humility.

“We’re human; we’re not perfect,” Nataro begins. “I went to a clinic in Milford where a former major league umpire who retired to softball umpiring was a speaker.

“He said, ‘In an average game, you’re going to call 300 balls and strikes. Major League umpires don’t get them all right and you won’t either. If you miss 10 or less, you’ve had a good game — five or less and it’s outstanding.’

“That always stuck with me.”

Nataro’s perspective began as a catcher at The Gilbert School and later fast-pitch softball.

“I was used to seeing the pitches behind the plate,” he says, when his friend Lefty Silano convinced him to become an umpire in 1962, interrupted by service in the Army and a tour in Vietnam.

When he got back, the attraction grew.

“I was still involved in the game and I was constantly learning new things about it. You have to love the game and take pride in what you’re doing — give it your all,” he says, while still playing in the rec league until he was 50.

“I started in the A Division, then dwindled down,” he laughs.

With a background behind the plate, one of Nataro’s first lessons as an umpire is “the bases can be more difficult, especially with just two officials. You have to have the right angle on a call and you have to be in the right position.”

Still, except for a few slam/bang field umpire calls (and occasional arguments), the plate umpire gets the most constant attention.

“The girls have come a long way in their pitching, with risers, curves and changeups,” Nataro says. ‘And fastballs. Because of the shorter distance from the softball circle than the baseball mound, a fastball in the high 60s in softball is about the same as a fastball in the high 80s in baseball.”

Which makes a good changeup at least as devastating.

“(Record-breaking Torrington pitcher Sydney Matzko, who went on to pitch for Division I North Carolina) had the best changeup I’ve seen in high school. She had the perfect delivery because it was exactly the same for a changeup as it was for her fastball.”

Facing a pitcher like that demands some of the same disciplines for an umpire as it does for a hitter.

“I try to pick up the ball as soon as possible out of the pitcher’s hands. Then you have to stay down until the ball is in the catcher’s mitt. When I’m looking over the catcher’s shoulder, I can see the outside corner. If I’m caught behind them, I’m guessing.

“A good catcher helps the pitcher and the umpire. He or she can steal strikes for the pitcher by framing a pitch. When the ball gets to the mitt, an umpire can see it. If the catcher’s just batting it, there’s more pressure on the umpire.

“If a pitcher can spot the ball, he or she doesn’t have to be the hardest thrower, but walks are a killer.”

So are foul tips for an umpire, especially if he doesn’t stay down.

“We’ve all been hit by foul balls,” says Nataro, harking back to another pitching legend for his best example — Wolcott Tech’s Scott Arrigoni, a 6-foot-7 lefty who went all the way to AAA in the Cardinals farm system before an injury derailed his career.

“His fastball was in the 90s at Wolcott Tech,” says Nataro who saw him from behind the plate. “A foul tip on one of his pitches ripped the mask right off my head. It felt like a sledgehammer.”

Another Torrington legend — Don Murelli, who had a similar fate from AAA in the Orioles farm system — was the best hitter Nataro saw.

“In four years at Torrington High School, Murelli struck out just once looking,” says Nataro.

“And yes, when umpiring a pitcher like Arrigoni or a hitter like Murelli, they have a slight edge,” Nataro says. “In a close call, subconsciously, you give him the benefit of the doubt. You say, ‘Maybe he didn’t make the mistake; maybe I did.’”

Still, in all those years, Nataro officiated just two no-hitters in baseball, several in softball.

“In softball, a good pitcher can really dominate,” he says, citing Torrington’s Ali DuBois as another Division I pitcher in the same category as Matzko. “In a game like that, you don’t want to make a bad call, so you’re concentrating really, really hard.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Nataro admits a strike zone can get bigger in a blowout game.

“As long as you do it for both teams, the coaches kind of expect it,” he says.

Inevitably then, the conversation turns to the umpiring machines tested sporadically in the minor leagues.

“They did a comparison between the machines and human umpires and they came out about the same, with a small edge for the humans,” says Nataro. “There are some things a machine can’t see.”

Besides, we agree, it takes an all-important personal quality out of our beloved game.

So go ahead, argue with Bill Nataro if you want. Besides his decades of experience and love for the game, the human side is just as important for him.

“My wife Peggy has been my big strength through the years,” he says. “On the field, your best friend is your umpiring partner, who’s always going to be faithful and supportive.”

No way you’re winning that argument.