When Paul Emmel returns to the diamond, he’ll have gained an inch of height. And a furlong of serenity.
“I’m 6-foot-3 now, even though they listed me at 6-2,” the longtime Major League Baseball umpire and Castle Rock resident laughed. “I had to grow an inch of bone back.”
Emmel underwent surgery last October to correct a bow-legged gait. Osteotomy. The docs sawed away at his tibia, or shin bone, in order to relieve pressure on the knee joint. Three decades of squatting behind home plate, popping up and down, are murder on cartilage.
“I’ve got the legs of a 20-year-old again,” the 51-year-old ump cracked. “That should take me to retirement.”
Emmel, who’s been calling balls and strikes in The Show since July 1999, wasn’t slated to come back to the MLB grind until the All-Star break anyway. Thanks to social distancing and the coronavirus, the rest of us might well be joining him then, depending on how much action the lords of baseball decide to cram into a fun-size candy wrapper.
“It just gives me that extra time to put that 100 percent effort into what we’re doing,” Emmel said. “It’s been good that the time spent when we’re not working, we’re doing something to make lives better.”
And sometimes those silver linings turn out to be pure gold.
Emmel’s extended offseason gives him more time for his passions: UMPS CARE charities, the non-profit for which he serves as secretary; and Manna Care, a service provided by Cherry Hills Community Church in Highlands Ranch, where Emmel spends any Tuesday he can helping to distribute food and sundries for more than 1,200 folks per month.
“The toughest part right now is we have so many social-distancing guidelines to go by,” Emmel said. “So it’s groups of 10 or fewer. Everyone’s six feet apart. We’re all wearing gloves and face masks and keeping things disinfected. So it’s become an extra level of challenge, but it’s been met by everybody very well.”
Instead of patrons frequenting the Manna Care market, volunteers such as Emmel and his 16-year-old son, Ryan, bag and deliver groceries for cars to take with them via a drive-up service. When they’re not filling bags or loading vehicles, they’re stocking shelves, at minimum, for four to five hours per week.
The guy pushing the grocery cart with the silver mane and grey shirt has worked a World Series, three League Championship Series and two All-Star games. How cool is that?
“You know, that’s the beauty of this. I don’t think the other volunteers know,” said Emmel, a Michigan native and father of two. “They see you as someone who wants to help out Denver. They don’t see you any other way. And that’s such a cool thing, not to be viewed in the typical way. You’re here to help.
“I’m a Major League umpire taking orders from a 30-year-old girl who’s running things. That’s just the way it goes. I love that.”
He loves being around to pitch in, physically. Ordinarily, this is the stretch of the calendar year in which Emmel is living on the road, supporting Manna’s efforts financially and spiritually from afar because of MLB’s travel schedule.
He loves to meet and greet, even if many of the stories break his heart into about a million little pieces. Like the lady who visited Manna and said she had fled Venezuela, where she’d worked as a dentist, leaving a career behind to wipe the slate clean.
“You come to the States to get away from Venezuela and the civil (insurrection). You have nothing and you start over,” Emmel said. “People are still willing to do that or a better life.
“The stories that were told in the history books, they’re still being lived today. And just to be a part of that and giving people that spiritual, emotional, uplifting part of their day — I don’t have the words for it.”
For every inch he gives, Emmel gets a mile back in return. In times like these, it doesn’t take surgery to be a bigger man.