STERLING – Dave Stutzke is sort of the Jamie Moyer of Little League baseball.
Similar to the way the journeyman southpaw pitched into his late-40s in Major League Baseball, even notching a win at the ripe age of 49, Stutzke spent 43 years umpiring, overseeing, enhancing and reuniting youth baseball in Sterling.
Without arrogance, simply being realistic, he made a prediction Wednesday afternoon, about 3 weeks after stepping down as president of Sterling Youth Baseball.
“I didn’t think I’d hang around that long, and I don’t see anyone doing it as long as I did,” the 59-year-old said, laughing.
That’s a tribute, more than anything, to how close it’s been to his heart. He grew up playing at Gartner Park, where in June 1996, a cool 30 years after he’d roamed center field and manned the hot corner as a young lad, one of his proudest moments played out.
Yeah, he’s crazy-proud of the district and state titles, the girls’ historic Little League World Championship in 2012.
But watching his home diamond under the new lights, with many former players and managers in attendance?
“That was special,” Stutzke said. “I played at Gartner, and I know how the diamonds were back then.”
A lifelong Cubs fans – even though he played for the Giants in Little League – the fact that Sterling’s diamonds were lit up after so many others in northwestern Illinois, it sort of hearkened back to Aug. 8, 1988, on the north side of Chicago, when the Cubs became the last MLB team to play its first game under the lights.
“To see it lit was just something. … I mean the diamond basically faces Wrigley Field’s direction. It was really something to see.”
A humbling start
A couple of Stutzke’s promotions were somewhat by default, including his first call-up at age 16. His cousin’s husband, the late Doug Martin, was managing a team in 1974, and the umpire didn’t show.
“[Doug] said to me, ‘We need an umpire, and I know you know baseball,’” Stutzke said. “That’s how it started.”
He soon became umpire in chief, a role he held a few years before becoming the president of the National League – a.k.a. the west side of town, west of state Route 40. He’d later fill that role in the east-side American League before serving as Lloyd Holldorf’s vice president after the league reemerged as, simply, Sterling Youth Baseball. In 1991, Stutzke unexpectedly took over for Holldorf as president.
Holldorf, 81, put 33 years into the league, and his first impression of Stutzke was exactly what you’d expect from a manager.
“You know what I think of umpires: I had to help him a few times with his calls, you might say,” Holldorf said. “We became fast friends, and we’ve been friends for many, many years.”
One of Stutzke’s fondest memories of umping still comes up whenever he sees Ken Heffelfinger, who was managing an 11- and 12-year-old “major league” team and didn’t care for a call. His oldest son, Tim, was pitching, and his middle son, Ted, was catching.
“Kenny yells, from the dugout, ‘Where was that pitch, Stutzke?’” Stutzke said. “His son, Ted, lifted his mask, turned to his dad and said, ‘It wasn’t a strike, so don’t worry about it.’ When I see Kenny, to this day, we’ll always talk about it.”
Credit where it’s due
Holldorf credits Stutzke with reuniting the leagues in the early '90s.
“He certainly brought the east and the west ends back together again, and it was needed,” Holldorf said. “There was lack of kids participating in baseball. When they brought the east and west back together, we had a pretty good league.”
On a more human level, Stutzke cherished the chance to again have a league that represented the entire city’s demographic.
“For years, the west side was 25 percent Mexican," he said. "We wanted to bring the east and west players together.”
Holldorf and Jim Wright, who managed a “major league” team from 1962 to 1993, both say Stutzke’s hallmark is his cool demeanor and ability to keep the kids’ big picture in mind when problems arose.
“That’s probably why he stayed around as long as he did and did as good of a job as he did,” Wright said. “He was able to step back and look at the big picture, like if a couple of managers were arguing about a draft choice. He was always looking at the greater good in the long term, rather than just solving that one problem.”
It was easy for Stutzke to keep his cool, knowing who all the volunteers were working for.
“I did it for the kids,” he said. “I just wanted to see them enjoy their time at the park and make sure they had what they needed.”
All three happily reminisce not so much about individual games, but on the bonds formed. They all run into kids they managed, eager to take a trip down Memory Lane.
“They remember how much fun it was, rather than remembering about the run that was scored in extra innings to win a game,” Wright said.
Stutzke loves seeing former managers at the diamonds, watching their grandkids play ball. Wright, for one, has grandsons, 12 and 10, who reap the benefits of Stutzke’s labor of love.
“It’s totally different with the lights and after the remodels, and that was all accomplished under Dave’s watch,” Wright said. “The kids today have a lot better conditions and playing situations than they did 20 years ago.”
Good people needed
Stutzke learned the value of having good leaders waiting in the wings about 15 years ago, when he got colon cancer.
“I had a lot of good people under me, who took over, basically, the reins of the organization while I was laid up,” he said.
Any anxiety he might have about unhanding the reins is eased knowing Jason Kiefer was recently elected as the new president. Having never served on a board, not having kids, he’s got a fresh perspective, Stutzke said. Most importantly, he’s got a motor on him.
“I used to umpire when he played, and I knew his dad really well,” Stutzke said. “I know he comes from a good family. I’ve told people I won’t be totally gone, but he’s got all the meetings and everything set up already. He’s all over it.”
The game has changed over the years. That $7,200 budget is now $90,000.
“Me being in a small business, … this is basically a small business,” said Stutzke, third-generation owner of Stutzke’s Plumbing.
In addition to his day job, he spent “pretty much every night” at the diamonds, always ready to nip any disagreements in the bud, but more significantly, soaking up the atmosphere.
“Over the past few years, I started to think, ‘Enough’s enough,’” he said. “I just decided it was time."
If there are any lingering questions as to how much it’s meant to him, he’s made family and friends aware of a single request after he passes: He wants his hearse driven past Gartner Park, so he can get one last look at the diamond Stutzke built.