World Series umpire is a true baseball pioneer in his native Romania

Years from now, if baseball becomes popular in Romania, Cristian Manea may be considered the person responsible for getting it there.

Manea, a successful 32-year-old computer business owner in his native Bucharest, became the first umpire from Romania to work the Junior League World Series in Taylor, which took place last week. That’s quite a fete considering there’s only one baseball field in the entire country.

In Romania and other European nations, American soccer – known there as football – is king. Badminton and volleyball may be the second and third most popular sports. Manea said others play oina, a traditional Romanian game that is similar to baseball, but requires the use of a longer, slimmer bat and 11 players on the field instead of nine and are only 30 minutes in duration.

But Manea said he is “injected with baseball” – and has been since 1991, when he started playing following the fall of Communism in 1989. He said games are often played on soccer fields with “some special ground rules.” As an 18-year-old high school student, Manea started on a federation team and was the first most valuable player in the championship game.

The next year, he became an assistant coach and he started umpiring in 1995. Today, Manea is the face of baseball in Romania. He is a coach, umpire, league sponsor and district administrator.

More than anything, he tries to recruit more players, coaches and umpires.

“When I started to play baseball, it’s like somebody came at me and injected my baseball line (got him hooked on the sport),” Manea said. “If I have time and enough money, I want to play and stay on the field all day. That’s baseball for me. But I must work to make some money (at his company, HIGH Services). Some of my money goes to the league.”

Because baseball is not as popular in Romania, Manea said he has trouble getting people involved in the sport.

“I try to involve more people to be an umpire,” he said. “I need fresh blood. Right now, I have a team of 10 boys and two girls in my umpire crew.”

In Romania Little League, umpires do not get paid. Manea tries to reward their volunteerism by buying them a meal at a restaurant after a day of umpiring.

Equipment is another issue. Manea said that when he goes to other places to umpire – like Kutno, Poland, home of the Junior League regional tournament for teams in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) – officials in the umpire association often give him new equipment, which he uses or passes on to his crew in Romania.

“They saw my old equipment or my nothing equipment and they give me equipment,” Manea said. “I bring equipment for my friends from the states and Canada. I keep part for me. A big part goes for the other umpires.

“It’s very hard to fight with this sport in Romania. If Romania has some money, they give it to football. I tried to make some money for baseball for my friends and for the parents’ kids.”

To call balls and strikes in a World Series, an umpire has to work a regional tournament first. Because of his ability and his interest in learning and getting even better, Manea was chosen to work the regional in Poland.

Gil Ladouceur, who has been the umpire in charge of the EMEA tournament since 2001, said most European umpires have limited training and are unwilling to learn from veteran umps. But Manea is different.

“Very few umpires in Europe will umpire and show desire to learn,” said Ladouceur, a LaSalle, Ontario, native who was in Taylor during the World Series last week. “You could see he wanted to learn and do it right. A lot of European umpires are set in their ways and don’t want to change. Cris is one of those young umpires. He still asks a bunch of questions: ‘How did I do behind the plate today? Was I still? Did I rock?’ He’s always asking questions.”

Ladouceur, who has umpired since 1972 and was a member of the Junior League World Series crew in 2005, said he and Russ Ruslander of Denville, California, took Manea “under our wings and worked with him.” They told the EMEA tournament director that Manea was “an excellent umpire on a 90-foot diamond” and the Romanian ump was selected to work a 2003 regional tournament in Germany.

Once he worked a regional, Manea was eligible to ump a World Series. When the invitation came to work the Junior League series in Taylor, Manea said he was honored.

Even at the World Series level, the umpires are volunteers. They have to pay their own transportation to get to the World Series site. For Manea it was a 20-hour flight that went through seven time zones to get to Taylor.

“For me, it’s pride,” he said. “I’m proud to be here.”

Each umpire working behind the plate is allowed to come up with a good luck cheer for his crew. For Manea, who has been married to his wife Cher for eight years, it consisted of one word: “Andrada,” the name of his daughter.

Manea said working in Taylor exceeded his expectations.

“It’s terrific for me,” he said. “I met other kinds of people here with other lifestyles. Baseball is good here. The player is better. It’s top level here.”

Manea said he continued to learn throughout the week and would take his experiences back to Romania. He’s also taking back some equipment to share with the other umpires.