'Kid Ump' calls 'em like he sees 'em

Fan, 8, attends River Bandits games in gear, follows every pitch

Grant Dahlstrom was recognized as true blue by umpires Jake Bruner (left) and Trevor Dannegger. (Rich Guill/Quad Cities River Bandits)

By Josh Jackson / MiLB.com | July 30, 2018 10:00 AM

They grow up so fast, don't they?

Early this season, Neil Dahlstrom was at a Quad Cities River Bandits game with his 8-year-old son, Grant, when the boy adopted a pensive expression.

"At Modern Woodmen Park, they have a berm behind left field, and a lot of people sit on the hillside and kids roll down the hill," Dahlstrom said. "Halfway through the game, Grant looked out there and said, 'I remember when I used to do that when I was a kid.' I said, 'Grant, the last time you did that was three weeks ago.'"

In less than a month, Grant had not only outgrown rolling down hills but had matured into taking up a vocation. During that May 11 game -- an 8-1 victory for Houston's Class A affiliate over visiting Lake County -- the boy donned full umpire regalia and called the entire nine-inning affair from his seat behind home plate.

It was the first time he'd done so, but he's since "worked" four or five more River Bandits games.

Although he loves playing on his travel team, Grant wants to hang up the spikes in favor of professional umpiring when he finishes school.

Video: Kid umpire calls strike at River Bandits game

"Definitely," he said. "[I knew] when I was about 4 or 5."

Born into a family of Cubs fans, the budding ump found 2016 to be an especially formative year.

"It started with watching the umpires in [that] World Series. He was pretty locked into the umpires," Dahlstrom said, "and he was a football referee that year for Halloween."

Grant's mother, Karen Dahlstrom, works at Augustana College, and the boy also began paying close attention to the refs in Division III Vikings basketball games. Nothing, though, supplanted his fascination with umpires. When the 2017 season began, Grant began actively calling televised games from the comfort of his living room.

"It started off pretty simple," his father said. "For the first couple years, it was whatever he was wearing -- clothes, his robe, PJs, whatever -- and he would stand in front of the TV and ump. We have a family friend who umpired for 30-something years, and he learned about Grant and he gave him his beanie and mask and a little bit of equipment.

"From there, we'd go to the sporting goods store and over time, he'd buy a clicker ... then a ball bag ... then a brush. … It was 10 dollars here and there, no big deal."

When Grant turned 8 this Feb. 3, he asked his parents if he could use his birthday money to buy an umpire shirt. A dark blue shirt attained, he asked if he could use "the rest" of his birthday money to buy an alternative, lighter one.

"I didn't have the heart to tell him he ran out of birthday money on the first [shirt]," Dahlstrom said. "I don't know how much birthday money he thought he had, but..."

Grant also invented baseball-oriented games at home, getting his parents to play so he could make calls. In one -- "Out and Safe" -- his father rolls a ball toward a pillow-turned-base and has to try to beat the ball to the bag, with Grant calling him either out or safe. In another, his mom and dad face off with an inflatable bat and ball set.

"It's evolved to the point where we've got to get lineups and do official substitutions," Dahlstrom said. "It used to take about five minutes, and now it's about a half-hour game."

Grant's umpiring activities hit a new level when he stumbled onto one particular YouTube video this spring. ("He watches a lot of ump videos on YouTube. That's his [version of] video games," his father explained.) In a CBS Sunday Morning segment, Grant saw a kindred spirit -- Vincent Stio, 10, who wears an umpire's uniform to Carolina Mudcats games.

"It looked cool, so I started doing it," Grant said.

Video: Dahlstrom, 8, calls the plate at the plate

After all, he already had the gear. At that May 11 game, home-plate umpire Trevor Dannegger and first base ump Jake Bruner welcomed Grant as one of their own, giving him a behind-the-scenes look at umping life as well as a trip onto the field.

"The first night [River Bandits photographer Rich Guill] asked if he wanted to go down to meet the umpires. Trevor Dannegger ... invited Grant into the area where the umps get ready, and when [Grant] came out, Trevor had given him a new clicker," Dahlstrom said. "He gave him a hat to wear onto the field and do the lineup exchange, and he got my number and told me, 'Let me know in advance if you're coming to a game and I'll make sure the other umpires know.'

"We've done that a couple times. Steve Jaschinski from Toronto did the same thing. He let Grant see the dressing room, and he gave him the spiel about staying in school. He told Grant the Major Leagues want umpires who've gone to college, which I appreciated. And Steve left tickets for us the next game, and all the managers have been great, letting him go out there."

Grant admitted that it's a challenge to stay focused through entire games, but he has some tricks to help him remain locked in.

"Look at the scoreboard between pitches," he said. "Move a lot. You can jog in place in between innings."

It's worked. Since May, the kid ump has only twice gone to River Bandits games and not called the action from the first pitch to the final out. Once, his dad made them leave in the seventh inning because of an early-morning appointment the following day. The other time, he was at the game with his travel-ball teammates.

"Last week, his buddy asked Grant if he's going to the River Bandits game, and Grant said, 'Well, if I'm going, I'll be working,'" Dahlstrom said. "He thinks of it as his job."

But he cut loose enough to spend a little fan time with his pals, and let them take over the umping for a bit.

"They all wanted to mess with my clicker," he said. "I gave it to them and somebody else got it every half inning."MiLB include

That game will likely be memorable for Grant, who's in the middle of an unforgettable summer.

"The River Bandits roll out the red carpet for him all the time. It's given him a ton of self-confidence," Dahlstrom said. "And all the fans have been really good to him. Everybody's just been great. It's pretty cool to see your kid have those types of experiences."

As Grant keeps coming out to Minor League games and watching big league games on TV, his attention will remain on the umpire crews.

"I like watching them on the field, all the calls they make, everything they do," he said. "I can't imagine what baseball would be like without them."

Josh Jackson is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @JoshJacksonMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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