John Habib's City Sports: Lifetime of officiating started with ashtrays
Two weeks ago there was a funny moment during the annual New Hampshire Baseball Umpires Association meeting in Concord when secretary-treasurer Duane Welch was making a special award presentation to Chet Swiesz of Manchester.
'We're here to present Chet for being a member for 35 years, but he's actually in his 38th year and should have received this award three years ago,' said Welch. 'It's our fault, didn't realize he actually started in 1974. We'll make it up to him by presenting his 40th season award before his 39th season starts.'
Laughter and a well-deserved standing ovation followed from the membership for Swiesz,who because of his longevity, is a well-known and well-liked official.
Welch shouldn't feel bad about being off by three years. Swiesz had to take a few moments to remember just how many years he has officiated baseball, softball (34), football (35), basketball (38) and soccer (10). 'To be honest,' he says with a laugh, 'It's like time has stood still. I can't believe how many years it's been since I first started doing this.'
He started officiating baseball first, but unlike today when candidates have to attend and pass the Baseball Umpire Development Program, Swiesz tells a far different story of how he actually punched his ticket into the association.
'It started with ashtrays,' said Swiesz. 'A guy came up to me one year, telling me he needed umpires and to report to the YMCA. So I went into a smoke-filled room where someone was teaching me the mechanics with ashtrays. He used them as bases, told me where to stand depending on where the runners were and that was basically my formal training period.'
What Swiesz didn't know and didn't find out until after his first game was that the association also had a strict dress code for games.
'I get my very first game assigned to me in Hampstead and I have absolutely nothing, no equipment' said Swiesz. 'I went to (longtime Babe Ruth coach and official) Mickey Hanagan's house and borrowed a mask, chest protector and a pair of shin guards. I went home, put the chest protector over my t-shirt and the shin guards over my blue jeans. I road out to Hampstead on my motorcycle with my hat on backwards. Needless to say when I arrived, I got funny looks from everyone, but I asked for the balls and started the game on time.'
Swiesz credits the late Roland St. Pierre and the late George Soukas for keeping him in the sport.
'They kept feeding me Babe Ruth, Colt and Pony League games and they paid me $11 for doing the plate and $7 for the bases,' he said. 'As a school teacher with two kids, a house mortgage and a car payment, eleven bucks was big in those days. I'm not going to say the money wasn't important, but I really enjoyed officiating. No regrets.'
Three years later football came calling. 'It's the sport I enjoy the most, but it's time consuming,' said Swiesz. 'You meet once a week, have to be at games no later than an hour before starting time and there's travel. It took me a good five to seven years to learn how to officiate football really well.'
Swiezs said he did football for two reasons. 'Baseball guys were doing it and it got me back on the playing field. I wasn't a big football star in high school at Bishop Bradley, but I broke my ribs my junior season and couldn't play my senior season. Officiating football got me back on the field.'
One year, a football evaluator got under Swiesz's skin. 'He wrote me up saying I needed a haircut,' said Swiesz. 'That got to me because I've been bald since my 20's. Another one recently said I was too slow. I told him, no kidding. I guess I've kept that a great secret since 1978 when I first started.'
In 1979, Swiesz joined softball because 'in those days the baseball guys all rolled into softball. I liked it and stayed in it.'
Four years ago, Swiesz worked a 23-inning game with Jack Caron. The game pitted Memorial against Spaulding and took four hours to complete. 'We'd be in extra innings where both teams had the bases loaded with no outs and still couldn't score. Jack did the plate and did a great job.'
In basketball, Swiesz said that current assignor Steve Rossetti called him 'the first unnamed commissioner in the state of New Hampshire. I had coached a Merrimack J.V. team for five years and a guy from Bedford one day asked me if I could schedule officials. I did that for 30 years and we ended up starting the Tri-County League in the 1980's which still serves close to a dozen communities today. I am not a patched basketball official because all I've done is work games for grades 6 to 8 for 38 years.'
When Sweisz received his award from the NHBUA, he wanted everyone to know he was sharing it.
'There are guys, some real good friends of mine, who have been officiating as long as me. People like Rick Zecha, Eddie Main, Tony Haley and (the late) Larry Kleiner, who left us too early. I want everyone to know this award is for them too.'
Good health and a loving wife are major reasons why Swiesz says he's lasted this long.
'I'm blessed to say my health has allowed me to work the finals in each division of baseball and two football championship games,' he said. 'I've been married to my wife, Brenda, for 42 years and she comes to games. Just like my dad use to come to games. My dad (Chester Sr.) was proud of me and, most of all, he loved going to Gill Stadium with his buddies just to watch me.'
A grandfather of five, Swiesz, who will turn 64 on April, said his one wish is to leave officiating on his own terms.
'I don't want to know ahead of time when or where that final game will be played,' he said. 'When I'm done, I'll know it. No one will have to tell me.'
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Last year, John Kyriacopulos, who stepped down from his coaching post at Manchester West, started a Queen City baseball jamboree at Gill Stadium. Memorial coach Aaron Abood will now run the show, announcing the jamboree will be held Saturday, March 31 and Sunday, April 1.
On Saturday, Central plays Trinity at 12:30 p.m. followed by West-Memorial at 4 p.m. The two losers play Sunday at noon followed by the finals at 3 p.m.
'Last year, the players loved it and a very good crowd turned out,' said Abood. 'It gives each team two additional scrimmages and it's an early showcase two weeks before the season officially begins.' Memorial will feature Zack Beckwith, who posted a 2.88 ERA last season.
Abood said proceeds from the game will benefit Challenger Sports of New Hampshire, a charitable non-profit organization for special needs children and adults.
'We plan on inviting the special needs individuals to come on the field between our doubleheader on Saturday and play catch with the varsity players,' said Abood. 'I've personally been involved with the organization through various basketball activities and it's a wonderful group. It's my hope through the generosity of many people that we can raise a lot of money this weekend for a worthy cause.'
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Before heading to Gill Stadium to watch the jamboree, Memorial softball coach Jerry Harper is inviting the public to attend a breakfast fund-raiser for his team on Saturday, March 31 at Applebee's Restaurant on 581 Second St.
'For a $10 donation, we're offering a hearty breakfast from 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m.,' said Harper. 'The money we raise goes right back into the program. I'm hoping for a big turn-out and who knows, I may even serve the coffee and juice.'
John Habib is a staff sports writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org..