Jim Shove: He filled the room with a big presence and a big heart

Behind Torrington High School the Raiders and Holy Cross were locked in one of their two seasonal baseball battles.  It was the mid 1990s and coach Jim Shove’s Crusaders were in the midst of domination over Torrington having won 17 straight meetings. But on this day the inevitable happened and the streak finally became history.

I was covering the game for the Torrington Register Citizen and after the game I approached Shove and asked him a question to the effect about what finally turned the tide in the Raiders favor. Shove barked back at me and I mean barked, “How do I know, why don’t you ask them they won the game.” He then turned around walked away.

I took a step back, probably a couple of steps back, quickly pivoted and moved towards Torrington’s side of the field and bench. Sports are emotional and sometimes you just catch people at the wrong time and move on. This was the wrong time.

Fast forward about two months. I was covering a summer baseball game at Greatorex Park in Waterville. Shove was umpiring behind the plate. As I was walking behind the plate before the game to get one team’s lineup he asked to talk to me. I hadn’t thought much about our last encounter although it certainly was in the back of my mind.

This is what I got.

“Rick, my son (Ben) told me I was pretty rude to you in Torrington when we lost,” Shove said. “My son doesn’t lie. So, I want to apologize. I’m sorry.”

In a sense that’s all you need to know about the essence of Shove. Irascible and gruff at times with a heart of gold ruling the day.  Shove’s actions resonated with me that day much as the memory of the actions has stayed with me over the 30 years or so.  It wasn’t something you forgot.

Shove died Saturday doing what he loved do, umpiring an American Legion baseball game in Naugatuck.  He went down during the game and never got up, a heart attack making the final call. There may be a bit or irony here but at least the thought crosses the mind that if you ever asked him how he would like to go you can hear him say – on the field.  He was a brisk 75. He was too young.

The word of Shove’s death circulated Saturday night, I first became aware in a post on line from Waterbury Republican photographer Jim Shannon. It rocked you.  He wasn’t just a coach and umpire and official.  Part of his legacy is in the numbers and we’ll give them to you. But he was a PRESENCE far beyond those numbers.

The physical presence was dictated by longevity and commitment. Wherever you turned for more than half a century Shove was seemingly there, his imprint imbedded in so much. He played at Kennedy High School and went on to become a Holy Cross Crusader for life.

He coached baseball for 10 years winning the Naugatuck Valley League title in 2001 while posting a career 142-60 record. There were 11 seasons guiding the football team and posting a 67-48 mark. After his coaching days, you could find him working football games as a respected official and on about every field west of the Mississippi as a top tier baseball umpire. If you were at a Holy Cross basketball game, Shove was the guy wearing a referee’s shirt keeping the clock. You couldn’t escape him and to be honest you didn’t want to. The atmosphere was always better with him in the room.

Former Holy Cross Athletic Director Jerry Ciarleglio admits he has had trouble finding words about Shove. “I’ve gotten calls and was thankful I wasn’t home. For three days I’ve been trying to figure out what to say I couldn’t do it.”

It’s all about Shove’s presence. He was never one easy to categorize.

“He was so funny and so different,” Ciarleglio said. “He was always his own man. He just wasn’t like anyone else. He had the courage of his convictions. Either you loved him or didn’t like him. But I’ll say this, the kids that played for him like Mike Phelan (former football and base coach), Matt Smolley (current baseball coach) and Mike Giampetruzzi ((current football coach and athletic director) all loved him. That says a lot about him.”

Former area umpire and minor league baseball umpire Rick Romanello spent his share of miles on the umpiring trail with Shove. He found the full Shove entertaining and appreciated.

“I was umpiring my first minor league game in Oneonta, N.Y. and was really nervous,” Romanello remembers. “All the sudden I hear hey umpire you suck come from the stands. I’m thinking what the heck did I do. The pitcher was warming up and the game hadn’t even started. I turned around and it was Jimmy. He had come all the way up with my father to watch my first game. I really appreciated it. I ended up autographing a ball and giving it to him. It was always fun to umpire with him.”

One of the special elements of the sportswriting business, somewhat particular to the community level is the opportunity to take it to the next level – not just knowing what people do but getting to know  who people are.  Coaches and players might live in your own town. Maybe you socialize with them. It is there.

Shove and I were inducted in the Tri-State Baseball Hall of Fame together in 2012. It was my privilege. Once in a while we would run into one another at a gem of a small town breakfast stop, Patti’s Place, in Thomaston. There was always the small talk and he always asked my how my son, Jon, was doing. He had umpired a numbered of his baseball games.

I covered a ton of Holy Cross basketball games and Shove never failed to ask what I need when I walked into the gym. A desk to sit at, a chair, a new Corvette. It didn’t matter he got it. The conversation was usually as entertaining as the game.

Shove was an honest man and he didn’t much care whether you agreed with him or not.

“(Jimmy) wore his emotions on his sleeve,” said Dan Scavone the Director of the Officials Association for the CIAC and former Holy Cross Principal. “I admire him for talking from the heart. He was just a down to earth, caring person. “

Scavone also may have hit on what made Shove such a memorable presence.

“It’s every kid dream to play ball their whole life,” Scavone said. “Think about Jim. He taught sports, he coached sports, he umpired and refereed sports. He never left his childhood and his interest in sports. How many people can say that they never left their childhood. I just admire his career.”

Shove’s legacy goes beyond being in the room whether he was coaching a game or callng a game. He lit up the room.  You knew he was there. He was a presence. His numbers were good. He was better.

Jim Shove always a big presence with a big heart. The room feels a lot emptier right now.

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