The Niagara-on-the-Lake softball and slo-pitch communities are mourning the loss of one of their own this week.
Long-time umpire, coach, organizer and mentor Ken McKay passed away on May 3. The 76-year-old had been a fixture on local ball diamonds right up until COVID-19 shut them down last summer.
“Kenny goes way back,” says Peter Flynn of the NOTL Softball Club. “He started with the girls fast-pitch, he used to coach it and ump it when it was young. I know he started out in St. Catharines, then he got into the Niagara-on-the-Lake slo-pitch when we started it, Irv Fast, Lisa Juras and myself.”
Like many sports, slo-pitch experienced ups and downs in popularity over the years. After a period of waning involvement, Flynn says McKay was instrumental in getting the over-35 men’s masters league going and also started the co-ed league, which as of 2019 was 12 teams strong.
To Flynn and many others, however, McKay truly made his mark on the diamonds as an umpire. For many years he worked every summer, acting as umpire-in-chief for a crew of younger officials for fast-pitch and slo-pitch games around the region.
Flynn himself was brought into the fold, and was able to learn alongside the master. “I umpired with him a bunch of times. He would get me to help out at games in St. Catharines sometimes, and he was in charge of umping my kids’ league (NOTL Minor Softball) for years.”
A resident of St. Catharines, McKay lived in an apartment building near the Fairview Mall. Flynn says there was a reason for that choice — the building was close to Lancaster Park, where he could leisurely walk to one of the two ball diamonds to officiate girls softball games.
But as Flynn says, McKay never shied away from making the trip to the fields at Virgil, even in recent years when his declining health affected his eyesight, resulting in the loss of his licence.
“He would actually get the bus to come umpire in Virgil,” Flynn remembers. “He was definitely devoted and passionate about the sport. I picked him up whenever he would let me, and drove him home when I could.”
Cameron Woodcock, a former town parks department employee, remembers meeting McKay about 10 years ago while playing fastball in Jordan. When Woodcock decided that umpiring would be a great summer job, he soon found himself running into McKay more often.
“He got me into umpiring slo-pitch,” remembers Woodcock, now 23 years old. “He was definitely the one that helped me advance. He was always professional, always stood up for me, and always pushed me. He did a lot for the programs, gave them a lot of time, and he always made sure the other umps were taken care of.”
Like Flynn, in recent summers Woodcock would pick up his mentor to drive him to the ballpark after his licence was taken away. “When I first started, he would always offer a ride, I was 13, 14 years old. I was happy at the end that I got to drive him around and return the favour. It came full circle.”
“On the diamond, he always kept the players loose and happy,” Flynn says. “When he umpired the kids, and he taught me this, he would help the catcher, move them to the right position, and try to guide the catcher to help the pitcher. He always took time to talk to people, he was super polite. He helped us keep the kids league going, and he helped train a lot of younger umpires too.”
Flynn adds that keeping the slo-pitch players loose, and amused, was also one of McKay’s goals. “He always loved it when it was an 0-2 count. He would always say ‘the batter has two strikes and no balls’. A lot of people texted me this week about that one.”
Woodcock adds, “he never took the spotlight, the players all respected him, he was definitely honest. And at the end, when his eyesight was fading, he wouldn’t do the big games, he was able to pass the torch to younger umpires to do the senior men’s ball, or the men’s A division. I’m sure it wasn’t easy to admit it, but he was able to do that with a lot of grace.”
Though McKay was less involved in both slo-pitch and softball his last few years, he was still a fixture in Virgil, and his loss is resonating amongst players, organizers and umpires across the region.
McKay, a retired accountant from TRW, leaves behind his wife, Bernice, children Dwight, Robin and Jacques, nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.