Sometimes the most interesting people come in the most unexpected places.
In the 77-acres that make up Lincoln’s Mahoney Park lies the softball and baseball fields in just a fraction of the northeast corner. As the sun sets on a warm and humid summer Sunday evening, with the sounds of bats clinging, yelling and cheering, the place crowded with spectators and slow-pitch softball players.
Among the crowd stands Jack Pickel in his bright orange T-shirt waiting for the next person to say hello or talk their ear off about the Yankees or last night’s UFC fights. As he jumps from conversation to conversation, sports-related or not, he’s also right there making sure operations run smooth and players find the fields they need to play on that night. He rarely takes the time to actually take in the games.
“It’s people like Pickel who bring a sense of culture to the games. He makes coming to the ballparks more than just softball, he makes them an event,” said Mason Burress, a slow-pitch softball player.
Pickel, 65, a former slow-pitch softball umpire and longtime supervisor for Lincoln Parks and Recreation, embraced his passion for sports and translated that into a lasting career. In his 40 years on the diamonds, Pickel forged relationships to create a sense of belonging in his social interactions with players, observers and fellow employees.
“When I’m out on the field, I just try to get along with people and make them feel comfortable. They’re out there to play ball and have a good time,” Pickel said.
A credit manager by day at Cash-WA Distributing, Pickel finds his comfort on Sundays walking into the park for what he calls his “side gig job.”
Nationally, employees like Pickel can be hard to come by. Although Pickel hails from Lincoln, others come to mind who remain in the spotlight. Roger Bossard, head groundskeeper for the White Sox, joined the organization in 1967 as an assistant to his father, Gene Bossard, and became the official head groundskeeper when his father retired in 1983. The hard work and dedication coupled with career longevity can sometimes be unfamiliar in an ever-changing sports industry.
As Pickel stands in the shade next to the frail white concessions building waiting to flaunt his New York Yankees wallet to any Red Sox fan he sees, he’s also fixated on any problems that may pop up for anyone attending these games.
“He’s the one that keeps the ship running,” Burress said.
And that’s exactly what Pickel does. When he’s not talking, he’s working. With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Pickel made sure players signed in to games to ensure player accountability and also that they acknowledged the risks playing during the pandemic.
In other instances, Pickel makes sure dugouts were cleaned for the next team while helping attendees find their way around the complex and locate any amenities they might need. The most interesting part of his job comes when problems arise with teams and their players, which Pickel has seen his fair share over the years.
“You see everybody’s side of the coin. You have to listen to everybody and see their point of view,” Pickel said, adding, “It helps you grow and try to think of things to say to make people feel comfortable.”
Monica Manning, athletics supervisor for Lincoln Parks and Recreation, has worked with Pickel for eight years and developed a relationship that transcends just the occasional “Hello.”
“We just kind of, you know, picked up and carried on with working hands-on together,” Manning said. “He’s awesome. He’s a huge part of our leagues and people love him. He’s personable and always has a smile on his face and makes a point to talk to everybody.”
And Pickel has seen it all, too. But that doesn’t stop him from being himself.
He recounts stories of how competitive the league used to be, the fistfights that would ensue, how the fields went from mud to well-kept grass and the many rule changes throughout the years. With this experience, Pickel figured out many subtleties and scenarios that have played out hundreds of times.
“Being there for so long definitely mellows you out,” Pickel said.
Manning has Pickel supervising more these days and not umpiring on the fields. His knee bothers him and things like the heat get to him. Nonetheless, Manning said he is still out there talking to the other officials, teaching and training them, as well as working with all the players and teams, something she said definitely fits that role.
Pickel weighed the idea of retiring and finally hanging up that orange T-shirt for good but he still hasn’t made that call just yet. He’s been urged, he said, by his wife and kids but the passion still runs deep.
“Jack is a fixture,” Manning said. “He’s been around forever. He loves our programs. He loves what we do.”
Since 1981, Pickel has had many days the same. And as the sun sets around him on that warm Sunday night, he takes it all in. From the first to the last cling of the bat, it’s all in a day’s work for Jack Pickel.
“It’s all left out on the field,” he said. “And I’m thankful for that.”