By Eric Shultz
For The Daily Item
For a longtime umpire, the offer was a no-brainer.
Near the beginning of the year, Joe Nickey was asked to join the umpiring crew for a cancer benefit game still in the planning stages.
"I have a real passion for the game of baseball," said Nickey, a Milton native. "When they asked me to umpire, right away I said yes."
The inaugural Coaches and Seniors vs. Cancer game is 7 p.m. Saturday at Historic Bowman Field. It will pit area high school seniors against coaches, and benefit the American Cancer Society.
Umping the charity game took a personal turn for Nickey about a month and a half ago, when his wife, Chris, was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Suddenly the game meant much more to him. Nickey, who said several co-workers at the Milton Regional Sewer Authority have been diagnosed with cancer in the last year, now had a loved one directly affected by the disease, too. The experience put things in perspective, he said.
"I've been involved with baseball since 1976 in some form or another, and I've seen so many people take the fun out of the game," said Nickey, who noted that he has been umpiring for 23 years. "And with this, with what's happened to four or five people, close people, it's a game and people forget that. What's going on off the diamond with people that they care about and love is much more important.
"Once we're off the field, we're normal people, whether we're a coach, a player or an umpire," he added.
Nickey said that while it's been tough, he and Chris are taking things one day at a time. She is in treatment, and doctors are optimistic she will beat it, he said.
"The prognosis is good, and we're just hoping for the best. That's all you can do," he said. "With the support of a whole lot of very good friends and family, we're fighting it."
Also joining the fight are those involved in Saturday's game. High schools involved include Hughesville, Williamsport, South Williamsport, Jersey Shore, Montgomery, Muncy, Milton, Montoursville, Loyalsock, Central Columbia, Warrior Run, St. John Neumann and Danville, according to the event's web site.
Admission to the game is $2, with items from various sponsors and donors being auctioned. Donations will be collected during the game.
Jake King, an assistant coach for Hughesville and a member of the committee that helped make the event a reality, said the idea first came about while thinking of fund raiser opportunities for the program. King said fellow assistant Mike Earnst thought of the game, and the idea quickly evolved into something far larger than a team fund raiser.
"It's so nice that the conversation started with fund raising for the program and for the team, and it kind of spun into, 'Well, what about this?'" King said.
A discussion between King and other members of Hughesville's staff also sparked a show of support for Nickey.
Not long after his wife was diagnosed, Nickey worked a Hughesville game. Having heard what happened, King and the Spartans decided to wear pink shirts that honored Chris, something Nickey said brought tears to his eyes.
"Joe's just not my favorite umpire. If you talk to a lot of the coaches and players in this area, you'll find that -- as much as umpires are disliked -- Joe is very well-liked," King said. "He's a good official and he's just a good guy. I wanted to make sure that he knew that our program was behind him."
It's times like that and also Saturday's game that serve as a reminder that baseball can be more than just a game.
"The cool part is being able to use the game of baseball as a vehicle to raise money (to fight) such a horrible disease," King said. "That's the cool part with it, being able to use that in such a good way, and to make it fun. Make it competitive, but make it fun."
With the game hitting a personal note, Nickey said umpiring it will feel different. Overall, he expects it to be a "special night."
Even if the event does not reach its goal of raising $50,000, both King and Nickey said it will still be a success.
"Any money that you raise for a cure for cancer is money that they didn't have before," Nickey said.