PEORIA – Zo Evans is the perfect fill-in candidate, both on the baseball field and now on the political landscape.
The Morton native and 2007 Peoria Notre Dame High School graduate answered the call Aug. 19-21 when the Midwest League needed an umpire for a weekend series between the Peoria Chiefs and Quad Cities at Dozer Park.
The former full-time minor league umpire also answered the call when Morton needed a village clerk in 2021.
“There was none on the ballot,” said Evans, whose term runs through April 2025. “By law, Morton had to fill the position. I was an elected member. I only needed two votes to get in.
“There are a lot of career politicians in politics. It has to be just regular people. It has to be a service approach. I like being where people lean on. And the staff at Morton is fantastic. They work hard. I’m involved in a lot things and that’s because I like these experiences.”
More:Chiefs win 1-0 as MWL referee and Morton native Lorenz Evans is at home
Evans made his Midwest League umpire debut at Dozer Park in 2017, worked the All-Star Game and the championship series, was promoted to the Florida State League in 2018 and found himself at a crossroads.
“I told myself, ‘I’ve done everything I’ve got to do,'” Evans said. “I got a job offer to work (regionally) for my college fraternity and I accepted.”
Now 33, Evans has the chops he couldn’t have as a full-time professional referee. Family. He has a wife, stepson and an 18-month-old daughter named Scout.
“I couldn’t have the life I do now when I was in the game,” Evans said. “It was one or the other. Complementarily I can have both. To be able to go out there and enjoy the game, it’s a step up from college, a whole different game. I’m happy to be able to relive it all the time.
“And my daughter sits in the stands yelling ‘Daddy daddy daddy’ and I can hear it between pitches.”
The saga at Dozer Park
Midwest League umpire Nate Diederich was working the Peoria-Quad Cities series at Dozer Park in mid-August when he suffered a collapsed lung.
Earlier in the week, Diederich had met a young Peoria fan and taught him how to rub mud on game-used baseballs. That young fan, Evans said, returned one of those balls to Diederich while visiting him at OSF.
“I taught him (Diederich) in umpire school,” Evans said, referring to his previous umpire gig at the Minor League Baseball Training Academy in Vero Beach, Fla. “Nate had emergency surgery and was released Saturday before I got out. on the plate. He has a pump that goes into his chest cavity. He almost died. Lucky he’s alive.”
So with Diederich unavailable, it was Evans that Major League Baseball operations official Tom Honec called on. Evans was unavailable for Wednesday and Thursday’s games, so another Peoria-area umpire, Chris Silvestri, took over those games. Then Evans completed the final three of the week.
“I answered the phone and he said, ‘So what’s your availability for two hours?'” Evans said with a laugh. “I’ve worked about five minor league games this year, I’ve worked two in Class AAA Indy.
“You have to be on the ex-umpire list. You have to know how to work the clock and the new rules and all that.”
From home plate to full plate
Evans watched the Chiefs go 50-69 on the season as they headed into a series finale in Beloit on Sunday, taking the weekend away from the Quad Cities.
Then she went back to work as Morton’s clerk. Oh, and he’s also the executive director of all 20 JFL area leagues, a role he took on in 2019. And he just joined the Morton girls softball board of directors.
“The JFL is recovering, player participation is up 15% since I took over,” said Evans. “The increase in numbers has allowed us to reduce our 8-man football squads to just three. And that could be down to one by the start of the season. It’s growing a lot.”
Evans played football and baseball at Notre Dame High School — he was a McDonald’s All-American catcher — and he comes from a family of umpires, following his father and grandfather to diamond games and working at the college every weekend now.
The official is important to him. To that end, Evans has partnered with longtime Peoria High School official Don King — an Illinois High School Association clinician and sports officials recruiter — in an effort to recruit more officials at the prep sports level.
More:The IHSA needs officials. This Peoria couple is doing something about it
“We held a clinic here trying to recruit officials and it seemed like the IHSA didn’t care,” Evans said.
Evans says 17-year-olds are allowed to work IHSA games on Saturdays, but the cost of equipment is a deterrent for them.
Here’s another project he’s working on: A grocery store for professional, college, and amateur officials.
“I see officials everywhere who don’t know what’s going on and I see big national brands taking advantage of them,” Evans said. “Smitty Apparel (Canton, Ohio) has really stepped up their game with their line of items. I’m in the business of helping officials, baseball, softball, football, NCAA basketball, they’ll contact me and require equipment.”
Evans says the level of preparation is a tough ask for younger officials because an IHSA officials license costs $70, a shirt is $75 and then the pay for a four-hour game is $80.
Zo Evans is exactly where she wants to be right now.
Instead of driving a rental car from MiLB in the Florida State League, he’s a husband and father in Morton, village clerk, youth football and softball director and on the front lines trying to fix the officiating shortage of secondary school.
And he’s still an umpire, ready to step into Dozer Park.
“It’s a busy time, a full plate,” Evans said. “Everything has fallen into place.”
Dave Eminian is a sports columnist for the Journal Star and covers the Bradley, Rivermen and Chiefs men’s basketball. He writes the Cleve In The Eve sports column for pjstar.com. He can be reached at 686-3206 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @icetimecleve.