‘The right time’: Gibson to retire from MLB umpiring

Ashland native Greg Gibson is closing the book on a 24-year Major League Baseball umpiring career with no regrets.

His career is stuffed full of highlights, including being on the umpire crew for the 2011 World Series, calling balls and strikes for Randy Johnson’s perfect game in 2004 and then on the bases when Clayton Kershaw fired a no-hitter 10 years later in 2014.

Those are big baseball moments for No. 53, who recently turned 54 years old. No other umpire has ever worn No. 53 except for Gibby, as they called him.

Gibson said he was thankful for everything baseball gave him but it was time to walk away from a job that has given him life experiences he could never had imagined. “If God called me home right now, I’ve done a lot of living,” he said.

His career included being part of 11 Division Series umpiring teams, five League Championship Series and even a Game 7 as part of the 2011 World Series that the St. Louis Cardinals won against the Texas Rangers and the 2008 All-Star Game.

Texas Rangers’ Adrian Beltre, center, watches his solo home run in front of Tampa Bay Rays catcher Kelly Shoppach and umpire Greg Gibson during the fourth inning of Game 4 of baseball’s American League division series, Tuesday Oct. 4, 2011, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

He also had one that nobody could match: “I had home plate on Sunday night on ESPN and (Albert) Pujols pitched. He’s part of the 700 home run club and I worked the plate for Albert Pujols pitching.”

It was his Pujols’ one and only mound appearance in a Hall of Fame career.

Gibson was a highly respected umpire who is walking away on his own terms and at the right time. He’s looking forward to more family time with wife Michelle and his three sons: Kyle, Cameron and Carter. He will also spend more time with his dad and mom, Acy and Joyce Gibson,

“My family put up with me being gone,” he said. “Michelle practically raised the boys by herself.” She will be retiring from the Boyd County school system next year, he said.

Don’t expect Gibson to be sitting in a rocking chair and remembering the good ‘ol days. He will be more involved than ever with an insurance coming that has been soaring since it started in 2019. He loves the business and will be putting that same effort into it that made him one of MLB’s elite umpires over the past 24 years.

Gibson said he never wanted to stay too long in umpiring and “be that guy where players are rolling their eyes when they see you coming out. I’ve seen that happen (to other umpires). I was getting to the point where it wasn’t fun.”

Homeplate umpire Greg Gibson signals a home run for Tampa Bay Rays’ Matt Joyce after a review during the first inning of a baseball game against the Detroit Tigers in Detroit, Sunday, July 6, 2014. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

“When I got into umpiring, it was my passion. I always said I wanted to leave when they still thought I was good. Not great, but good,” he said.

Gibson said he also didn’t want to be the veteran who stood in the way of a young umpire ready to make the move to MLB. “A young man on my crew, Nick Marley, came up from Triple-A. Hopefully they hire him in the offseason. I remember being that young guy. It’s my time to get out of the way. It was the right time.”

Umpiring has taken a physical toll as well. He’s had multiple concussions from foul tips smacking off his facemask and head. Gibson said he thought his career was in jeopardy when he had four concussions in 2009. Three of the head blows came within 12 days, he said.

He missed the 2020 season after suffering an offseason knee injury and has missed games this season with long-term COVID issues.

“It’s been a great run,” said Gibson, who started his professional umpiring career in the Appalachian League in 1991 when he was 22 years old. He broke into MLB in 1999 and his first game was Cleveland-St. Louis in 1997. “I’m not sure my feet touched the ground when I went out,” he said. It took two more years before he became fulltime in the major leagues, following a tradition in the Ashland area that included Charlie Reliford and Terry Craft. Sam Holbrook, who is from Morehead, is still an active umpire. Reliford works with MLB umpires and is considered one of the best rules experts in the game.

When Gibson became an MLB umpire, every team didn’t have its own television network and every game wasn’t televised. Baseball fans could only catch the Braves (WTBS) and Cubs (WGN) on a regular basis. The radio was the biggest means of communication.

But year by year, technology soared and now every team is televised every game and national networks put it under a bigger spotlight. That meant more attention – and pressure – on umpires to never miss a call. Their accuracy rate remains remarkable on balls and strikes and safe or out.

“I told Michelle my goal this year was to not become a meme,” he said. “Who would have ever thought that?”

The physical and mental fatigue of being a MLB umpire can take a toll, he said, which is another reason he’s glad to walk away from it even though he could have experienced it longer.

A man of faith, Gibson said he understands know how God was working about eight years ago preparing him for a career change.

“I was disappointed with some things that were happening with my (baseball) career. A few things happened that I didn’t understand and didn’t know why. I was mad. But God was opening up a door for me with insurance. I am so thankful. Even when I was mad, I didn’t even realize it until 2021. God was preparing me then for now. It’s what makes me more happy than anything. I’d rather be in God’s will than work four or five World Series. At the end of the day, God only gives you one shot. If you’re going to say Jesus take the wheel, mean it.”

Gibson said he has worked with a lot of umpires who have passed away. “They don’t teach a man how to retire,” he said.

Even though he’s been on the field for some of baseball’s biggest moments, the most memorable moments were when he looked up in the stands and saw family – his mom and dad, his wife and sons. “That’s what was always the most important moment,” he said.

He called behind the plate on Mother’s Day in Cincinnati this season and before the game had his family on the field with him for some photographs. Gibson, who hadn’t contemplated retirement, said he didn’t know why but something told him to do it.

“For whatever reason, I got them all downstairs and went out on the field and take a ton of pictures,” he said. “Now I know why.”

Remembering a Tomcat great from famed 1961 champions

Harold Sergent, one of Ashland’s greatest athletes and a shrewd businessman who made and lost fortunes during his lifetime, died alone in a nursing home in Florida a little more than a year ago.

A tremendous basketball and baseball player at Ashland High School and Morehead College, Sergent is best known in Ashland as the starting point guard for the 1961 state champion Tomcats. Some still consider that team the greatest champion in Kentucky high school basketball history. He later was a record-setting player at Morehead where his number 50 was retied and hangs in the rafters.

Sergent was a reclusive person in his later years and especially after the death of his wife, Linda, in 2009. They were married 46 years.

Good friend and former business partner John Stafford learned of Sergent’s death in July after doing some research through a friend who is an attorney. They learned he died July 26, 2021, in a nursing home near West Palm.

“They had no history who he was,” Stafford said. “Here’s a guy who was an All-American, point guard of the 61 Tomcats, a Phillips 66er and someone who played in the Pan Am Games. So many achievements he had, and nobody knew about them.”

Stafford became concerned because Sergent had spent many weeks with him at Stafford’s home in Ormond Beach in Florida. Sergent lived in West Palm, which was a close drive. The two of them were former business partners who worked together for years.

“I lost touch with him about two years ago,” Stafford said. “All of the sudden he just dropped off the map. I kept calling the phone numbers I had for him but none of them worked. He had gotten sick. Harold was a real introverted person. The last time he stayed with me, he couldn’t go upstairs to the bedrooms because of his legs that were in such bad shape. He went back home and that was the last time I saw him.”

Stafford later learned Sergent had been living in a one-bedroom apartment and couldn’t drive.

“We did business together, made lot of money together,” Stafford said. “He had some rough edges, but I gave it right back to him. You either loved him or hated him. They cremated him but I don’t know what they did with his ashes. It’s a shame for him to die like a pauper.”

Sergent and his wife lived a lavish lifestyle that included multiple mansions and a beautiful horse farm in Lexington. His life was most certainly lived in the fast lane. Stafford said he was a dynamo in the board rooms.

After helping Ashland win the 1961 state championship on a team loaded with talent, Sergent went on to star at Morehead from 1962-65, scoring 1,469 career points that included 363 free throws. He was a first-team Ohio Valley Conference selection three times and finished his career with a 23.2 scoring average. He was inducted into the MSU Athletic Hall of Fame in 1985.

Sergent had 25 scholarship offers and he and teammate Gene Smith initially signed with Virginia Tech but backed out after a coaching change. They visited Florida State’s campus where Hugh Durham was the freshmen coach. Florida State had just changed from an all-female school so the ratio of male-to-female was still greatly tilted to the feminine gender, which suited Sergent and Smith (who ended up at Cincinnati). But neither went there.

Kentucky wasn’t one of Sergent’s offers as Adolph Rupp gave his last backcourt scholarship to Owensboro’s Randy Embry, a decision he may have regretted after Sergent’s sterling career at Morehead.

On the freshmen team at Morehead, he averaged 37 points per game, setting the stage for a big varsity career. Freshmen were not allowed to play on the college varsity level then.

Sergent scored 52 points (without the aid of the 3-point shot) against Middle Tennessee in the 1964-65 season and was named OVC Player of the Year in 1963, the first year that award was given. His No. 50 jersey was retired and hangs in Johnson Arena.

He also played baseball for the Eagles, becoming a first-team OVC selection when he won 10 games in one season.

Sergent was an outstanding baseball player for the Tomcats as well, growing up in Ashland when organized baseball was starting. He was a fire-balling pitcher who was hard to hit. But basketball was his calling card. While he averaged 15.2 points per game for the Tomcats in 1961, it could have been much more. Sergent and Larry Conley were considered the most talented players on that team. Conley was a junior and he led the Tomcats back to the state tournament as a senior where they fell in the finals to Louisville St. Xavier, 62-58.

Sergent and Conley’s point totals were also held down in 61 because coach Bob Wright often didn’t play them for more than a half in many of the lopsided victories. But they compiled a 36-1 season and dominated everyone in the Sweet 16 with four consecutive double-figure wins, including 69-51 over Lexington Dunbar in the finals. More than 60 years later, that team is mentioned among the all-time best because of their teamwork.

A book by the same name, Teamwork, commemorated the 1961 Tomcats on their 50th anniversary in 2011. That’s where I first encountered Sergent, who was friendly and open about the team, sharing many interesting anecdotes including how he was almost cut by Wright as a junior.

Sergent or Conley could have averaged 30 or more per game in 1961 but the beauty of that team was how well they worked together. Nobody cared who got the points, if the Tomcats got the win. Sergent was a natural athlete who was good at whatever he played.

“Anything he did athletically, he did well,” said Stafford, an athlete himself who was co-captain and an end for the 1962 Tomcats’ football team. “They’d play in the old YMCA on 13th Street on that small basketball floor where there was not room to walk around the court. They had a track over the top. All these great players would meet and play virtually every day together. They knew each other so well. People would line up on that railing to watch them play.”

Stafford said he admired Sergent and wanted to get to know him better, which he did.

Being about 5-foot-11 and wearing glasses, some may have questioned his athletic ability at first glance even but you did so at your own peril. Even later in life, Stafford said he could beat anybody in a game of P-I-G and he’d shoot in the low 80s in golf after not playing for a year. “His hand-to-eye coordination was amazing,” Stafford said.

After finishing at Morehead, he played for the Phillips 66ers in the Amateur Athletic Union, which at the time was the premier amateur basketball league in the United States. Playing in the AAU allowed players to still compete in international competitions like the Olympic Games and Pan Am Games because professional athletes were not allowed to participate. Sergent was twice named an AAU All-American in 1966 and 1967.

Sergent was inducted into the Kentucky Basketball Hall of Fame in 2017 but didn’t make it to the ceremony. The 61 Tomcats are the last boys’ state championship team from the 16th Region. Ashland has since been runner-up twice, in 1962 and 1996, and Rowan County was runner-up in 2011.

Sergent was the second starter from the 1961 Tomcats to pass away. Bob Hilton, who scored 24 in the state championship game, died in 1980. Conley, Steve Cram and Smith were the other starters. Dale Sexton and Jerry Daniels were the top subs, making up what was called “The Solid Seven.”

Beating the odds: Sullivan shines brightly in athletic, professional careers

David Sullivan defied the odds to become one of the best receivers in University of Virginia history and a professional football receiver for the Cleveland Browns.

His career – both athletically and professionally – is so bright that sunglasses should be required.

Sullivan succeeded in both through faith, dedication, believing in himself and believing in teammates. Those are the hallmarks of success for Sullivan, whose accolades on and off the playing fields is a success story worth hearing and make him one of the greatest overachieving athletes in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, high school football history.

He was a 6-foot, 165-pound senior at Steelton High School when his high school coached moved him from running back to flanker. He quickly adapted to the position, learning to run pass routes with proficiency. Sullivan’s soft hands and speed made him an instant success and paved the way for an improbable career.

Dave Sullivan was a record-smashing receiver at the University of Virginia. That helped him play two years in the NFL with the Browns.

In his first season as a prep receiver, Sullivan caught 35 passes for 672 yards and five touchdowns during Steelton’s 1967 season. A star was born and he caught the eye of the University of Virginia, which overlooked his frame and looked into the heart. They signed him to a college scholarship, believing they had found a diamond in the rough.

He became a rare find as Sullivan’s intellect and determination to succeed would take him all the way to the National Football League. He proved himself invaluable on the college level, becoming an AP honorable mention All-American and first-team Atlantic Coast Conference wide receiver his senior year at the University of Virginia. Some have called him one of the greatest players in school history. The first-team All-America wide receiver in Sullivan’s senior year was Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers, proving he was in good company. He may have moved further up the All-America ladder had the Cavaliers produced a winning season.

Sullivan led the ACC in catches and receiving yards, becoming the only Virginia all-league player that season. He had 51 catches for 662 yards and seven touchdowns – all top marks for Virginia receivers in a single season – despite a revolving door of quarterbacks at Virginia. He was often the player that opposing defenses tried to take away but his uncanny route running ability and good hands overcame many double-teams.

For his career, Sullivan amassed 120 catches for 1,568 yards and 12 touchdowns, the first two setting Virginia records. He played in the Blue-Gray and Senior All-Star Games and began to draw the attention of professional scouts.

Another characteristic for Sullivan was his leadership abilities. Even though he was one of the best receivers in college football in 1972, teammates saw the same man they knew when he entered college. He was humble and generous – traits that would serve him well later in the business world. Sullivan was a winner who he did it within the team concept. He took that same attitude into his professional life after football was no longer an option.

When Sullivan was entering his senior year of high school, he wasn’t on anybody’s recruiting radar. But once he was moved to flanker and worked relentlessly to learn the position, not even his small frame or age was a deterrent. When he signed out of high school to Virginia, he was only 16 years old. He worked hard in the classroom too, ranking 22nd in a class of 152 in 1968.

By the time he was a senior at Virginia, he was 6-foot and 185 pounds – a far cry from the 155-pound receiver that went mostly unwanted by most major colleges. His size and speed – he ran 40 yards in 4.7 seconds – was under the radar by most pro scouts. But few in college ran routes better or had better hands than Sullivan, giving him a chance to become an NFL player.

Sullivan has been defying odds since he was a slender 115-pound sophomore trying to make the varsity at Steel-High. Two years later college after college passed on him because he was too small for their programs. All except for Virginia, which found a playmaking receiver.

Cleveland took Sullivan late in the 1973 NFL Draft, taking him in the 15th round. That didn’t deter him from believing he could make the team and contribute or even start. He played in seven NFL games, starting three and would have had a much longer career if not for a third knee surgery that proved to be too much. He caught five passes for 92 yards in his two-year career with the Browns.

In his finest game with the Browns, he caught two passes for 52 yards from Brian Sipe in a 26-16 loss to the Steelers. Sullivan was being defended by Hall of Fame cornerback Mel Blount in that game at Cleveland Stadium in 1974.

His degree from Virginia was in educational psychology, but he quickly learned the business side of the death care business. He liked the competitiveness aspect along with the traits of strong character, integrity and compassion with the customer.

He joined Gibraltar Mausoleum Corp. in Indianapolis in 1977 and rose to become the executive vice president of sales and marketing. He stayed with that company for 18 years. Sullivan has 47 years in the sales and marketing end of the business and formed Saber Management in January 1998.

He was named the 2002 Ernst & Young Heartland, Indiana, Entrepreneur of the Year and led Saber Management to even bigger successes over the next 15 years before selling to Park Lawn Corp. in 2017 for $65 million.

Sullivan is also recognized for his philanthropy. He has been a consistent and generous donor to the nonprofit Amy For Africa, a Christian organization in Uganda, since 2014 – not only through his businesses but personally with wife, Sara. He has also been involved in many other charities promoting needs for children and others in need through both his business contributions and personally.

New book ‘DIVINEPLAN’ carries simple message: Follow Jesus’ plan for your life

“Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God.” – Colossians 3:1-3

The first line of Christian Villers’ new book offers a thought-provoking punch: “Imagine if you had only one hour to live.”

“Will it matter how many followers you have, how much money you’ve made or what kind of clothes you’re wearing?” he asks.

Villers is only 24 years old, a part of Generation Z, already a successful businessman, and someone who is pursuing a life of significance for Jesus Christ. Now he can add author to his title, although he strays away from all the tags except follower of Jesus. To him, that’s the only one that matters.

“When we understand what He has done for us, that’s where we find life,” he said.

Villers isn’t a theologian, a new pastor or even a seminary student. He’s also not a well-known writer or blogger but his book, “DIVINEPLAN,” he believes, can have an impact on young adults and others who are conflicted by the culture in today’s world. The book is written for believers and especially the non-believers who Villers said will understand who Jesus after reading the first chapter.

“For someone who doesn’t know a thing about Jesus, they’re going to learn about him,” he said. “I want them to understand what is significant. Significance isn’t found in money and fame and trophies. That stuff dies the day we do. The book is written to encourage people to live life of eternal significance. Each chapter shows how you can do that. It brings the light of Christ into every chapter. There’s 19 chapters and I really think there’s something in those 19 chapters for every single person. Whether you’re a 17-year-old or a 70-year-old, people have trouble finding purpose and meaning in life.”

Villers calls it an inspirational Christian book full of God’s truths. His business, also called “DIVINEPLAN,” is a Christian clothing company that gives young adults throughout the world something that “looked good and had a gospel message.” But, he said, “I realized God had so much more.”

While talking to people from around the world, he often found them gravitating toward life’s problems and away from Jesus. He would send them heartfelt messages peppered with God’s truths via Instagram that seemed to be making a gospel impact. The feedback he received was eye-opening. “They were inspirational messages to help lead them to Jesus,” he said. They wrote back to him that his messages were “encouraging and inspiring them to get right with Jesus.”

The messages kept coming and he provided the answers that some were seeking, and they almost always involved Jesus. He doesn’t claim to be a prophet or even a counselor, but the messages were hitting home.

“God gave me the opportunity to talk with people from Ashland to Australia who were struggling with anxiety and anger, and told me how much these messages helped them. A lady from New York said for the last six years has struggled getting a relationship with God. After our conversation, she was inspired to make things right. That’s when I knew God was using this to point them to Jesus.”

Many of those inspirational stories are part of “DIVINEPLAN.”

Villers said writing has come naturally, even from an early age when Mrs. Evans, his first-grade teacher at Oakview Elementary, would give the class writing assignments asking what are you thankful for? “A lot of my friends were saying video games or cheese pizza but even at that young age, I always used the opportunity to glorify Jesus, hoping it was a blessing to my teacher. So, I guess this is not all coincidence.”

He said he was working out with a basketball – another passion for him and his family – when that realization came over him. He said God was telling him that he was going to write a book. There was no mistaking the message. He began the process in March 2021, a year after the pandemic brought the world – and Villers – to a standstill. Villers said it was during the pandemic, when everything was taken away, that he truly came to realize the importance of being a true follower of Jesus. While he comes from a Christian home and attends church regularly at Ironton First Baptist Church, where his uncle Eric Barnes is the pastor, and came to a belief in Jesus at the age of 9, it took the pandemic’s deadly clutches to fully understand what it meant to truly follow Jesus.

“God formed and created me and surrounded me with what I say is the greatest family on earth,” he said. “My parents, John and Leigh, my extended family, my brothers, they were all so instrumental in my life. Even the community He placed me in. My whole life, I’ve been a Christian, but until age 22, until the pandemic hit, I wouldn’t say I was truly alive. I could check every moral box. According to the world, I was a good person. But I’d lost a little perspective of walking in God’s will for my life every single step. He has transformed my life.”

Villers’ goal with the book is to help others have a transformative life in Jesus Christ as well.

“I think this book is going to be a real eye-opener to people,” he said. “It puts things into perspective. We are only here for a short amount of time. They have eternal effects. From the first page to 214, I think it’s going to really inspire people to make the most of a life led by Jesus.”

“DIVINEPLAN” is available in Kindle or paperback on Amazon. Villers and Barnes are working on a study workbook that would go with it.

Any college group, church youth group or civic group that would like for Villers to visit can message him at Christian Villers on Facebook.