ACC Supervisor of Umpires Troy Fullwood has worked in the ACC for a long time.
In 1996 — his first year working in the ACC — Fullwood worked a number of games at North Carolina’s Cary C. Boshamer Stadium. At every game there was a woman — Fullwood couldn’t remember her name while speaking to media over Zoom on Thursday — on stadium staff that held the door open for umpires as they enter the building.
He recalled on Thursday, ahead of a mid-afternoon contest between UNC and UVA, that the same stadium staffer who had performed this ritual opening of the door for decades, sported an astonished look when Fullwood arrived on Thursday.
What about Fullwood’s arrival was so astounding? It was the first signal that Boshamer Stadium was about to host history.
Following Fullwood was a group of four other Black men. The men — Linus Baker, Damien Beal, Greg Street and Randy Watkins — were hours away from becoming the first umpiring crew in Power Five and Major League baseball’s centuries-long history composed entirely of Black officials.
“I walked into the stadium today and, I don’t know the lady’s name but she’s been here forever, She opens the door, it’s like tradition, right. She opens the door for the stadium [for umpires at] every home game for the last 20 years and today … she was shocked. She was kind of like “Where are the other guys?” She couldn’t believe it.’
The ACC made the announcement at 11 a.m. Thursday morning ahead of the 4 p.m. opening pitch between the visiting Virginia Cavaliers and North Carolina Tar Heels that Baker, Beal, Street and Watkins will work the entire series.
Fullwood originally approached ACC Championships & Senior Woman Administrator, Kris Pierce with the idea of fielding an all-Black umpire crew after returning from the funeral of one of his mentors, Randy Harvey in Sept. 2020.
Harvey was the second Black man to umpire a College World Series and after his passing in Sept. 2020, umpires around the country have worn No. 41 patches on their shoulders and face masks to honor his life.
“Unfortunately, Randy passed away last year and myself, along with a lot of other umpires, we went to the funeral,” Fulwood said. “And on the flight back from his funeral, I just felt in my spirit that ‘Hey, you know what, I would like to do this.’ So I approached Khris Pierce and I asked her, with her blessing, would it be okay if we did this for our opening weekend? … Without hesitation, she said yes.”
Fullwood had plenty of creative control over the organization of the event, and in the spirit of Harvey, who inspired it, he chose to tap personal relationships built through decades in umpiring when assembling the crew.
Fulwood manages the weekly assignments of the ACC’s roughly 65 umpires — of which he estimated only about 10 are non-white — for every conference contest. That made his pool to choose from smaller and allowed him to pick men he knew well, men he felt were deserving of this distinction.
Ultimately he chose Beal, Baker, Street and Watkins. He’s built relationships by managing, working with and even making his own history alongside them. Fullwood’s been their supervisor for two years, but spoke of them as friends and role models.
Beal has been a friend since he and Fulwood began professional umpiring school together in 1996, Baker has worked three Super Regionals, and Watkins was another mentor of Fullwood’s.
But Street and Fullwood have a special connection, written permanently in college baseball’s history books.
“Greg Street, who is working the plate tonight, was an alternate,” Fullwood said. “We have eight guys go to Omaha and two guys are selected as alternates. … And as fate would have it, one of our umpires got hurt and they flew Greg Street in to work and finish out Omaha 2017. In one of the games Greg Street and I — it was the game before the championship — that we worked the game together. And that was the first time ever … in history that they have two African Americans on the field at the same time in Omaha.”
The timing and location of the series in which this event would take place was chosen carefully by Fullwood as well.
The University of North Carolina’s involvement was an obvious choice. Fullwood wanted this moment to take place in the ACC heartland of the Carolinas. But the inclusion of Virginia in the event was more targeted and added further historical significance.
Virginia head coach Brian O’Connor is one of the most decorated head coaches in the conference. After 18 years at the helm of the Cavaliers, O’Connor has racked up more than 700 career wins and a National Title. He’s ACC baseball’s elder statesman and Fullwood wanted him there on Thursday.
“Coach O’Connor is only [active] coach in the conference … to have ever won the [College] World Series,” Fullwood said. “So I just thought it would be fitting to be here in Carolina and fitting for coach O’Connor [to be here] … I just thought that by this would be the perfect place the perfect game to have this historic moment.”
Fullwood said that over his decades-long career umpiring collegiate and professional baseball, he’d never worked a crew with more than two black umpires. And because of that experience, brought his kids to Chapel Hill. Fullwood said that, in his house, this game — a late February Thursday matinee — generated the same anticipation as a national title-deciding contest.
“[The umpires] are excited, my kids are excited about it, Fullwood said. “My kids here. I wanted them to see history. I mean, who doesn’t want to go? They feel like they felt in 2017, when my kids flew out to watch me work the national championship.”