It’s the championship game in the bottom of the ninth, the score is tied with two outs and the bases are loaded. The home team’s batter steps up to the plate and after five pitches, it’s a full count. One more strike and all hopes are dashed for the title. In baseball, there’s nothing like that exact moment and it’s a feeling Cornel Burnette knows all too well. The 63-year-old umpire has been behind the plate since 1971.
An umpire isn’t always the most popular person in the game, but in Cornel’s case, he’s more than the man yelling, ‘strike’ or ‘you’re out!’ He’s the heart behind the plate, beloved by his wife, three daughters and five grandchildren, but also by the baseball community. For over 40 years he’s been devoted to players in Florida. Cornel believes every child should have a chance to play and learn and that it’s not always about the score or winning. He loves being a mentor to the players and seeing their faces light up when they get a big hit.
The veteran umpire has survived personal adversities over the years. In 1975, he enlisted in the United States Air Force where he played on the basketball team. He was severely injured during a game and was hospitalized for two years while undergoing 12 knee operations with little hope of every walking again. He eventually recovered and returned to umpiring in the 1980s for youth baseball and men’s, girl’s fast-pitch and co-ed softball.
In 2013, long time local baseball coach, Rick Miles, invited Cornel to Cooperstown, NY with the South Walton 12U Florida Rays for the World Series. Cooperstown is heralded as the birthplace of baseball and home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame; considered one of the best-known sports shrines in the world. It was there that Cornel was inducted into the American Youth Baseball Hall of Fame for umpires and received a commemorative ring. Coach Miles said, “Cornel has always placed emphasis on teaching the child respect for the game, but most of all to have fun. My most memorable experience was in Cooperstown Dreams Park when he was invited to umpire a tourney. He was immediately recognized as a quality umpire and assigned as a crew chief. He became a ‘rock star’ by all the players.”
A year later Cornel was diagnosed with a brain tumor leading to four brain surgeries. Walton County sprung into action to help the Burnette family by raising money for medical expenses. Coach Miles raffled autographed baseballs, signed by former youth baseball players, now associated with Major League Baseball. The man behind the plate persevered and returned to umpiring, but the family would be faced with adversity again in 2015, when their home burned to the ground and everything was lost, including Cornel’s treasured Hall of Fame ring.
“The baseball world stepped in again. Coach Miles, along with players, coaches and fans set up a bank account for donations to help us start over. The Miles family and another Florida Ray’s family diligently worked with Cooperstown and they sent a replacement ring,” said wife Becky Burnette (aka Big Mama).
Catcher, Mackenzie Watson Seilhan shared, “He always made me enjoy the game, win or lose. He had a way to make the crowd, coaches and kids smile and was great at softening the blow for the losing team or the kid that struck out. He knew all of us by name and still does today. He’s a great umpire with a huge heart.”
“I’ve been told by many that I’m good with the kids and that I’m looked up to by them,” said the seasoned umpire. “My advice to coaches it to teach them good habits and remember that these kids aren’t professionals. My advice to players is to have fun, do your best, but always be a team player.”
For the last six years Cornel Burnette has focused on youth baseball and travel ball teams and tournaments. Thankfully, this big-hearted man has no immediate plans of retiring.