Whether facing down a hostile crowd from behind home plate at a baseball game or trying to placate an unhappy customer from behind the counter of his Fairlane Cleaners plant, Bob LaFave knows how to remain cool under pressure.
Of course, his approach is different as an umpire than as a drycleaner, even if they both start off the same.
“In umpiring, it’s all about professionalism. We show up in business attire,” he said. “When you go out on the field, you show everybody respect. You use their name. You talk to them.”
However, once a disgruntled person on the field becomes more belligerent, Bob changes gears.
After working in the ballpark for about 16 years, Bob has had a lot of opportunities to deal with angry fans, players or coaches, and he’s excellent at keeping his emotions in check. But has he ever ejected anybody?
“No. They’ve all ejected themselves,” he laughed. “In all these years, I’ve probably ejected maybe ten people. If you give respect to people, you’re going to get it back. And the people who don’t give it back don’t deserve it.”
Bob certainly believes in also giving respect to the customers of his Fairlane Cleaners plant in Chula Vista, CA, but he doesn’t raise his level of aggressiveness to match their intensity.
“If a customer is unhappy about something, they usually have a legitimate reason,” he said. “You have to be sympathetic and relate to their problems. It’s all about body language. Keep your hands at your side, make eye contact and shut your mouth and let them vent. When they’re all done talking, just say, ‘I’m really sorry.’ Then, tell them what you’re going to do about it. Listen. Apologize. Take action.”
Bob certainly has plenty of experience in both pursuits. He’s been in the drycleaning industry for over 30 years and has called between 500 and 600 baseball games, many from behind home plate.
“On an average game, we’re calling 300 pitches,” he said. “That means you’re squatting up and down 300 times. The funny thing about being an umpire is that it’s the only profession where you’re expected to be perfect your first game and then get better from there.”
Then again, drycleaning might not be that different. Regardless, Bob admits his true passion is umpiring.
Perhaps one of the reasons Bob enjoys working the familiar spot behind home plate so much is that he spent much of his childhood without a stable environment to call home.
“I was the youngest of 13 kids. I had ten sisters and two brothers. We were pretty poor living in the desert in Tucson,” he recalled. “Shortly after I was born, my dad left my mom, and then when I was four years old, my mom died of breast cancer.”
Though his oldest sisters tried to keep the entire family together, it simply wasn’t possible.
“I got adopted into a family of six girls and I was the youngest in that family,” Bob noted. “So, between the two families I have 16 sisters.”
Bob’s new family moved to San Diego and he had no more contact with his blood relatives from that point on in his childhood. Unfortunately, his new family dissolved, as well.
“I remember clearly, on a Friday, I graduated from sixth grade. On Saturday, I went to Disneyland and on Saturday night I came home and my mom and my two sisters who were still living with us at the time were gone,” he said.
Eventually, Bob remained in the home with his mother and sisters while his father moved out. But in time, his father bought the house back and Bob chose to live there with him for better or worse.
“I had no supervision. I had free reign,” he recalled. “The weird thing is I never really knew what my dad did. I never really asked.”
When Bob was 16 (and not busy surfing or skateboarding), he began working for Gordon Shaw at a gas station/drycleaners store named Fairlane Cleaners. It was a good first job and it was a really good thing he was hired because his life soon changed again.
“I came home one day and opened the door and there’s a shotgun sitting by the door. I went into the kitchen and my father’s got a gun in a holster,” Bob said. “He told me to leave and come back after the weekend.”
When Bob did return, his father had packed up his Camaro and a U-Haul trailer and informed him that rent on the house was paid through the month and he would call when he got to wherever he was going. Bob was 17 and in 11th grade at that time.
He convinced his school counselor to let him go to night school and not to call Child Protective Services unless his grades slipped. Then, he moved in with older college friends and started working full time at Fairlane.
“That’s how I got started. I went from presser to cleaner/spotter,” he said. “Gordon was just sort of my mentor/father figure at the time. He taught me a lot about character and a lot about honesty.”
Over the years, Bob worked his way up to general manager of Fairlane. He even married the girl across the street from the house he lived in growing up. When Bob was younger, he always believed they were the perfect family and now with his marriage to Julie he was a part of it.
“Right after we got married, Julie’s dad was an executive and he got transferred to Texas,” Bob recalled. “We ended up buying the house from them, so I actually live across the street from where I grew up.”
Bob’s father-in-law also helped him become an entrepreneur. One Father’s Day in the late 1980s, he agreed to help Bob invest in two Fairlane Cleaners stores.
Eventually, Bob sold those stores and bought another Fairlane Cleaners in Chula Vista in 2000, a location he still owns today.
As with most of the defining moments of Bob’s life, yet another one occurred out of the blue. One night, after he and his wife returned home from watching a movie, he had several phone messages.
“It was my biological sisters who had found me after 24 years. I had not had any contact with them,” he recalled. “They finally found me.”
After a lot of searching, the pieces finally fell into place for his siblings. The timing could not have been better.
“They were all having a reunion. They were in Oklahoma,” he said.
Bob got off the phone, booked a flight and walked off the plane only to be bombarded by flashing white lights and television cameras. His siblings were all wearing shirts that said “Sister #1” and “Brother #1” and so on. They were the lead story for the local news that evening.
Since then, Bob has made a point to keep in contact with all of his family and not just the blood relations.
“Of all my adopted siblings, I am kind of the catalyst between everybody. I get lots of birthday cards,” he laughed.
He’s also busy with a family of his own, which includes a son and three daughters. He tries his best to be the kind of father he never had. He even jokes that whenever tough parenting choices need to be made, he asks what his adoptive father would have done and then simply does the opposite.
His plan seems to be working. So far, two of his children have already graduated as valedictorians and he is quite proud. He also tries to stay active in their lives. In fact, he began umpiring back when his son started playing Little League.
“I was just wanting to help out,” he said. “Then, I liked the challenge. I learned how much was involved in doing it and doing it right.”
His hobby soon grew into a full-fledged pursuit. First, he attended a weeklong umpire boot camp in San Bernardino and then he traveled to Arizona and became certified from the Jim Evans Academy for professional umpires.
Currently, he can umpire as high as the junior college level; in order to move up, he has to be evaluated in a live game to make sure he’s ready. For now though, Bob still prefers the Little League level. Recently, he was part of a clinic that worked with 40 volunteers who wanted to be umpires.
One thing he strives to teach them, besides being as fair and impartial as possible, is to keep games from getting out of hand.
“As umpires, we are in control of everything… the guy in the sound booth, everybody on the field, everybody in the dugout, everybody in the stands,” he explained. “If there is one person we don’t want there, we can make them go away.”
Bob is currently trying to keep in control at Fairlane, as well. He is in the process of pulling the cleaning equipment from his store and remodeling it. By June, he hopes to relocate production to a central plant that will be fed by retail drop stores.
“It’s going to be a bit of a challenge,” he stressed.
Fortunately, Bob is not one to back down from a challenge. He plans to work long days to get it finished.
In the meantime, he strives to keep his customers happy, always treating them with honesty and respect. If they do become belligerent, however, he’s not afraid to toss them out if he deems it to be necessary.
“If they are disrespectful with employees, my umpire mode kicks in,” Bob explained. “You just crossed the line. Talk to me respectfully. Talk to me in a low voice. I’ll take care of this problem for you, but don’t get personal about it.”