BRADENTON -- It was December when Bradenton's Guy Vilt received the peculiar phone call.
The reason it was strange is because Vilt, the umpire chief for Little League Baseball's District 26 in Florida, wasn't getting an immediate answer from Thomas Haines Jr., who did the dialing.
Haines is the Little League director of umpire development in Williamsport, Pa.
"He's hemming-and-hawing around on the phone," Vilt said. "... I'm like, 'Dude, what do you want? Come on. Tell me why you're calling me.' ... He goes, 'I'm calling to tell you congratulations and give you an early Christmas present.'"
Vilt's early Christmas present last December was notification that he was one of 16 umpires selected for the Little League World Series, which begins Thursday and is being televised on ESPN.
Heading to the Mecca of youth baseball is the highest honor Vilt can receive, and it's the only time he'll have the chance to do it in his career.
Umpires are only allowed one Little League World Series appearance.
"It's such an honor," said Vilt, who is the first umpire in District 26's history to head to the Little League World Series. "I really never started umpiring to go to the World Series. I mean, it's just one of those things that's always in the back of your mind, but you never really think it's going to happen, because a lot of guys have been waiting 10-
Vilt began volunteering in Little League at his old stomping grounds, Bonfield-Limestone Little League in Illinois, as a coach.
Vilt, who has a daughter, didn't have any kids in the program. Eventually, though, coaching led to Vilt's gravitation toward umpiring.
Vilt first began umpiring locally at G.T. Bray Park upon relocating to Florida. Vilt, who first umpired in 1993, was selected to umpire the Little League Southeastern Regional tournament four years ago.
A regular at Manatee County's five Little League parks, Vilt wasn't finished accepting a high honor for his work when getting the nod for this year's Little League World Series.
"It's really cool," said local umpire Bruce Reid, who has known Vilt for seven years. "For a guy like Guy, he's lived and breathed this Little League baseball for a really, really long time. He's looked forward to this and he's earned it."
Tom Meador, another local umpire, agreed.
"A good umpire will not hear anything outside that fence," said Meador, who has known Vilt for about 15 years and umpired alongside him for nine years. "There's a special knack for being able to turn off outside interference, and it's amazing. ... He's one of those guys. Nothing bothers him outside the fence. He's there for the kids. He calls his game and does a great job."
Heading into this week's marquee event, with millions watching the televised action across the world, provides its own pressure-packed moments. Vilt's schedule for the LLWS won't be known until the day of or night before, and he's evaluated after each performance. But Vilt headed to Williamsport last May to meet the rest of the umpires and go through a clinic on umpiring at the highest stage to relieve any stress.
"They went over everything," Vilt said. "And I mean everything. How to talk to the media, how to deal with the instant replays ... that part of it helped me to feel comfortable, because I made a promise to myself that I would never ever go to Williamsport unless I got my World Series."
Now that's happening as Vilt is going there with his family: parents Larry and Kay, wife, Melody, and daughter, Taylor.
Vilt surprised his parents and Taylor by keeping that phone call from Haines Jr. last December a secret until Christmas with packaged presents that contained his Little League World Series paperwork.
"It was a good surprise, to say the least," Vilt said. "... It's the hardest, hardest secret I've probably ever had to keep in my life."