Standing at 6-foot-3 behind the plate, it is hard to miss Ken Juarez.
For the past 20 years, Juarez has been a constant presence on the softball fields and basketball courts throughout the Twin Harbors as a fastpitch softball umpire and basketball coach.
Now, at 55, Juarez’s journey continues with a few stops yet to go before he retires to his home in Shelton. Until then, it has been an eventful ride so far for the Aberdeen native.
“I complain a lot, but I love what I do,” Juarez said.
Off the court
Away from basketball, you’ll find Juarez either in the field or behind the plate for a fastpitch softball game on the Harbor.
Recruited by the late Grays Harbor sports official Ken Waite, Juarez moved up the officiating ranks from recreational slowpitch games to local high school fastpitch softball to regional and West Coast youth, junior college and Division II softball games.
Juarez is currently the president of the Grays Harbor Officials Association, which handles the recruitment and scheduling of umpires in Grays Harbor. This past season, Juarez was the Umpire-In-Chief at the WIAA Class 2A softball tournament in Selah.
“This will be my 19th year of umpiring fastpitch; I like it more than anything,” Juarez said.
Before Juarez stepped onto the softball fields, his last journey in professional sports was inside the pits on an international auto racing team out of Bellevue — Bayside Motorsports — from 1985-88.
Recruited off a recreational slowpitch softball team while he lived in Renton, Juarez was a fueler for the IMSA GTP/GTO Porsche team and later moved up to rear tire changer on the pit crew.
The team ran internationally in 24-hour endurance races, including the 24 Hours of LeMans and 24 Hours of Daytona, and sent Juarez to Germany in the offseason to help build the team’s Porsche 962 GTP Concept cars.
“We had great drivers — A.J. Foyt, Danny Sullivan, Bobby Rahal — and it was a great experience, flying around the world in jets with multi-millionaires,” Juarez added.
When Bayside Motorsports decided to move into the IndyCar ranks, Juarez moved on from auto racing.
Then, life took a turn that put Juarez onto pit road for more than four years.
In 1989, Juarez was arrested by the FBI at Sea-Tac International Airport with $125,000 in unaccounted gambling money en route to Las Vegas. The money was from gamblers in the Seattle area who needed it “cleaned” and Juarez was going to do that.
He didn’t tell the officers where he got the money. He wound up serving 4 1/2 years in federal prison for interstate racketeering and money laundering.
“I had a buddy who was a credit manager at one of the Las Vegas hotels,” Juarez said. “I would give him the money and he’d turn it in. I’d gamble with the money for the weekend. After my losses, he’d cut me a check for what was left and I would give the gamblers the money back. I would get 15 percent from the check.
“That was it,” Juarez added. “How tempting is it to go to Las Vegas, gamble for the weekend, come home with clean money and get some of it at the end. I’ve never been in financial trouble. I did it for my own personal gain. I never had trouble going to Vegas. I had friends and connections in Las Vegas and that was the big thing.”
Juarez spent all of his time in low-to-medium security federal prisons, including Sheridan, Ore., Lompoc, Calif. and Geiger Correctional in Spokane. He also had one famous roommate during his time — junk bond dealer Michael Milken.
Once Juarez got out of prison, he got a job at an oil refinery in California and eventually moved back to Grays Harbor. He got custody of his daughter, Amanda, and moved to Aberdeen.
The entire episode changed Juarez, who isn’t afraid to talk about his time in federal prison to kids and the consequences of it.
“It grounded me, made me grow up,” Juarez said. “From playing overseas to racing, you think you are invincible. You had money in your pocket. You can run hard, stay out late. It grounded me. I had a child at home. I had to walk a straight line. I’ve been squeaky clean ever since.
“That’s when I started committing time back to the kids in the community,” he added. “Whenever I’ve tried to get a job, I’ve been open about it. I’m not shy about it. I’m not proud of it, but I’m not going to hide from it. It comes down to money. It wasn’t a violent crime. it is what it is. If anything, I use it as a motivator to kids who I coach now. If they are having problems, I tell them that jail isn’t fun. I’ve been there — 4 1/2 years is a long time.”
On the court
Juarez is a 1977 Aberdeen High School graduate who parlayed his athletic skills in basketball, baseball and track into playing basketball at Green River Community College and four years of professional basketball in the Philippines.
Playing for the now-defunct Crispa Redmanizers in the Philippines Basketball Association from 1981-85, Juarez was a shooting guard. As an American-born Filipino, Juarez was allowed to play for Crispa as a native player in a league that only allowed 1-2 international imports per team.
“That’s how I got in there — they allowed American Filipinos to play,” said Juarez, who helps manage the family’s rental homes and is a caretaker for his 93-year-old mother, Lydia. “It was a culture shock. The Philippines were under martial law at the time and (Ferdinand) Marcos was president.”
At Crispa, Juarez was on the team that won the league’s three divisions — a grand slam championship — in 1983. Juarez also learned just as much about politics in that country as basketball.
“My first year there in 1981, we campaigned for Marcos, going around the barrios, playing basketball to get the votes,” he added. “We would play, buy people food, put roofs on people’s homes to get their votes. It was quite a learning experience.”
After injuring his ankle during the 1984-85 season, Juarez came back to Washington state and worked several jobs. His basketball experience came into play later when he became the Grays Harbor College women’s basketball coach for three seasons (1997-2000).
“I got a late start my first year at GHC, but in my second year, (Wishkah’s) Mindy McElliott came back, as well as Melissa Bowen,” Juarez said. “They were great players. We just missed the NWAACC Tournament by one game. We were competitive, but it was a tough league.”
Juarez would later coach the Snapple AAU team, which featured several Grays Harbor players, and spent one season as Taholah’s varsity girls basketball head coach (2003-04) before joining longtime head coach Larry Moore’s staff at North Beach High School.
Juarez and Moore were classmates at Aberdeen High School and have been friends since they were 9 years old in Little League.
“Larry worked hard and that’s where his work ethic comes from,” Juarez said. “He made the team (at Aberdeen), because he worked harder than everyone else. I worked hard, but I could have worked harder then. Larry has always had a successful program. The kids, he gets the most out of them. It is a fun program and every kid is accountable. That’s why I give big kudos to Larry. He takes them in and you love and care for them.”
Juarez noted that, due to his age, his time as a softball umpire may be coming to an end. Coaching, however, will still be in Juarez’s future, just not as a head coach.
“I’m 55; I have no desire (to be a head coach again),” he added. “It is nice to be second chair and not listen to a parent or go to the school board because of a complaint. I talked to Bob Sutter one time about that and we agreed it is just nice to coach.
“I’ll coach at North Beach for about two more years, then I’ll see,” Juarez said. “I’d like to go back to coaching little kids, get an AAU team together. I enjoy teaching the game. I’ve learned so much from these past 15 years (at North Beach) from just general mechanics, nutrition and skills that I want to share it. I really enjoy it.
“Once everything is done, I’m going to go home, grab a chair on my porch and enjoy the view,” he said.
Rob Burns: (360) 537-3926; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @RobRVR.