We had a wonderful baseball season with my boys. By wonderful, I mostly mean nobody got hurt. Son Number Two took a line drive right in the face mid-season while pitching, but he is as tough as they come, and was looking to take his turn at bat while his nose was still bleeding. Son Number One, in the next division up, led the league in being hit by pitches. It was a combination of just bad luck, nine and ten-year-old wild pitchers, and him having the reaction time of a drunk koala bear, but he managed to get through the season with only minor bruising. On the plus side, he had a great on-base percentage. Son Number Three made it all the way through his T-ball season with no incidents, but I had one close call as his coach. I narrowly escaped serious injury while placing the ball on the tee for one of his teammates. The kid decided not to wait until I was actually done letting go of the ball before swinging, and clipped my thumb with the aluminum bat as I frantically jumped out of the way. Fortunately, it was not serious, mostly due to the fact that I have lightning-quick reflexes. I’m not sure where Son Number One got his lackadaisical synapses, because I have the reaction time of a ninja. OK, maybe a drunk ninja, but still…
Anyway, as I sit here reflecting on the season, I can’t help but think of the officiating. Son Number One’s league had an umpire behind the plate for every game, and we had some good umpires and some not-so-good umpires. We had some clearly blown calls, but mostly good calls. We had some tiny strike zones, some giant strike zones, some random strike zones, but mostly just fair balls and strikes. Umpires are human, and no one knows that better than me. I will never complain about the officiating of a ball game too much, because I happen to have been the worst baseball umpire this world has ever seen.
It happened when I was in college. So many of life’s biggest blunders happen in college. That’s because when you’re in college, you think you’re a genius. It is only many years after college that you realize you don’t know anything at all, and you knew far less than that when you were a genius college student. I worked as a little league umpire in my sophomore year, and like my son’s league, there was only one umpire per game, calling all the plays from behind the plate.
I don’t remember how old the kids were, but looking back on it now, I would guess they were about eight years old. Most of the pitchers were just lucky to get the ball across the plate, but there were two kids in the league that could really throw. One of them even had different pitches, so he was well ahead of his fellow players. He had a good fastball, a decent changeup, and he could even throw a curveball. It was this kid who tricked me into being a terrible umpire. Actually, it was him and his catcher.
His catcher during the fateful inning was a really cool kid. Most of the kids were scared to death of the umpire and wouldn’t say a word to me, but this kid joked with me and talked to me behind the plate. He would comment on his pitcher’s performance, and he generally made it a lot more fun to be back there calling balls and strikes. I blame him, mostly.
There we were. One out in the inning with a runner on second base. The catcher calls for the pitch and the ace pitcher starts the third batter off with a curveball. The batter swings over the top of it as it drops off the table into the dirt in front of the catcher. Strike one. His next pitch was a changeup, and the batter swung three feet in front of the ball. Strike two. The catcher then says to me, “Watch this,” as he gave the sign to his man on the hill. The last pitch was the heater. A fastball straight across the center of the plate, chest-high. The batter stood staring at it, never moving the bat from his shoulder. Strike three. He had sat him down looking.
I was caught up in the moment. My “strike three” call got a little wild. I stood up, turned around, went down on one knee, pumping my fist wildly, sawing an imaginary log in the air. “Steeeeeerike Threeeeeeee!”
I stood up, very pleased with myself. That was easily the best, most theatrical third strike call in history. I was very sure that the fans as well as the players would be impressed. I turned around to face the field again, to accept praise for my fantastic umpireness. What I received instead, were stares. The catcher was standing up, without his helmet or mask on, staring at me. The pitcher was staring at me. Neither one of them had the ball. The runner that was previously on second base was lying on the ground with his foot on third base, staring at me. The third baseman, with the ball in his mitt, resting on the runner’s leg, was also staring at me.
The kid on second had stolen third base on the third pitch, and the catcher had thrown it down to try and get him out. There had been an entire play happening while I was turned around making the best third strike call in history. I am a moron.
I began walking as calmly as I could up the third base line. The only two umpire-specific thoughts I could muster in my genius college kid brain were, “tie goes to the runner,” and “close call, big arms; easy call, small arms.” OK, you yahoo, that means that you should make a very nonchalant call as if you totally saw what happened and it was an easy decision, and I guess we’ll just go with safe since the tie goes to the runner. What a great plan, you ridiculous idiot.
When I was half way to third base I stopped, made a very small “safe” motion with my hands, said “Safe,” in a normal speaking voice (albeit, probably shaky with fear), and turned around with my head down, walking back toward home plate, ready for all hell to break loose from the stands. I was expecting to have to sprint to my car, followed by angry hordes of parents hurling epithets and soda cans at me.
To my great surprise and enormous relief, I made it back to the plate without being killed. In fact, there wasn’t even a murmur of disapproval from the stands or the players. Apparently, the kid was obviously safe. I had a fifty-fifty chance, and I guessed correctly. And thankfully, everyone else at the ballpark had been actually watching the play (much like the umpire is supposed to do), so no one had noticed that I was too busy making the best strike three call in the whole world and had neglected the part where I was supposed to be doing my job.
I called the rest of the game with wide-eyed, rapt attention, and left as quickly as I could. I considered myself very lucky to get out of there with my skin, and decided not to push my luck any further. I gave up umpiring after that season and got a job at a gas station. I didn’t mention that I was the worst umpire in the world, and they didn’t ask. It was great. The entire time I worked there no one ever stole third without me knowing it.
Years later, now that I’m a baseball coach for my sons’ teams, I still argue with the umpire if I think they made a bad call, but my heart isn’t in it. I feel their pain.
Sometimes, purely out of the goodness of my heart, I even let them know that the Chevron station down the street is hiring.
They don’t seem to take it well. Go figure.
See you soon,
Copyright © 2014 Marc Schmatjen
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