A couple weeks ago some friends and I were sitting around over coffee and talking about how we need to make a trip to Boston to see a Major League Baseball game at Fenway Park. This must have planted a thought in my head about going to see a game because a couple days ago I purchased a couple of tickets to go see the Mariners plays the Royals at Safeco Field in Seattle in July.
My history with baseball goes back a long way. Sometime when I was a young child I remember going with my mother to see the Lethbridge Dodgers of the Pioneer League play a game. It must have done something to me because baseball was the only organized sport I ever played as a child.
I use the term “played” loosely as I was never much of a player. If the object of the game was to hit into double-plays, strike out with men in scoring position or lose fly balls in the sun I likely would be enshrined in Cooperstown today. Heck, I had a bad enough time trying to fit into those form fitting uniforms that were in style at the time. I’m sure if I were to look hard enough I could find an old team photo from my days as a Padre – we wore bright yellow uniforms with green lettering. I’m sure the people who turned out to watch those games wondered why there was a taxi cab patrolling right field. I always played right field because most of the batters were right-handed and didn’t have the skills to take the outside pitch to the opposite field so putting me there is where my manager could limit the damage I could do while still staying within the league rules about “everyone must play”.
Knowing that I would never make it as a player I was forced to look
There was a period of time in Junior High where I thought my ticket to the major leagues was going to be as an umpire. I had great plans of attending umpire school and working my way up through the minors. Yes, there is nothing like being a young teenager and striving for a career where people will yell at you, kick dirt on your shoes, and swear at your every little mistake all the while suffering along for little pay. Actually, it sounds a lot like the job I have now – except for the swearing part! You would think that I would have clued in that wearing super thick glasses would be a hindrance to someone wanting to work as an umpire, but I was bound and determined.
Before entering high school I started out umpiring Little League games. I’m sure the league organizers had their doubts about me, but at the umpire orientation session I was the only one who actually understood the minutiae of the infield fly rule so they let me in. I’m sure the fact that they didn’t have enough volunteers to fill the schedule didn’t hurt my chances either.
I remember the first game quite well. One team was being managed by my principal and the other by my former math teacher – no pressure there! I had assumed the league would pair me up with a veteran umpire who would show me the ropes. No such luck! Being too young to drive I rode my bikes to “the quads” south of town and arrived to find the other umpire was even younger than I was. Since this was his second game of the season he was the more experienced so he opted to work home plate while I took my position in the field.
Things started out OK. Every call I had to make was either a clear “safe” or “out”, “fair” or “foul”. Then, about the third inning, the one manager (my principal) started yelling at us that the opposing pitcher was balking. Now, in fairness, the infield fly rule was one thing, but to this day the details of the balk rule still escape me. In fact, I suspect you could quiz most umpires about the rule and while they might be able to recite the wording of the rule verbatim, if you asked them to call it during a game they would tell you they’d rather sell their own mother into slavery.
I think this flustered us a little. Every time there was a man on base he’d start yelling “Balk!” after every pitch. Things really started to go downhill from there…
A batter tried to check his swing. To me, standing down the foul line at first base it certainly looked like he had stopped his swing in time, but my partner behind the plate took a different view. With all the confidence he could muster he bellowed out “Striiiiiiiike!” The manager appealed to me. Now, one of the rules I had learned from reading baseball books was that the umpires always need to stick together. Show weakness and you’ll never live it down. So, despite my best judgement I confirmed my partner’s call. The manager let loose some comments from the dugout behind me about how spineless I was and things.
Things settled down a little for a couple of innings. Then my partner messed me up again. This time he tried to walk a batter after Ball Three. It’s not even like he messed up the count either – he simply blurted out “Ball three – take your base.” The batter, not being one to give up a free pass started trotting down the baseline to first. The manager comes out and questioned me about how that was possible.
Having learned that backing up my partner only got me trouble the first time on the checked swing call, I decided to do what was right. I stopped the batter before he reached first and sent him back. I made the right call. Well, of course, here comes the other manager out of his dugout to berate me for overruling the senior umpire. I was starting to think that as long as I could piss both sides off equally I would be OK.
I eventually survived that first game. After the heat of the battle had passed both managers came out and offered me some advice in a constructive way. (I think they knew if any umpires quit it would put the whole schedule at risk!) I even stuck around a couple of seasons after that and can say I actually enjoyed myself for the most part.
Of course, there’s no fun in that so one day I’ll relay the story of the time I had an entire team from Medicine Hat waiting around my car to challenge me to a fight after a game.