The Kids Were Alright
I can’t say I loved every minute or every game of my brief umpiring experience, but I did love the idea of being out there on the field and close to the action of the game. I also can’t say that I was noticeably above average at umpiring. To this day, I’m still hazy on what is or isn’t a balk, and I recall compensating for this uncertainty by never calling one. I didn’t develop a distinctive strike call, and once when I ejected a player, my signal lacked such drama that neither the player nor his coach realized he had been tossed. The best I can say is that I took the job seriously, hustled, and learned something from every game.
I told Doug Harvey that I learned more about how baseball is played from umpiring a few dozen games than I have from a lifetime of watching. That’s true. Here are the main things I learned:
- The differences between good pitchers and bad ones. I didn’t see that many good pitchers, which is why their skills stood out. The differences were control and keeping the ball low. Teenage pitchers often struggle just to find the strike zone, and I felt the umpire’s urge to force them to find that zone before calling a strike. I hear announcers say all the time that a wild pitcher isn’t going to get the benefit of the doubt from an umpire, while a Greg Maddux or Tom Glavine might get a strike on that pitch just off the plate simply because he throws on the black so much of the time. During training sessions, we new umpires were urged to call strikes; “make ‘em swing, or you’ll be out there all day.” When I had a pitcher who threw a lot of strikes, I would think “these batters had better be ready to swing.” It’s simple psychology, for both the batter and umpire. I felt it at such close range.
- The tension between pitchers and baserunners. Umpiring on the bases, forming a triangle with the pitcher and a runner on first, the tension was quite palpable. Every movement of the pitcher, every look, was aimed at discouraging the runner from trying to steal. Every step away from the bag, every feint by the runner, was aimed at distracting the pitcher from his primary task of outdueling the batter. I had to be alert, too, ready to turn and make the call on an attempted steal or prepared to call a balk if the pitcher did something so egregiously wrong that even I could detect it. The uneasy battle of wills could burst into action at any time. You can sense it in a major league park or even on television when a notable speedster is on the bases. But it’s nothing like being right there in the middle of it.
- The bond between the home-plate umpire and the catcher. Something about donning all that protective gear puts you in the same boat. You want to help each other out, and you sympathize when the other gets dinged. I don’t recall any catcher being less than friendly with me behind the plate. It’s part of their job; they have to butter up the umpire so he’ll give them those close calls. The umpire depends on the catcher to block those bad pitches so he doesn’t have to get something x-rayed. It’s a symbiotic relationship, another one of those things you can sense somewhat as a spectator, but it exists on a greatly elevated level when you paw that dirt together between batters and lament the fact that the pitcher is so wild that a fastball is about to nail one of you in a place that isn’t padded.
- Baseball involves a lot of waiting for sudden flurries of action. This was especially true when I umpired on the bases. Behind the plate, you have pitch after pitch to keep you making decisions. On the bases, you stand around a lot of the time doing nothing. On a ground ball, you move a few steps and make your call. On a fly ball, you move a few steps and make sure everyone touches bases. You observe the pas de deux between pitcher and runner. Then, suddenly, it all happens at once. There are a couple of runners, the ball is hit sharply, and you have to anticipate where the play might be. Fielders throw the ball, five or six key people are running in different directions, and shit starts happening, the ball is loose, you have to make sure that shortstop gets out of the way so he doesn’t interfere with the runner, he’s rounding a base and you have to see whether he touches it while also making sure that overthrow doesn’t go out of play, the runner darts away from a tag and might or might not be out of the baseline, a quick throw takes you in another direction, and you have to remain calm enough to sort it all out and get it right. The instructors’ first rule: call it quickly and decisively (“it’s better to make the wrong call and look like you’re sure about it than to let everybody know you’re guessing, because even if you’re right you’ll get a beef”). Of course it was much different on the amateur level with two-man crews. That’s why you have four umpires in the majors and six in the postseason. Once the ball starts flying, you really do need that many to be sure someone in the right position to call every play. With just two of you, some guessing is inevitable.
The best illustration of that last point is my first game as an umpire. That was actually in a high-level slow-pitch softball game in Eugene, Oregon, one summer when I was in grad school. I was part of the worst call you can imagine. I was on the bases, and the bases were loaded with one out. The batter hit a long blast to right field. The home-plate ump was responsible for calling it a caught fly or a safe hit; stationed on the third-base side of the mound, I had to watch the runners on third and second tag up. That was my sole task: make sure the runners didn’t leave their bags before I heard my partner’s “out” call. I didn’t hear “out!” and knew the ball had landed safely. My runners started heading for the plate. . .and they kept coming. All four of them romped around the bases, each one slower than the one before. Before the batter got past second, there was a rhubarb well under way behind me. You won’t believe what happened. The ball was hit so far that the right fielder turned his back on the ball as he headed toward the fence. The home-plate ump moved out toward the infield, and as the ball plummeted earthward, the running fielder blocked the ump’s view. He saw the ball come down and disappear, and since it was over the fence, he called it a home run, a grand slam. In fact, he and I were the only two people there who didn’t see that the ball bounced before going over the fence. It should’ve been a ground-rule double. But no. We called it a grand slam. Both of us were surrounded by the enraged defenders, who screamed at us that the ball bounced over the fence. I protested that I couldn’t make a call I didn’t see and that I was properly looking at the bases. My partner was the only one who could change the call, and he wouldn’t. The spectators were screaming, and I could see the players who had just circled the bench laughing their asses off. Imagine getting a gift grand slam like that. It must have looked like a charade out of a pro wrestling scenario. But the call stood. Welcome to umpiring.
The best thing about umpiring was the kids. Some played well, others struggled at competence, but they were happy to be out there playing. It was fun to see good defensive plays and batters overcome tough pitching. I remember one game where a fierce wind was blowing straight in from center field. Someone hit a popup that seemed to be headed for short center, and by the time it came down, the pitcher nearly bowled me over after making a running catch in front of the plate. Between innings, my partner and I agreed that the only chance for a home run would be a rope into a corner. Still, we were astonished when it happened. A lefty hitter drilled a ball that never got more than eight or ten feet off the ground, hooking it just inside the pole in right field. You had to be standing there at the plate to appreciate the physics of that feat.
The worst thing was the parents. The most absurd thing I’ve ever seen on a baseball field (even more absurd than a grand slam on a bouncing ball) took place in a Little League game. I can see why some Little Leagues bar parents entirely from attending. I only had to do a few of those games, and they were all brutal. For one thing, the pitchers couldn’t throw the ball over the plate; for another, the catchers couldn’t catch it. The only time I took a shot to the cup was in a Little League game. The absurd moment came in a league where they had a ridiculous rule about substitution–a batter who batted out of turn was ejected. Apparently they had had a problem with some team sending its best hitter up to the plate every seventh or eighth batter, so they put in a rule that would get him kicked out if he did it again. But the rule applied to all batters, and sure enough it happened in the bottom of the first inning. Some poor kid hit out of turn, and when we tried to be reasonably by applying the big-boys rule instead (there would be an out, and the right batter would come up next), the visiting coach insisted on an ejection. That was the rule, so out he went.
That was absurd enough, kicking some poor ten-year-old out of the game in the first inning just because his coach told him it was his turn to hit. The situation got much worse in a hurry. In this Little League, the official scorer was the mother of one of the kids, sitting in the stands behind the dugout. She got pissed (or the coach got pissed) and made a change in the visiting team’s lineup in her scorebook, so that in the top of the second one of their hitters apparently batted out of turn. She brought it to our attention, and before we knew it–are you ready for this?–both scorers, were toe-to-toe at home plate screaming at each other. The coaches stood in front of their dugouts, yelling at each other, but they knew better than to get near those two mothers shrieking at the plate. I don’t even remember how we got things calmed down, but it took a few minutes. I do remember two things: the sad, bewildered faces of the little kids who had come out there to play ball and now had to wait for the grown-ups to grow up, and making the decision that both kids who had seemingly batted out of turn were going to stay in the game.
One more story, this one about my worst umpiring experience. It was a junior varsity game at one of the Las Vegas high schools, and I was behind the plate. After the first pitch of the game, I heard yelps and abuse from a man in the grandstand behind me, and he never let up. He wasn’t cursing me or threatening me, just heckling loudly. In the bottom of the first, the third hitter swung and missed at strike three, turned, and flung his helmet as hard as he could–at his own bench! It clanged off the wall behind his coach, who knew it was coming and ducked. I tossed the kid out of the game–emphatically this time.
After the inning, as the teams changed sides, my partner came over and said, “That kid is sitting on the bench. We have to get him out of the dugout.” Right. We called the coach out and told him that the kid had to leave. “Well,” he sighed, “actually I think it’s better if he stays in there.” Why is that, coach? “That’s his father back there yelling at you,” he said. “It’s better if we keep them apart.” Why is that, coach? “Didn’t you hear what happened last week?” he inquired. No, coach, we didn’t. “Well, he was called out on a close play at first,” he explained, “and his father ran out of the stands and chased the umpire around the outfield for a few minutes.” Jeez!
“Jeez, coach, didn’t anybody call the cops?”
“Nope. It wouldn’t have helped. That guy is a cop.”
“Great, coach. Okay, he can stay.”
The yahoo in the stands never let up, not for a minute, not for a pitch. But he stayed where he was, even when my partner made a balk call that the team disputed. After the game, the kids surrounded us for a couple of minutes, and my partner said one of them offered to duke it out with him, but we managed to push our way through the horde of aspiring student-athletes and get to our cars safely. I drove all the way home at a law-abiding 25 miles an hour, figuring that cops all over Vegas had been urged to arrest us if we did anything wrong. Of course, I had that same feeling in other places at other times in Vegas: just let me out of here alive!
And don’t make me umpire any more Little League games!
Gabriel Schechter grew up within ten miles of the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium, is a lifelong Reds fan, and once attended games in Los Angeles and San Diego on the same day. Since 2002 he has been a Research Associate at the library of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, and is the author of Victory Faust: The Rube Who Saved McGrawâ€™s Giants; Unhittable: Baseballâ€™s Greatest Pitching Seasons; and This BAD Day in Yankees History, as well as the blog Never Too Much Baseball.