Monday, February 9, 2009

Umpirical Evidence

The first time I worked the bucket I got hit in the face a half-dozen times. The hurler was a stout kid, taller than most 12 year-old boys, and his fastball would tail into the left-handed batter. The catcher would duck, or make a feeble effort to reign it in, and the pitch would blast into my mask somewhere between my nose and forehead, bringing tears to my eyes.

I never played organized baseball, and never had a boy of my own, so umpiring seemed the perfect way to palliate the ancient ache to father a tribe of sons. I was in early recovery, having moved from the distant cabin in the woods to a hill-top cottage in Port Townsend that overlooked the golf course and the snow-capped peaks of the Olympic Mountains. My best friend Warren had two boys in little league and after watching a few games, I was determined to get involved. I was embarrassed to admit after a lifetime of playing softball and attending major league games, I had no deep knowledge of hardball nuances and regulations. And I had not played in little leagues as a boy. Hence, I was perfectly qualified to umpire.

Another man at my recovery meetings was a jack of all officiating, working as a little league umpire and basketball referee at the local high schools. He offered to go over the rule book and get me started, and he lived just a few doors away on Willow Street. I learned when to apply the infield fly rule, about the secret world of umpire hand gestures that helped coordinate our placement on the diamond, and how to keep track of the pitch count using a hand-clicker.

I was started at first base, where it was thought I'd avoid tricky calls and the ire of unstable egos. When you had a close call to make, you were to make it decisively and walk away. By and large, the coaches accepted your decision, but the parents in the stands were ugly. How dare you toss out their little angel. Let the boys play, they'd scream. Get some glasses.

The key to umpiring was to head directly to your car in the parking lot at the final out, escaping with your hide intact. Before each game, I would head to the equipment shack and strap on the shin guards, chest protector, ball caddy, and mask, tightening the straps and screws and kneeling to make sure the gear wouldn't cut off my circulation.

When you work the bucket, you crouch behind the catcher, tapping him gently on the shoulder when he blocked your view. These were kids, but the ball could leave a welt on you. I learned that an umpire could set his own strike zone--the imaginary rectangle that marked the location of the ball as it passed across the plate--but you had to be consistent. If you called a strike on a pitch a few inches too high in the first inning, you called the same pitch a strike in the seventh inning.

I went to major league games in Seattle, taking the ferry across the Sound to the Kingdome--to watch the umpires, rather than the players. I saw how the crew positioned itself with hand signals, how umpires walked the foul lines to get the best view of the action, how they turned and crouched to see bang-bang plays at the bags, what they said in conferences between innings, giving each other notes like fine actors.

In little league, you towered over the boys in your black uniform and mask, and you could shatter them with an untoward remark. I decided that when I called a kid out on strikes--letting my voice boom out the call and jerking my right hand skywards--I followed up with quiet, but persistent encouragement that only the batter could hear. I loved them "out".

And someone had to do it, because the asides from a frustrated father could wound you to the marrow. Some dads would operate video cameras from the stands or behind the screen. If they stood behind me, it was certain I'd hear about it. Sometimes I'd turn and walk over calmly, remove my mask, and tell the dad he had better go wait in the car or I would call the game and his son's team would forfeit and lose. Occasionally, a lurker would track me to the parking lot after the final out. There's no adequate explanation for that kind of pettiness.

One August afternoon I had the honor of calling a game in which Warren's boys took the field. Warren came out of the dugout once to argue a call. Whether I had it right or not was inconsequential. I said to my best friend, "I don't want any more guff from you."

"What's guff?" Warren said, his face flushed and rigid, his nose close to mine.

"That's guff!" I said and tossed his ass off the field. Later we howled over it.

In the end, I got promoted to work pony league games. These boys were older, wore real spikes, and ran longer distances between the bases. I never worked the bucket in a pony league game, but I loved doing them. You could hear the runner as the spikes went in and out of the infield sand, and you could hear the ball pound into the pocket of a glove or shoe pop into the bag when the runner passed. It was a joyous, sober summer. One day a bald eagle circled the park and two outfielders fought over possession of a tumbling feather. Some days the fog would slip into the late afternoon and the sun would sport a halo. When the wind was right, you could hear the bell from the buoy off of North Beach and the jangle of halyards from boats in the yacht harbor.

In the end, the calls I received--rather than made--were true blessings. When I walked the hilly streets or the waterfront of Port Townsend in the fall and winter, the umpire gear hung up and locked in storage, kids whose games I umpired would shout out to me from front yards or open windows of passing cars. I was somebody big in the world's smallest town.

"Hiya ump, how ya doing?"


tangobaby said...

Intense and sweet memories. I'm glad you and those boys had each other. And that's funny about you and your best friend and the "guff." I'm glad you both could laugh about it later.

Char said...

beautiful memories - there are many things I love about baseball - I'm sorry I never really got to play much. there is much zen in baseball to me.

dutchbaby said...

Beautiful story,I enjoyed reading the umpire's perspective. I was writing a baseball story myself last night but it pales in comparison. I shall not complain, I shall not whine, I shall be satisfied with the talents I have...