Sunday, December 5, 2010

Tales of an Umpire

For three years (2004-2006) I was a Little League umpire.  A lot of people will tell you that umpiring, especially for youth leagues, is a shitty job.  There is some truth in that, coaches can be assholes and parents can be insane and you walk into each game with precisely no one on your side.  But it was also a lot of fun.  I enjoy being around baseball, and the afore mentioned parents and coaches provided tons of entertainment, plus the pay was pretty good (we made $25 to $30 per game).  This is a collection of the most memorable stories from those years.  (Names have been changed to protect privacy).

Umpiring with Todd:
Todd was a large barrel chested man with an odd little mustache.  He was about thirty years older than me, but his first year of umpiring was my third.  It was pretty clear that he was extremely excited about being an umpire.  He showed up to the juniors game (90' diamond, 13-14 year olds) were set to do in all the newest umpiring gear, fitted chest protector, waterproof jacket, all manner of fancy tools hanging from his umpire belt.  It was quite a contrast from my salvation army pants, league issued shirt, brush, clicker (balls, strikes, and outs) and pillow (less hot than a chest protector).

Todd was more than willing to take the plate, which I didn't have a problem with at the time.  Standing in the field and moving with the base runners is usually a hell of a lot better than crouching for two hours, especially when it's hot.  This was a mistake.  Remember when I mentioned Todd was a little to excited to be an umpire?  Yeah, it showed.  He hammed up every single call to the point of ridiculousness.  Think Frank Drebin in The Naked Gun, and then go a few octaves beyond.  To make matters worse, his lack of experience led to a terrible strike zone, which turned what should have been a two hour game into a three hour disaster.  After three hours of watching him dance around the plate like a crack addled Yosemite Sam, I told the Umpire in chief that I didn't feel comfortable working on the big field (60' diamond games only required one umpire) thus ensuring that I worked alone in all non-championship games.

Jay was and is a very nice sixty year old gentlemen with a PhD in physics (or something).  He is also as blind as a bat and as mobile as a dead bat.  Watching him stand behind the plate and never move so much as an inch to get into position as he guessed his way through each call was excruciating.  The best I can say is that he was fair and basically treated every call like a flip-flopping college basketball possession arrow.  It got so bad that I requested the playoff games for the softball leagues (the only games he did, and games no one wanted to do) so that I could do the plate and minimize his damage.

Umpiring in General:
That brings me to my next point, umpiring is difficult.  The best case scenario is that six seconds after the game ends, everyone forgets you existed.  The worst case is that everyone hates you.  Some of the kids are very good and things happen quick.  Some of them are very bad and make the most retarded play you can imagine.  It sucks to get yourself into position for what you think is the obvious play, just to have some retarded kid throw the ball to a completely different base, or worse, wing it in your direction for no real reason at all.

That having been said, there are a few things you can do to get people on your side.  The first is to hustle.  If you're behind the plate for a game on a 60' diamond, that puts you 60-90 feet away from most of the plays that are going to be made.  You need to know how to move, where to move, and you need to be in good enough shape to do it for an entire game.  Hustling is good, if you're sprinting into the infield to make a call at first base from ten feet instead of sixty, coaches and parents are going to give you the benefit of the doubt on a lot of your calls.  If you're running around like you give a damn and are legitimately trying to give them a good game, they're going to become very forgiving very quickly.  But I was a good umpire, so I didn't need charity anyways.

The Interference that Never Was and My Own God Damned Fans:
I was doing a tournament game between a Baldwinsville team (the League I umped for) and a team from a neighboring town for the majors division (10-12 year olds) on the 60' diamond.  I believe it was in the fourth inning when the controvertial play of the day happened.  There was a runner on third, and a passed ball situation so the kid on third took off for home.  The batter was this tiny little kid too petrified to even swing, and had tried to hide himself in the back far corner of the batter's box.  Now if you've done Little League, you know that the coaches draw the boxes which means they can range in size from a small end table to a king size bed.  This box was the latter, and that kid was nowhere near the plate.  The throw came in late from the catcher to the pitcher late and the run scored.  As luck would have it, the game ended up being a one run game.

The coach was not thrilled and wanted me to call interference.  I pointed out that in order for me to call interference, there has to actually be interference.  The kid standing at the back of the box like a statue in no way impacted the play.  Runner safe, deal with it.  The coach gave me all the usual g-rated nasty comments and I ended up warning him.  He was pretty pissed after the game too, but I didn't really give a shit.  What really annoyed me was that the team giving me shit was a local team.  The out of towners hadn't said so muchy as a word all game.  It was pretty surprising since I was pretty widely regarded to be one of the best umpires in the league (note: true, not ego).  Oh well, consider that play pre-emptive karma for being a dick after the game.

Back to Umpiring:
The other difficult part is that you have to rid yourself of any emotion.  You have to call what you see, regardless of the discrepancy in douchiness between two coaches, or what kind of history you have with a guy.  It's too easy to give in to an asshole that's needling you, or to tighten up just to spite him.  I had coaches I never liked doing games for, but I always tried to to the best I could, knowing I was never going to please everybody.

Fucking de George:
My first year of umpiring, this guy, de George, was one of my favorite coaches.  He was a nice guy, never gave the umpire any shit, and just plain looked friendly.  It was one of his kid's first years playing in AA (8-9 year olds) so he was just happy to be around.  I didn't have him much my second year, but the third year I started to see him again in AAA (good 9, average 10, and shitty 11 and 12 year olds).  What a perosnality change.

The first warning sign was that he went from being as white as the rest of us caucasians to a goddamn Shaft look-a-like.  You know, if Shaft was an oompaloompa.  I don't know how you can have that horrible of an orange fake tan and still be taken seriously.  Over the course of two years, it had become very apparent that his son was one of the better players in the league and this guy had found the ego to match.

Everything came to a head during a tournament game (coincidentally on the same day as the last story).  His team was beating the snot out of another out of town team.  By even the second inning it was pretty apparent that the other team was never going to score and the mercy rule would come into play in the fourth.  As the score differential reached double digits, his kids were still banging on the chain link fence that made up the dugout like it was the seventh game of the world series.  Even worse, they were doing it specifically to disrupt the opposing pitcher...that they were already beating the shit out of.

I gave the coach a warning and he gave me this pathetic look of incredulity.  "They're just celebrating..."  Bullshit.  They're being a bunch of little assholes in a situation where it's completely uncalled for.  Furthermore, the league has rules about A). abusing League facilities (and they especially love their fences), and B). Pulling that shit to fuck with a pitcher during his wind-up.  Especially when the kid is ten.  Finish off the win and stop being assholes.  It's one thing if I want to be a complete and utter dick to Liverpool's pitcher from the Baldwinsville bench in the sectional championship because he's the biggest headcase ever to play a sport and shouldn't be allowed within a hundred yards of a pitchers mound, it's completely different in an opening round tournament game with ten year olds.  For the rest of the game, he griped about how much of a killjoy I was and how "he'd never heard of such a thing before."  Predictably his team won by a huge margin in a shutout, and I got to endure another situation of complete strangers thanking me for a good game and supposed acquaintances being dicks.  Unbelievable.

What the Hell?
After a kid had struck out to end an inning, myself and my partner overheard the coach telling him "that's okay, only one of those was a strike."  We looked at each other baffled.  The kid had swung at all three pitches.

Some Kids Don't Take Crap:
Another coach, who was infamous for bitching about balls and strikes (the most annoying thing to do) started griping about a pitch he thought was perfect.  Finally his son, the catcher, had enough.  "Shut up dad, it was outside!"  Excellent.

The Best Game Ever:

One AAA game featured first place versus second place and they wanted to beat each other so they had their top pitchers going.  The game ended 2-0 after an hour.  It was the easiest game I've ever done, every pitch was a strike and every out was by a good five steps.  Not bad for $30.

Every Pitch is a Strike:
I had been slated for three consecutive games on a Saturday afternoon that could only be described as fucking hot.  By the time the third one started I was sweaty and tired.  During the ground rules, I informed the coaches of this fact and told them their kids better be swinging, because I was calling strikes.  Luckily they heeded my advice.

The Best Coach Ever:
I did a lot of Minor Softball (8-10 year old) softball games because apathy ran high in those leagues which typically led to less annoying coaches and parents, and no one wanted to do them because it was the lowest age group in which the girls pitched to each other and they were often terrible.  However, it never ceases to amaze me in youth sports how an otherwise normal individual can put on a hat and a cheap jersey and transform into Vince Lombardi.  These are fucking 8-10 year old girls.  If you can teach five of them any fundamentals whatsoever, you're a smashing success.  Let's cut the advanced tactics, and taking pitches, and the hit and run nonsense, okay?  One coach understood this perfectly.  Every game during the last inning, without fail he told his team to swing at every single pitch.  In a league where outs were like gold, this was a shining mountain of awesome.

The Guy I Tossed:
Ah the ejection.  The guy deserved it and I became an instant hero among umpires for throwing this guy out of a game.  I think it was the second time I'd umped for him, and I hadn't had any trouble in the first game.  That changed in a hurry.

The guy was known for being an asshole and had a dozen reports written up about him already.  That he hadn't done something egregious enough to get tossed before that point is amazing.  He always coached with two other guys and they were douchy enouch alone.  Together they merely became bigger dicks.  They were used to having one of the best teams, but that particular year they were mediocre.

I was umpiring a close game between his team and another on the 60' diamond in the Major (10-12 year olds) division.  The game ended in a tie and went to extra innings.  In the ninth, one of the coach's sons was in to pitch.  The kid proceeded to walk the bases loaded and then walk in what wound up being the two winning runs in the top of the inning.  The kid was nowhere near the plate and was lucky he had any strikes called at all.  Oblivious to this fact was tha coach, and when the second run came in, he went ballistic.

I was expecting some sort of outburst and I just let him yell at me for a few minutes.  If a guy wants to be a jackass, I don't really care.  Most of them quickly realize they're not accomplishing anything and quiet down in a hurry without my needing to say anything.  This guy had no intention of quieting down.  Quite the opposite, he was merely picking up steam.

(A little aside here, arguing balls and strikes with an umpire is probably the worst thing you could do.  There are going to be 150-250 pitches thrown in a game, just accept that some are going to be what you think they are, and some aren't.  There is nothing more obnoxious than hearing a coach bitch 5-6 times an inning.  It gets old in a hurry.)

When I realized that he wasn't going to shut up, I gave him a warning and informed him that anything he said beyond that point ran him the risk of being ejected.  As luck would have it, it would only take one word when he defiantly yelled "Good!"  I told him to leave the field and he refused.  It didn't surprise me, a lot of coaches (and a lot of adults in general) think they're above having to respect a younger person, even when that person is in a position of authority.  News flash, sometimes years of experience doesn't make you wiser, it just makes you an old asshole instead of a regular asshole.  I repeatedly informed him that the game wasn't continuing until he left the field.

I will remind you at this time that this guy was a known asshole.  The rest of the umpiring staff had warned me before-hand about this game.  There was a fear that I would get run over because I was young...but I don't take crap.  However, their presence during the game eventually strongly suggested to the coach that it might be a battle he was better off not waging and he finally went quietly.  His team lost, and one of the other coaches asked me afterwards if I really had to eject him.  Hey man, he dug his own grave, I just stood there and watched.

That move vaulted me into notoriety.  It was like a pop singer going platinum with her first album and suddenly becoming famous.  Every other umpire wanted to shake the hand of the guy that finally threw that bastard out of a game.  That guy actually never coached again because he refused to go before the Board of Directors about the situation not believing he was in the wrong.  Unbelievable.

And The Valley Soda Incident:
I wasn't actually an umpire for this incident (thank god), but I got a pretty close look.  A Baldwinsville team was playing a tournament game against a team from Valley.  Valley can best be described as the armpit of the city.  I HATED traveling to play teams from Valley because I felt like I was going to die at any given moment.

The game had ended with an unfavorable outcome for the Valley team and the umpire, a man who couldn't have been much more than 5'6" and 130 pounds (and couldn't have been more sober than a .10%), was beating a hasty retreat, even on his home turf.  One of the Valley fans, a large and somewhat ethnic looking man decided that the umpire needed to know how shitty of a job he apparently did.  And his method of discourse was a soda to the face the poor tiny little man.

The cops were called in, the guy was arrested for assualt, and that day will forever be known as the shootout in Baldwinsville that never happened.

Final Word:
Umpiring was a blast.  Having played baseball for years, I knew the rules more intimately than everyone in the league.  The job was fun, I got to pick my schedule and the pay was great.  How often can you work twelve hours of your choosing and pocket $180?  Not often.

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