Nothing Up My Sleeve
Strike Three – Confessions of a Mediocre Umpire
Back in the early nineties, Gates Rubber Company decided to lay off a bunch of employees until the economy improved. I guess the economy has yet to improve because they haven’t called me back to work yet.
No problem. I hated that job. I worked second shift in a hot factory, helping to make rubber hose for a bunch of corporate bigwigs who didn’t give a crap about their employees. They were concerned only about numbers and didn’t care that real lives were attached to those numbers.
Getting laid off from the factory was one of the best things that ever happened to me. It allowed me to go back to school and get my degree. It also allowed me to go out and get five part time jobs that I could work around my school schedule and family life.
One of those jobs I took was umpiring softball games in the City of Galesburg. I love baseball, I’ve played both baseball and softball, and I knew the rules. It was a natural fit.
Umpires are special people. The go out on the field and work the entire game. There’s no sitting down between innings and they do a lot of running to cover all the calls that need to be made. Umpires make snap decisions based on what they see knowing that on any given play, half of the people concerned are going to disagree.
Some of those people will disagree loudly.
To become an umpire, I had to take a test to make sure I knew the rules. Everyone knows that there are four balls and three strikes per batter (whichever comes first), three outs per half inning, and (in softball) seven innings per game.
There are a bunch of other little rules as well concerning fair and foul balls, when a runner can leave a base, how long a fielder has to have possession of a ball to constitute an out, and about four million other rules that no one ever thinks of, but that happen regularly in a game.
I passed my test with 100%. But my first night on the field, things started to go wrong almost from the start.
There are two umpires who work most softball games. One handles the plate while the other one handles the bases. The guy on the bases has to make safe or out calls at first and has to make sure he’s in position to also make calls at second and third, and on occasion, at home if the plate umpire has left to make a call at third. Confused? Welcome to my world.
On my first night, I was paired with a veteran umpire who told me I’d be working the bases. That way, I could get a feel for the game. Again, this was not a problem.
I went to my position along the first base line, turned and did what it says in the rule book: I counted the outfielders. There were four of them.
Everyone on the field and in the stands looked at me as I threw both hands into the air. I trotted in towards the plate as my partner came halfway down the line. “What’s the problem?” he asked, removing his mask.
“There’s four outfielders,” I pointed out.
“Every baseball or softball game I’ve ever played in only has three,” I explained.
“City League and the ASA (Amateur Softball Association) allows four,” my partner told me. He was rolling his eyes as he explained, knowing he was in for a long night.
We went back to our positions and it was time for the first pitch. The pitcher lobbed it toward the plate in a high arc. My partner called it a strike. My eyes got wide as the pitcher threw a second pitch the same way.
See, I’d played softball in my teens and twenties. We played fast pitch softball where the pitcher had a windmill windup and fired the ball at the plate on a straight line. If someone would have thrown a pitch like I’d just seen, I’d have been heading back to the dugout in search of a bigger bat.
The third pitch was whacked into the outfield where the guy playing “short field” caught it. I thought to my days when I’d kept score and wondered what the notation for that was. F-10?
In between innings, my partner checked with me to make sure everything was going okay. I told him I hadn’t expected there to be an arc in the pitch. His mouth dropped open. “Didn’t anyone tell you this is slow pitch?” he asked.
I knew all the rules for slow pitch softball as well. I just didn’t know that’s what I’d be officiating that night, or for that matter, the rest of the summer.
Umpiring turned out to be one of the most fun jobs I ever had. It kept me in shape, it paid decently ($10 per game back then), and it was hardly ever dull.
There were some players that, for one reason or another, just didn’t get along with umpires. When I played, I was one of them, but I don’t think I was as bad as some of the players I came in contact with during the four years that I officiated in Galesburg.
One player in particular was the biggest whiner that I’d ever met. He wasn’t happy unless he was complaining about a call. I can’t tell you how many times I umpired games that he was in, but I know that he got to go home early in a bunch of them.
One night I’d had a particularly bad night. I was hot and sweaty, I’d already done three games that night, and this guy’s team was getting ready to play the fourth and final game of the night. I was supposed to have the plate for that game, but my partner asked if I wanted the bases so I didn’t have to listen to this player every time I called a ball or strike. I thought that was a good idea.
It didn’t matter. This player was an outfielder and I could hear him jawing on every call. Finally, after a couple innings of listening to him, I caught him as he ran off the field. “If I hear one more word out of you tonight, you’re out of here,” I told him. “I’m not in the mood to put up with you.”
By the end of the inning, he was gone. I don’t remember exactly what happened, but I remember I called one of his players out at second, heard his voice from the dugout, and tossed him out of the game, pretty much in one smooth motion.
Sometimes, being an umpire was dangerous. In one game at Kiwanis Park, I had the plate and a player disagreed with one of my ball-strike calls. He referred to it as fertilizer that came from male cows.
That’s usually enough for umpires to toss someone out of the game, and it’s a justifiable ejection. I chose not to run him at that moment because I can understand being frustrated with a call and having something slip out. I didn’t toss anyone (except the aforementioned player) unless they got personal. That means they could call a play BS, but if they said “You’re full of BS,” then they left early because they’d gotten personal with me.
I should have tossed the player when he said the call was BS. When I didn’t eject him, he must have thought it was okay to use that kind of language because then he went off on me, using a whole lot of words that George Carlin included in the seven you can’t say on TV. When he finally got to the word, “You,” I tossed him out.
This left the team with just eight players. They’d been a player short at the beginning, but now they only had eight. The rules allowed the game to continue with just eight, so we did.
The next inning, one of their players hit a high pop up into right field. It was an easy out, but this was City League softball, and nothing is guaranteed. Three quarters of the way down to first, the batter stopped running. He turned and headed back to the dugout. That made him “out” as he had given up on the play. I raised my hand and called him out.
You guessed it. The outfielder dropped the ball.
The batter turned around and hightailed it to first and beat the throw by the outfielder by a step or two. The base umpire called him out as well because he had seen me raise my hand when the batter gave up on the play. Both of us explained it to the batter who seemed to take it well. I guess he knew that saying the wrong words could get him tossed out of the game.
I turned and headed back to the plate. The next thing I knew, the bat was flying by my head and sticking in the chain link fence behind the plate. I looked up at the scorer’s box, threw both hands in the air and called it a forfeit right there on the spot.
I didn’t know who had thrown the bat. I might have been the batter. It might have been the first base coach. I did know it was one of them. Throwing the bat at me earned somebody an ejection, and, as a matter of fact, earned an ejection for the manager of the team as well since it was the team’s second ejection of the night. That left them with only six players, two short of what they needed to continue, so the game was a forfeit.
The team that lost had been winning prior to that.
Two or three members of the team came up and told me to watch my back from here on out. It’s hard to believe that they would get that serious over a slow pitch softball game. But, I wasn’t worried. I’d seen their aim with a bat already.
I also got to see great plays while umpiring. During my first season, I was working a game at Lake Storey and one team had loaded the bases with a power hitter coming to the plate. The hitter hit one of those towering fly balls that stay in the air longer than some Peoria to Chicago flights. The left fielder kept drifting back and drifting back, and at the last minute reached up to make a catch.
Just about the time the ball got to his glove, he jumped a little. The outfield fence caught him just under the beltline which was exactly his center of gravity. He caught the ball, did a comple 360 degree flip and landed on his feet on the other side of the outfield fence. It was the most amazing catch I’ve ever seen, in person or on TV. He didn’t fall down on the other side of the fence. He just stood there and held up the ball.
Since this is almost twenty years later, I think I can let you in on a secret. We missed the call and no one noticed. Since he caught the ball, the batter was out. Runners were allowed to tag and advance after the catch, which they did. Later, when I read the rule book, I found out that this particular situation is very specifically detailed. When a fielder catches a ball and flips over a fence (or ends up out of play), base runners are allowed TWO bases. My partner that night didn’t realize that and neither did I. That was okay because none of the players did either. Everyone was too busy congratulating this guy on his catch.
Next week, a few more mistakes on the field….
Last week, I detailed some of my experiences as an umpire for the City Softball Leagues in Galesburg.
I don’t think I missed many calls on the field, but there was one in particular that I might have gotten just a little tiny bit wrong.
I was doing a women’s game and working the bases. The batter, one of the nicest players in the league, got a base hit and headed for second when an outfielder bobbled the ball. She arrived standing up a good ten seconds before the ball. I mean, she was safe by such a long ways, Stevie Wonder could have gotten the call right. He was having a cup of coffee and chatting with the shortstop by the time the ball got there.
From off in the distance, I hear some leatherlungs calling her “OOOOOUUUUUTTTTTT!” I remember thinking when I heard it that whoever was doing that was just plain blind. Then I saw a fist coming down in an exaggerated motion and suddenly realized several things. First, the fist was attached to my right arm. Second, the voice calling her out was coming out of my throat.
We stood there looking at each other for what seemed like a year and a half. While the second baseman (basewoman?) held the ball on the runner’s thigh, the runner eased her foot off the bag, then looked down at her feet. She was standing off the bag with the fielder tagging her out. It made it look like I’d made the right call.
I must have had a guilty look on my face or something as she shuffled by me. “You’re welcome,” she said so that only she and I could hear her.
She came out to play first base the next inning and I had to stand there by her, knowing full well that I’d blown the call. She didn’t say a word; she just kept smiling at me.
Finally when that half of the inning was over, she walked over to me and slapped me on the shoulder with her glove. “Cheer up,” she said, a smile still there. “I just wanted to make sure you got one call right tonight.”
Now that’s the way to handle it! If I’d have made that call with the male player I described last week, he’d still be calling me every other weekend to remind me what an idiot I was.
Sometimes, games can get a little out of hand. I was working a girls’ fast pitch tournament at Lake Storey one weekend, and teams from around the area had gathered. There was a team from Kewanee that was pretty decent, but they’d had a lot of calls go against them during the weekend. I had the plate for the most memorable of their games.
We were using three umpires because this was a semi-final game in the tournament. You may not realize it, but umpires have set plays just the same as the ballplayers do. When there’s a play at second, the third base umpire will rotate to second while the plate umpire will rotate towards third in case of a play there. The first base umpire, after making sure the play is over at first, will then rotate to cover the plate in case there’s a play there.
Wouldn’t you know it? We had a play where I had to run down the third base line and make a snap call at third. The ball arrived before the Kewanee runner and the third baseman tagged her out. As the third baseman was coming up with her glove and starting to transfer the ball to her bare hand, the ball popped loose. Because I was on the run, I made the call, then jogged to a halt a few feet beyond third base.
I ruled that she had held the ball long enough for the out and that she dropped it on the transfer. That would probably have satisfied the Kewanee manager in and of itself.
But when I turned around to go back to the plate, the umpire from first base was standing behind me with his arms outstretched, signaling the girl was safe.
It wasn’t his call to make. It was mine. The proper protocol for this is simple. If I didn’t feel I’d had a good angle on the play or if for any other reason I thought I’d missed it, I could ask another umpire for help. Then, and only then, can that umpire overrule me.
This umpire made his own call without anyone asking him. I knew I had already ruled that the fielder dropped the ball on the transfer, so the out stood.
Meanwhile, the Kewanee manager is having a cow. He’s jumping up and down and carrying on like he was Billy Martin. I explained to the other umpire what my call had been and then he hung me out to dry. He shook his head and walked away.
Now the Kewanee manager is screaming and yelling obscenities in front of his 12 and 13 year old players. I tried to explain the situation to him in a calm rational voice, but it was difficult to do when he was working so hard on having a coronary.
Just as I was about to give him the heave-ho, he surprised me and everyone else on the field. He took a swing at me.
Yep. Pulled his fist back and let fly with a good old fashioned haymaker.
He must have realized what he was doing as soon as he started to throw the punch because it was in ultra slow motion, and it missed me by at least two feet (mainly because I stepped backwards). I tossed him and two parents came on the field to physically remove him.
The third base umpire, the most experienced of the three of us, had been watching all this from second base where he had rotated during the previous play. He came up, told me that I’d made the right call on the play, and then told me I’d handled the ejection very well. He told me I had been very professional.
I thanked him, then excused myself because I had to go be very unprofessional.
I marched over to the first base umpire and told him that if he ever overruled me again without my asking, I would do some very creative things with the softball, all of which would be very painful for him, and would probably require surgery to remove.
The rest of the game went without incident. Thank goodness for small favors.
One of the incident of which I’m most proud also occurred during a 12-13 girls’ fastpitch game. In this one, I had the plate again and it pitted a very good team against a team that looked like they’d rather have been anywhere else in the world except a baseball field.
Those games can get really long and boring. There is a mercy rule which allows the umpire to call the game after it gets just so far out of hand. This particular game looked like it would only last a couple of innings.
There was a play where a batter from the good team hit a popup on the infield. The poor team’s second baseman settled under it and then proceeded to drop it right after it landed in her glove. I couldn’t call the batter out because it was so obvious that the fielder had dropped the ball.
Before the next batter could reach the plate, I heard some moron in the stands directly behind the plate yelling, “That’s terrible! That’s awful!” I thought he was talking about me not giving the poor team a break and calling the girl out. If that was the case, then I’d just have to listen to it because umpires aren’t supposed to respond to people in the stands.
He continued. “You’ve got to make that play! You can’t drop the ball like that! That was embarrassing! You ought to be ashamed of yourself!”
He was yelling at the fielder!
I went back to work as the pitcher threw the next pitch. I could still hear this idiot who was still calling out the fielder for the bad play. Somebody must have said something to him about it because he told them that he could say anything he wanted to because that was his kid out there.
I broke one of the cardinal rules of umpiring. I stopped the game, went back to the screen, and told the guy off. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I do remember telling him that I’d be ashamed to have him as a father. And I remember throwing him out of the game. I don’t know to this day if an umpire can throw a fan out of a game, but I did.
And I got a standing ovation from the rest of the crowd for doing it.
My knees eventually told me that I should quit umpiring. There had been a lot of people who said that long before my knees did.
There was one player that came up to me one night before a game and said, “You know Jon, you’re not a fast umpire.”
This surprised me because I thought I was faster than most.
Then he said, “But you’re not a slow umpire either.”
This made sense. But I had no idea where he was going, but I had a feeling I was being set up.
“I guess everyone’s right. You’re just a half fast umpire.”
I would have tossed him out of the game except that I was laughing too hard.