Sunday, April 28, 2013 | Categories: Episodes
Home Plate Umpire, Mike Everitt, defending a tough call against Blue Jays' Brett Lawrie. Photo: Canadian Press
I crouch and watch as the pitcher lurches forward and releases the ball. Just asI've been taught, I don't move a muscle, and I keep my eyes locked on the pitch.A moment before it hits the catcher's glove, the ball passes just over the edge ofthe plate.Or does it?It's my call.I wait a moment, close my fist and start to raise my hand, ready to yell, "Strike!"Then I pause, replay the pitch in my mind, and decide it was probably off by abit. My hand still clenched in the fist, I quietly say, "Ball."The catcher turns to look at me, surprised. "Ball?"I nod, trying not to look apologetic or doubtful - baseball umpires are neversupposed to show doubt, and they certainly don't apologize. And then I crouchand look out towards the mound, waiting for the next pitch.I've only been a baseball umpire for one season. I signed up for the coursebecause my then 12-year-old son was taking it. He loves baseball, he knows therules inside out, and he wanted to make a bit of extra money. I thought it wouldbe fun for us to work games together. So last May, I found myself in a room fullof beginner umpires, learning tips such as "Call strikes early and often," and"The closer the play, the louder the call."Umpires are decisive, we were told. They're thick-skinned and pugnacious.They go toe-to-toe with managers and toss them out of the game if needed.They take no guff.Me? I'm an indecisive 45-year-old writer prone to anxiety. I hem and I haw.Hand me a menu and I'll examine every item before choosing... and then I'msure to think I chose wrong.So I approached every game last summer with a combination of terror andexcitement. Fear I'd forget the most basic rules - what's an infield fly again? --or cost a team a game because of a bad call.And all this for the sake of house-league games played by 8- to- 13-year-olds.My first game, I looked over to third base as the fielder applied a tag, and madethis decisive call: "I think he's safe." The first time I called a game from behindthe plate, I lost track of the count, and had to ask one of the batters how manystrikes there were.But as the season went on, I began to realize that umpiring isn't just somethingyou do. Being an umpire - even a house-league umpire for little kids - issomething you become.I would head to the ballpark so nervous sometimes I would fantasize aboutcrashing the car to get out of my assignment. But once I pulled the mask overmy face and stepped behind the plate, I was transformed: I became the umpire.I learned that I would blow calls - that all umpires blow calls. But I'd remembera famous umpire quote: "Maybe I called it wrong, but it's official." And I'd try tocarry on without getting flustered.Umpiring required me to put up a tough exterior. But it also had another, almostcontradictory requirement: the need for mindfulness and openness to whateveris about to happen.When you stand behind home plate or out in the field, you have to be ready forwhatever the game might throw your way. You must be completely aware ofyour circumstances, but not focus entirely on any one of them. Behind the plate,you watch the pitch come in without anticipating a ball or strike. On the bases,you make no assumptions about whether the runner or the ball will arrive first.You just stay open, watch, and then react.You come to see baseball as a game of moments, and you have to be presentin each one. Some nights, I had no idea who was winning (keeping score isnot the umpire's job). It was just, "Ball, strike, ball, strike." And as soon as onemoment passed - a called strike three that might have been too high, a closeplay at a base - I would try to forget it, block out the sounds of the parents andcoaches, and focus on the next one.I'd love to tell you that this experience revolutionized my life. That the confidenceI gained yelling "Strike!" or feeling particularly good about a play made me abetter, more assured person.But it wouldn't be true. I'm still occasionally wracked by anxiety. I still wonder if Iknow what I'm doing. And I'm sure at this season's opener I'll be so nervous I'll feel like puking.But I'm also looking forward to those summer evenings at the ballpark, sweatingout a game in my scratchy polyester shirt, participating in the only activity Iknow that brings together the strange combination of equanimity and ferocioustenacity.I was the base umpire during one of the last games of the season, and I had thesun in my eyes most of the time. With the bases loaded, I stood near second,waiting for the next pitch. Suddenly, the pitcher whirled and threw to first base,trying to catch a runner who was leading off guard.I wasn't expecting the play, and the whole thing was lost in the sun anyway.I couldn't see it, and I had no idea whether the runner got back fast enough.But there wasn't going to be any "I think he's safe" this time. I planted my feet,spread my arms out widely and yelled, "He's safe!"There were predictable groans from his team's supporters, who thought I blewthe call.So... was he safe? Yes he was. I called him safe.And I'm the umpire.