Little League umpire faces new season jitters

Home Plate Umpire, Mike Everitt, defending a tough call against Blue Jays' Brett Lawrie. Photo: Canadian Press

Home Plate Umpire, Mike Everitt, defending a tough call against Blue Jays' Brett Lawrie. Photo: Canadian Press

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The boys in the big leagues have been swinging their bats for a few weeks now. And in certain quarters, there are high hopes for the 2013 professional baseball season.

But high stakes and new season jitters aren't reserved for the pros. Or even just for players. Ask a little league umpire.

From Glen Margaret Nova Scotia, here is Philip Moscovitch with Behind The Plate:

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I crouch and watch as the pitcher lurches forward and releases the ball. Just as
I'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 of
the 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 a
bit. 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 never
supposed to show doubt, and they certainly don't apologize. And then I crouch
and 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 course
because my then 12-year-old son was taking it. He loves baseball, he knows the
rules inside out, and he wanted to make a bit of extra money. I thought it would
be fun for us to work games together. So last May, I found myself in a room full
of 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'm
sure to think I chose wrong.

So I approached every game last summer with a combination of terror and
excitement. 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 made
this decisive call: "I think he's safe." The first time I called a game from behind
the plate, I lost track of the count, and had to ask one of the batters how many
strikes there were.

But as the season went on, I began to realize that umpiring isn't just something
you do. Being an umpire - even a house-league umpire for little kids - is
something you become.

I would head to the ballpark so nervous sometimes I would fantasize about
crashing the car to get out of my assignment. But once I pulled the mask over
my 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 remember
a famous umpire quote: "Maybe I called it wrong, but it's official." And I'd try to
carry on without getting flustered.

Umpiring required me to put up a tough exterior. But it also had another, almost
contradictory requirement: the need for mindfulness and openness to whatever
is about to happen.

When you stand behind home plate or out in the field, you have to be ready for
whatever the game might throw your way. You must be completely aware of
your 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 present
in each one. Some nights, I had no idea who was winning (keeping score is
not the umpire's job). It was just, "Ball, strike, ball, strike." And as soon as one
moment passed - a called strike three that might have been too high, a close
play at a base - I would try to forget it, block out the sounds of the parents and
coaches, and focus on the next one.

I'd love to tell you that this experience revolutionized my life. That the confidence
I gained yelling "Strike!" or feeling particularly good about a play made me a
better, more assured person.

But it wouldn't be true. I'm still occasionally wracked by anxiety. I still wonder if I
know 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, sweating
out a game in my scratchy polyester shirt, participating in the only activity I
know that brings together the strange combination of equanimity and ferocious
tenacity.

I was the base umpire during one of the last games of the season, and I had the
sun 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 blew
the call.

So... was he safe? Yes he was. I called him safe.

And I'm the umpire.
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