THE STRIKE ZONE
Sometimes Sports, Sometimes Sportsmanship
If you try to brainstorm a list of jobs that involve people always yelling at you (or are at least always displeased with your service), it seems natural to think of jobs like customer service, lost baggage counter operator at the airport, or husband (see what I did there?).
Another job on that list is sports official. And on Friday night, I had another run in with coaches and fans that made me wonder why I do it.
Consider the following scenarios. I'm working the bases in a two-man umpiring system for a Cal Ripken State Tournament game for 11-year-olds. I'm working with an umpire with whom I have never worked before. This gentleman (who we'll refer to as "Frank") was very nice; he was probably in his late 40's or early 50's. Frank was stationed behind the plate.
There are runners on first and second with nobody out. I'm in the "C" position, which means I'm on the third base side of second base, approximately half way between the dirt circle of the pitcher's mound and the infield dirt. The batter hits a screaming line drive that goes down the third base line and hits about ten to fifteen feet past the base on the grass; when it hits, a cloud of white chalk jumps into the air from the foul line. I turn to watch the ball for a split second, then turn to watch my coverage of first and second base as I take the runner on first base and the batter-runner around the bases. At that point, I hear Frank yell something.
Now, I don't know exactly what it was that he yelled. I started with an F, and it was not very emphatic, but it was loud enough for me (and the players) to hear. Keep this in mind, too: when an umpire is determining if a ball is fair or foul, the proper mechanic is to only vocalize the call of "foul," not to declare the ball fair. If the ball is foul, the umpire is to yell, "Foul!" and signal with his hands that it is a foul ball, either by putting both hands in the air (like he's being robbed) or by pointing to foul territory. If the ball is fair, the umpire is to say nothing, but instead to just point toward fair territory.
My instinct kicks in to tell me that what Frank verbalized was a declaration of the ball being foul. But when I turned around to see him, he was pointing toward fair territory and standing there as if he was letting the play continue. The runners kept running, but the defense was confused and stunned. The ball, thankfully, continued on the ground down the third base line and into dead-ball territory, which is where it probably would have ended up regardless. As I turn back around to look at the runners, the two runners on base have now scored and the batter-runner is stopping at third base. The left fielder ran into dead-ball territory to retrieve the ball and throw it in.
In an instant, the coaches for both teams are going crazy. The defensive coaches are yelling at Frank, saying he called it foul even though he pointed fair, so it should be foul. The offensive coaches are yelling back, saying the ball kicked up chalk, proving it landed on the line, which means it is a fair ball. Frank, immediately knowing he screwed up, called time out and came to talk to me.
"I screwed up," he said. "I called it foul, but I pointed fair. The ball ended up in dead-ball territory, though. I'm going to declare it a ground-rule double. The runner who was on second base will score; the runner who was on first base will go back to third; and the batter-runner will go back to second."
Covering my mouth with my hand and maintaining my composure, I softly said, "Okay."
Frank made his call. The team to bat didn't have a problem with it. The team in the field was still livid that a run scored.
This was in the first inning.
Fast forward to the sixth and final inning. The team who had been upset about that call had just taken the lead in the bottom of the fifth. As they came out to play defense in the top of the sixth, they only needed three outs to win. They led by one run.
In a matter of about four pitches, the first two batters both hit home runs. Now they were losing by a run.
We went to the bottom of the sixth with that team still losing by a run.
With one out and nobody on base, I was stationed in the "A" position, which means I was in foul territory down the first base line, approximately 10 feet behind first base. The batter hits a soft line drive towards the shortstop, who races in, dives, and makes a shoestring catch. I rotate into fair territory, anticipating that the shortstop may have dropped it and could be throwing to first base to try to get the out. Frank, however, comes up from his crouch behind the catcher with a clenched first in the air. He's got a catch all the way. The batter is out.
The runner keeps running to first, though. The shortstop, unsure if he caught it or not, throws the ball to first. The runner beats the throw. But before I make a call, I see Frank still in his posture calling the out. All I do is point to him to show he has the call.
Those same coaches who were livid in the first inning are now looking to pop blood vessels. They come running out of the dugout. Screaming at Frank, they ask him to appeal to me. Frank and I conference again. "I have a catch," said Frank. "Did you have anything different?"
"I took a peek when I could," I said. "I never saw the ball on the ground. I have no information to give you to potentially change this call."
"So the call is going to stand," said Frank.
"Yes," I said.
"You know they're going to be pissed," he said.
"That's why I'm going to have another beer tonight," I replied. Frank smiles and chuckled a little, then turned around.
"The call is out."
You would have thought that behavior that followed would be outlawed around children. Not only were the coaches screaming, but so were the parents and fans. Not only were they screaming at Frank, but they were screaming at me. I started to hear things that were very close to being personally insulting, such as, "You're taking away this opportunity from the children! They're suffering because of your mistake!"
One of the assistant coaches continued to yell at me from the dugout. I put up my hand and kept saying, "Okay, coach. Relax. Enough." I was considering ejecting him, but I knew he was probably still upset at the first call. I gave everyone a long leash.
The next batter hit a hard ground ball back to the pitcher, who turned and threw to first. Game over.
I jogged five feet to the exit and waited for Frank to get to me before I left. Umpires always leave together. Frank, however, was staying around the home plate area for some reason. The players and coaches came out to shake hands, and the tirade continued to rain down on us from the coaches and parents. Frank continued to delay for a reason unknown to me. The assistant coach who was yelling at me from the dugout came out and was getting in line to shake hands when he turned and looked right at me. "You suck!" he yelled at me.
With a turn and a waive of my extended pointer finger, I levied my punishment. "You're gone, coach!" I had ejected him from the game after it had ended. He thought it was a joke since the game was over. Frank noticed this and finally came running up to me.
"Who'd you eject?"
"Him," as I pointed to the coach and read his name and number off the back of his jersey.
"Okay," said Frank. He ran over to the scorer's table and reported the ejection. He then ran back just as the team and the coaches were walking by us again. "Coach," Frank said, "not only are you ejected from this game, but you are suspended for the next game as well." All ejections in Cal Ripken tournaments come with an additional one-game suspension in addition to being disqualified from the contest at hand.
"That's great," he yelled sarcastically. "Great job tonight!"
Frank and I finally walked through the exit and towards the snack bar to collect our pay. What we heard on that walk was even worse than what I had heard up to that point.
"You lost this game for us tonight, blue! You should be ashamed of yourself! You ruined it for the kids! You don't deserve to umpire! You're too old to umpire! I hope to God you both never umpire a game again in your lives!"
I took a little solace in the fact that I just didn't care at that point. My adrenaline had never rushed that night, and I knew why. Before that game, Frank and I had officiated another game. I was behind the plate and he was on the bases. It was 90 degrees and humid; six innings took two and a half hours to play. I was dead tired and was lucky I could walk.
After getting paid, I jogged to my car (which was right behind the field and in plain sight of these absurd fans), got in without changing, and drove away. I pulled over near a fire station about a mile away to get out, get my phone and wallet from my trunk, and then drive home, where I would change, put my gear away, and enjoy not being in an area where threats were only a matter of time.
After a shower, I went out for a burger and a drink. The beer menu didn't have anything enticing, so I decided something harder was in order: one medium-dry vodka martini with a lemon peel...and, of course, it was shaken...not stirred.
I don't know when I actually started to have the chance to reflect on the events of the night. Maybe it was just before bed, when I prayed for all of the adults who acted so inappropriately toward me. But it spawned a question that we've been asking for a long time: why do people act like this?
What do the adults hope to gain out of this behavior? Is it a competitive advantage for their children? Do they think that the loss of the children on the other team will be the gain for their children? Will that make it easier to parent their children if they are satisfied by some sort of victory? Are the parents living vicariously through these children, thereby thinking the victory is theirs and not that of the kids?
What kind of an example do these parents think they are setting for the kids? Are they showing them that clawing and fighting through anything that might be remotely unfair will prove that you were right and will not stand for such an injustice on a playing field? Are they demonstrating that awful behavior might get them what they want? Are they showing that the feelings of those who you think might have wronged you do not matter, as if they are somehow less of a human?
Those questions may not be easy to answer. (Or, maybe the answer to all of them is a resounding "yes.") But instead of dwelling on them, let's try to answer this question:
Do people actually think that sports officials put on the uniform and get on the field for the arguments and to purposely wrong teams? Do people think we, as officials, enjoy the yelling and the screaming and the derogatory comments that show how we are unfit humans who shouldn't be around children?
Every answer to each of these questions spawns a debate, each of which has exceptions to rules and complicated answers. If we were omniscient, perhaps we could dissect the psychology of each individual adult who yelled something and try to understand why he or she felt the need to remind umpires they don't belong with the cleansed folk. But we don't have those luxuries.
I suppose the point is that youth athletics rarely observes the golden rule, especially when referring to the adults who coach or cheer. Would any of them like it if I yelled back at them in the same manner? Or would they just yell louder until they decided to resort to violence? Do they yell because they know we can't yell back? I could only imagine if I did yell back. A part of me was dying to turn to them and flip them off, but then I knew I wouldn't be officiating there again...not that it would be that big of a loss if that was the behavior I faced each time.
We hear a lot of stories about sportsmanship when it comes to just the players, their parents, and the coaches. What we don't hear about is the abuse that officials have to withstand. It's as if the teachers of good sportsmanship are preaching that we need to treat others as we would wish to be treated, but treat the officials like garbage since they never make the right call.
Instead of putting blame on officials, maybe parents and coaches should use these teachable moments to explain to kids that life simply isn't fair sometimes. Bad things are going to happen to good people, and we have no control over that. The only thing we can control is how we react to those things. If we put things in perspective, we start to see that bad breaks await us around every turn, not just in sports. A call that doesn't go in your favor during a game is nothing compared to a loved one developing cancer, for example.
I heard it said best on a New York Yankees broadcast last weekend while the Yanks were in Cleveland. Former MLB player Ken Singleton was doing play-by-play on the YES Network immediately after one of the recent shootings or violent terrorist attacks that we are facing on an almost constant basis. As Ken expressed his condolences for everyone who was suffering, he said, "This is a game...we're watching people play a game...a little perspective goes a long way." He couldn't be more right. Baseball is a game. Life is...well...life.