THE STRIKE ZONE
Sometimes Sports, Sometimes Sportsmanship
By Jack Furlong
Founder, President & CEO
Recently, I was fortunate enough to take a trip to see family in Arizona. The trip coincided with the championship game for the Arizona Fall League, which was an affordable way to spend a few hours at the ballpark bonding with relatives in Scottsdale.
For the uninitiated, the Arizona Fall League (AFL) is a “graduate school” for the best prospects in Major League Baseball. Held during October and November in the desert climate, six teams are stacked with an equal number of players from five parent clubs each. For this championship game, the Surprise Saguaros (made up of the Houston Astros, Texas Rangers, Kansas City Royals, Philadelphia Phillies, and Pittsburgh Pirates) hosted the Glendale Desert Dogs (comprised of the Minnesota Twins, Chicago White Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, Milwaukee Brewers, and Cincinnati Reds) at Scottsdale Stadium, Spring Training home of the San Francisco Giants. I sat two rows behind home plate, feeling like I was part of the game.
The AFL doesn’t just develop players. It gives MLB a chance to test new rules, such as the pitch timer, restrictions on defensive shifts, and larger bases. Further, it’s a necessary stop for aspiring umpires as they approach the opportunity to be hired to the fulltime staff. The umpires working this league usually fall into one of two categories: they’re either call-up umpires who have cracked the big leagues to fill in for the fulltime staff, or they’re the minor league umpires who would probably be next to replace the call-ups if they get hired.
The opportunity to officiate these special games is a reward to umpires who have had great seasons, much like how officials selected to work postseason games for all professional sports are rewarded for the same reason. It can also be a boost in confidence, demonstrating how the league values particular umpires with these assignments, rather than simply giving the assignments to the best umpires. For example, when the AFL hosted its annual “Fall Stars Game” one week prior, three out of the four umpires selected to work that game all had worked in MLB earlier that season. Thus, one might think this championship game would be officiated by umpires with similar experiences. However, the three base umpires were all unknowns, as opposed to the familiar faces working a week ago.
Nate Tomlinson (#114) was assigned to work home plate that evening. He was deputized during the 2020 shortened season as a triple-digit call-up and has been eligible to work games in the big leagues ever since. The league thinks highly of him, as he worked the Futures Game in 2017, which is not an assignment taken lightly. Being selected to work the plate for this championship game was no small feat, even for a guy who had a modicum of experience in the big leagues.
Nate had a great game. It wasn’t until the middle of the game that I began to hear the sarcastic chirps of fans complaining about the strike zone. “C’mon, Blue!” was the most common interjection. The game was tied in the later innings when the comments coming from the fans escalated with every close pitch.
A coach in the first base dugout said something to Nate about a strike call. Nate quickly turned to him (without removing his mask). “I’m not having any of that tonight!” he barked back, putting an end to any dissent.
The crowd around me amplified their displeasure with the call (which was correct). My blood began to boil as I witnessed the ignorance of the fans around me, leading them via peer pressure and convention to verbally berate a man simply doing his job. The crowd noise died down just as my instincts took over.
“Atta boy, Nate,” I said in a normal volume, perhaps just loud enough for those around me to hear.
In the matter of a mere moment, I began to question why I had just responded the way I did. My first thought was one of terror. I wondered if I had crossed a line by using his first name. I didn’t want to give the fans more ammunition in the form of his first name, even though it was announced over the public address system and was listed in the game’s box score. Many officials wish to remain anonymous, citing the fact that the biggest compliment an official can receive is the knowledge that nobody even noticed them. I thought Nate might turn around and have the stadium staff eject me for calling him by his name.
Then I thought of the respect I had just shown him. Had Nate even heard me, maybe his thought was, “Did someone in the crowd just cheer for me?” If I had been in his shoes, perhaps it would have been a welcome change from the vitriol that normally comes with the territory. Ultimately, I responded because I felt like I was being attacked. I projected myself onto Nate, as we shared a fraternal bond as keepers of the flame in the greatest game ever invented. Every derogatory comment at Nate was a derogatory comment at me, an innocent fan trying to enjoy his vacation.
Another close pitch came in. Regardless of the call, the fans of the Saguaros thought it was wrong. I looked into the first base dugout, thinking the same coach was about to chirp again. Instead, I saw something that was strangely comforting.
The coaching staff assembled on the side of the dugout nearest to me turned around and looked at something in the dugout, then turned back with a satisfied look on their collective faces. Then it happened again, even with the crowd becoming worse. It took me a few pitches of this same behavior to realize what was happening: a television monitor on a delay was behind them, and the coaches looked to see if Nate called the questionable pitch properly. Every time I watched the phenomenon, Nate got every call correct, leaving the coaches silent and content, but not the crowd.
A man one section over from me started making comments that increased on the scale of belligerence. “That’s the fourth strike of that at-bat, Nate!” said the man. I cocked my head to look at him while keeping Nate in the corner of my eye. I wanted to slap this stranger for the verbal abuse he was hurling at a man who has dedicated his life to the craft of officiating, sacrificing so much to trudge from city to city, hotel to hotel, just to live the dream that only so few could live.
My girlfriend leaned towards me. “Do you want to go over and say something to him?” she asked.
“No,” I said rather loudly, intent on having those around me hear what I was saying. “I don’t know if he’s drunk or if he has a gun or a weapon.”
A man on the other side of me turned to me. “Excuse me,” he asked, “but what are you talking about?”
“That man over there,” I replied while gesturing. “He’s being completely inappropriate in his comments towards the home plate umpire.”
The man became intrigued. “Do you know him?”
“I know some umpires,” I said. “I’ve been umpiring for fifteen years. I lead my local chapter of umpires. And I can say with certainty that behavior such as what that man is exhibiting is why we have a global shortage of sports officials.”
The gentleman became interested. He began to ask me about my background in the game, genuinely trying to learn more. He was one of the few guys who had heckled Nate earlier; after speaking with me, that behavior ended.
As our conversation about umpire abuse continued, an older lady behind me, perhaps in her early 50’s, chimed in. “That’s part of the game.”
At that moment, I refused to turn around and acknowledge such a ridiculous comment.
I began to wonder if most people around me felt the same way as her. If they did, they lacked the courage and fortitude to speak their minds. Most simply sunk in their chairs, choosing to focus on the game instead of the casual conversation I was having with a stranger. Maybe I was being judged, maybe not.
Although I wasn’t surprised, I was equal parts offended and angered that someone consciously believed that abusing sports officials was a right held by others. I was two time zones away from home, and I had encountered the behavior and opinions that I have sworn to change in others. Do I dare turn around and ask this woman, “Would you like it if I came to where you work and verbally abused you for hours on end?”
Our society has accepted the convention of poor sportsmanship in the same way many of our ancestors accepted racism as a convention. It is a learned behavior that is imprinted on our subconscious from our experiences. If our experiences consist of watching our parents partake in these behaviors, then we begin to mimic them as a way of fitting in with the adult crowd, begging for acceptance into the clique of cool kids. Whether it’s heckling umpires, booing players, hazing teammates, or any other accepted tradition, it’s time we stand up and speak the truth:
It's not part of the game.
Baseball player, umpire, coach, fan; professional musician; founder, President & CEO of The OSIP Foundation, Inc.