Turning Blue

Umpires have a difficult job. When they do their job well, the fans and players forget about them. When they make a mistake, whether actual or perceived, then they’re no longer invisible but rather the epicenter for the eruption of jeers and insults. The men, and women, in blue do not have many fans beyond close family and friends. Umpires do not become famous for their great calls but, they can become infamous for their misses. So why would anyone want to enter into a world where little recognition and glory could come from their efforts? The only rational reason is for love of the game, and that is why I have entered this crazy world.

I am umpiring. Obviously, I am not remotely in the same class as Jim Joyce, Dale Scott, Fieldin Culbreth, or the rest of the umpires who work Major League games every night. However, I am doing it and trying to get better at it. The odds are stacked that I will never make it to the Majors, but it still keeps me around the game I love. That is enough to keep me coming back for more.

MLB Umpire
The game moves fast, umpires have to move faster. (www.10news.com)

Recreation League Slow Pitch Softball is my current assignment. I am under no illusion that this qualifies as real baseball umpiring. It is a great training ground to work on the basics and find my way through some of the problems an umpire faces in almost every game. The extra pay also helps, using slow pitch softball to finance my baseball addiction means double the fun. As I umpire more games I plan to use some of the money I earn to buy equipment and move on to actual baseball. It is a process, one that takes some time as there is so much to learn. As an added bonus, I am also developing a decent tan, decent for me anyways. What better way to get rid of the stress in life than going outside and being on the diamond.

As I am new to Cincinnati, making friends and finding a team to play on was challenging. The greater challenge though was the expense of paying to play baseball or softball. While not absurdly expensive, it is still difficult to justify such an expense while trying to get my finances in better shape. Umpiring allows me to go to the field several nights a week and be part of many games each night. I have always been one that shows up to games early and stays well beyond the final out, or stays at the field practicing hitting and fielding until physically exhausted. A single game each week was not going to satisfy my appetite. While different than playing, umpiring allows me to consume more. I see more, learn more, laugh more, and honestly am happier.

Umpire Argue
Not everyone will always agree with your calls. (Greg Fiume/ Getty Images)

Umpiring has been filled with surprises, both good and bad. First, the good. Every pitch requires your focus so you stay on your competitive edge from when the teams meet to when they shake hands. When playing you get to take a break while on offense, unless you’re at bat. Every pitch is followed by a sequence of calls. Did the pitcher balk? Was it a strike or ball? Was the ball fair or foul? Was the runner safe or out? What’s the best position to make the potential calls in this situation? Crouching behind home plate to call balls and strikes, racing down to first to make a call on a ball in play (I work as a one man umpiring crew, every call is mine). Every pitch feels like competition. I either get the call right or wrong. In an evening, I can work 21 innings or more. After the games have finished for the night, it is the one or two mistakes I made I dwell on. Those plays repeat again and again in my head, not the dozens of other correct calls. The competition against myself is real. The teams are playing to win. I work hard to make sure their play decides who wins and losses, not my calls.

Another surprise is how fast the game can move and how you do not have time to think. Two seconds is not a long time in normal life, but it can seem like forever waiting on an umpire to make a call.  As an umpire you have to make the call quickly, yet be sure you are right. See it, call it, no thinking. You also have to watch the game away from the baseball. A ball gets hit into the gap in the outfield, nearly everyone is watching the outfielders chase the ball. Not Umpires. They are making sure the runner is touching the bases, the defense is not obstructing the runner, and getting themselves into the proper position to make any potential call as the runner advances around the bases. So much of the game happens away from the ball, and yet many people never see it as they are watching where the ball went.

Strike three
Nothing feels better than knowing you called a good game. (www.gammonsdaily.com)

There have also been a few bad surprises. These have been more brutally honest moments than bad surprises, as anyone could have seen them coming. Every umpire makes mistakes. Miss a call or make a call incorrectly. I have missed a call or two on bang bang plays at first. There is no instant replay. I am getting better at remembering where runners are before every pitch, so as to ensure force plays do or do not exist. Nothing confuses teams more than calling a runner safe at home due to no tag being applied when the bases were loaded when the ball was put into play. Fortunately I realized my mistake and quickly corrected it. Again there is a reason you sharpen your skills first in beer league softball and not Major League games.  

The most lasting surprise has been the physical soreness. I keep myself in good physical shape, but umpiring is putting that to the test. The physical soreness has made me reassess my physical training. Crouching, running, twisting, and turning for over three hours at a time takes a toll. Taking care to stretch and strengthen my back and legs has helped to maintain my focus from the first batter of the evening through to the last. Umpiring can be a grind, but every batter deserves a good strike zone and every runner deserves an accurate call.

I do not know how long I will umpire or how high up the ladder I will go. Slow Pitch Softball may not be the most glamorous umpiring job in the world, but I love it. There are few places in this world that I would rather be on a warm evening that a baseball diamond, with the lights buzzing high above the field. Baseball is baseball, no matter if it is Fenway Park in October, a high school diamond in Texas, or a recreation field on the banks of the Ohio River filled with players who want nothing more than to play ball with their friends, runs the bases, and have a good laugh.



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