Black and Blue

The rules of baseball structure the play of the game. Some of the rules are simple and are applied many times throughout the course of a game. Others bring clarity to complicated situations and are only used once a season, if that often. Working as the person in charge of enforcing these rules was an adventure. If you want to learn something then teach it, or, in my case, be in charge. I am anxious to return to the diamond for my second season of umpiring. This is what I learned from my first season as a man in blue.

Umpires work as security guards, teachers, counselors, and public information hotlines all at the same time. No matter how well you believe you know the game and the rules, you have to keep studying. Believing you know every situation that could possibly occur and how to properly handle the situation is a recipe for disaster. Reading the rule book was not optional. Rereading wasn’t either. Let’s be honest, reading it again was another requirement before arriving at the field. Showing up unprepared for the unpredictable is unacceptable. Despite my best efforts, there were calls I missed, though the number of missed calls dwindled as the summer wore on. Learning how to properly position myself, thus giving myself the best opportunity to make the correct call was something I had to learn from veteran umpires who were gracious in giving me feedback on what I was doing right, but most importantly on what I need to improve on. Umpiring baseball is like playing baseball, you work everyday to achieve perfection, yet you know you will never be perfect. The Sisyphean task of umpiring is something that I quickly grew to love.

My primary take away from my first season of umpiring is the physical toll it takes on a person. It is the prevailing memory that overshadows the rest of my on-field education where every small nuance of the rules and how to umpire a game were forged. Let’s start with the most obvious, getting hit. Every job has certain unavoidable hazards and this game requires you to accept that on any pitch you could get hit in the knee, shoulder, chest, or head. Not merely glancing blows, but balls that hit so hard you fall to the ground losing track of everything else as your singular focus becomes “How bad is it? Can I keep going?” Getting hit by a foul tip to the knee or chest and having the ball drop straight down means you absorbed all the force of the ball. You will feel it the next day, and probably the day after. Learning how to position yourself to lessen these blows while also avoiding others is critical for any umpire, if they hope to last.

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Every umpire has been where John Hirschbeck is, on the ground in pain after getting hit. (www.mlb.com)

The bruises are part of the job, getting hit by the ball is unavoidable in some cases. The worst hits are when you get hit because of poor positioning. A simple positioning problem led to being stepped on by the catcher at least three times this year. Fortunately, for my feet, metal spikes weren’t allowed, although rubber cleats aren’t exactly what I’d call soft. The feeling that you might have a broken toe or two doesn’t embolden you to hustle from behind home plate to make a call. What it does do is makes you reconsider if walking is really necessary. What hurts even more than getting stepped on is getting unnecessarily hit by a bat. It’s the sort of lesson you never forget. The batter hit a deep fly ball down the foul line and I moved to position myself to make a fair or foul call. It didn’t occur to me to give the batter a generous amount of space as I moved. The ball was caught and in disgust the batter swung the bat again. Smack. Pain. Luckily for me, I saw the bat move and protected my head with my elbow. It took a week before the swelling went down and I could comfortably straighten my elbow out. The batter did not mean to hit me, just an overreaction. It was my own fault for getting in the way that led to a painful reminder that positioning on the field always matters.

Beyond the physical beating you can take as an umpire there is also the weather. Over the course of my first season, I umpired when the temperature was 35 and when it was 104, and when the wind was blowing 40 MPH. The 35 degree game also included getting hit by four foul balls and being stepped on. I hate the cold. The 104 degree game needed extra innings to decide the winner, a cruel punishment as I could feel my shoes and brain melting in the heat. The cold and the heat present their own sort of problems for keeping your mental focus on the game. They separate those who want to umpire for something to do and those with the urge to give back to the game. Umpiring is difficult, even in the best conditions, for the mental toll it extracts. Maintaining that mental focus through discomfort and pain requires a rare person with a special love.

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Ed Hickox telling Manny Acta that he can leave the field, his day is done. (Elaine Thompson/ Associated Press)

The most difficult and often overlooked physical demand of umpiring came from the grind. Every pitch meant holding a crouch. Every ball put into play meant moving to a new vantage point. Every bounce led to twisting and turning to follow the ball or action. After one game, you walk away thinking “This isn’t too bad.” Though I admit, at the beginning of the season, it took a few weeks to acclimate myself to the demands. The fatigue builds up over the long-haul of the season. The aches creep into your movements. You push to avoid shortcuts because the moment you try to cut a corner you will be out of position and miss a call. Trying to deliver the same energy and accuracy for the last out of the last game of the season with the same enthusiasm as the first out of the season is hard to even imagine now. Umpiring from early April through Halloween is an endurance test. The games will grind you up and spit you out if you are not physically and mentally prepared.

I worked 147 games this season, from April 14th to October 27th. Minor league baseball teams play 140 games each season. I am under no illusion that the games I worked are on the same level as any minor league, but it puts into perspective how hard professional players, coaches, and umpires work day after day. As the season wore on, I found dealing with players and fans fell into three categories. First, the nameless, faceless players and fans that you forget about as soon as the game has ended. They come out to play and then go home. They make you feel good,  not great, and enjoy their time at the field. This makes up about 80% of the people I interacted with this year. Second, the people who are willing to engage in some friendly banter and want to have fun. These are the people you get to joke around with a little, you get to talk with them, get to become friendly towards, and are able to explain your calls to if there is a question or a disagreement about a call. These players and fans make up about 15% of the people. They make the games run smoothly with minimal headaches. Finally, there are the 5% of people who do not understand that they are playing in beer league softball. They come out and play hard, which I like. However, every call means life or death to them. They yell and complain while disregarding any explanation about the rules because they know the rules and exactly when and how they should be applied. Umpires are only at the games to ensure their team loses.

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The love of the game is why umpires like Dale Scott take the abuse and keep coming back for more. (Rich Pilling/ Getty Images)

Umpires quickly learn to identify the type of players and fans people are. Then they await in dread for those who will look to escalate. It’s only a matter of when. I made three ejections in 147 games, two of the ejections were in one game. The first ejection was on a close play at third and I called the runner out. Runner jumped up yelling that I should do something that is physically impossible. Despite a firm warning, he doubled down on the profanity and vulgarities. Bye bye. This was early in the season, so I was a little hesitant to eject a player. The second and third ejections occurred after an attempted tag on a runner despite the deadball. When I tried to explain the situation to the coach, who also happened to be pitching, he told me that I was making up rules. Again, I was commanded to do something physically impossible. Have a nice night. A fan for his team picked up where the coach/pitcher left off and that fan got to join the player. Then she decided to escalate and physically threaten me which somehow invited the coach/pitcher back to continue arguing. Thanks for playing everyone. The game became a forfeit. The crazy thing is the team I ejected the coach/ player and the fan from were winning 9-2 and needed just two outs to win the game. These are those special 5% of people all umpires “love.”

Umpiring invigorated my love for baseball. My love for the game was locked in my head and heart. The physicality of being around it made it more visceral. I could feel it in my blood as my heart pumped faster with excitement and exertion every game. The off season has been a much needed break though. I know now what I need to do in order to physically and mentally ready myself for a long, grueling season. There were nights and weekends I wish I had said no to umpiring games, but becoming a better umpire does not happen from the couch. Getting on the field, making calls, learning from mistakes, and being around other umpires is what makes you get better. I love umpiring, it may have left me black and blue, but for everything I put into it it gave me so much more back. The off season is winding down, and I will begin taking a training course at the beginning of February so that I can add high school baseball to my umpiring resume. The season is not so far away, and before long I will be back on the field and calling the game I love.

DJ

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