The first few days of the baseball off-season do not feel strange. It is when the off season turns into weeks that the absence of the game becomes more noticeable. Yearning for baseball is good. Missing something you love is natural.
My love for baseball borders on obsessive. After umpiring games all weekend I listen to the Reds on the radio while driving home only to watch a baseball game, or two, from the comfort my the couch. The end of the season, and time change, makes me sad. While my body needs a break from the grind of umpiring, the sudden stop of the game is jolting. What do I do with all this free time?
The snow has not begun falling yet, but it will soon. Baseball is taking a short break. (Kurt Wilson/ Missoulian)
As the trio of Yankee fans, John, Bernie, and Kevin, recover from the Red Sox winning the World Series, we are also waiting for free agency to begin in earnest. Where will the big free agents land. Will Bryce Harper put on pinstripes? Did Manny Machado cost himself millions by not hustling in the Playoffs? Who will Craig Kimbrel close games for next season? Is Adrian Beltre’s next stop Cooperstown? Who rewards World Series MVP Steve Pearce for his efforts in October? Are there enough interested teams to drive up the market for Dallas Keuchel and Patrick Corbin? Do teams believe Josh Donaldson and A.J. Pollock are part of a winning strategy? Is a team willing to sign Big Sexy, Bartolo Colon? Will the Mets new General Manager, Brodie Van Wagenen, continue the Queens tradition of overpaying players past their prime?
Once the cold settles in for its yearly stay winter begins to drag. Each free agent signing is dissected to the fullest. The itch for the game will return in earnest when the calendar turns to 2019. Allowing some distance between yourself and what you love is good from time to time. It is better to miss something or someone than to wish they were not around. I miss you baseball. A small break to rest my body from umpiring and to catch up on sleep from the World Series are good things. Enjoy your time away baseball, but please hurry back.
What does it take to go from sitting in the stands watching a game to on the field as part of the game? A lot of time and energy. Working a game as an umpire means spending hours studying the rules and mechanics, getting physically fit to meet the demands of calling a game, and suiting up with all the proper safety equipment before stepping on the field.
What does it take to go from umpiring a game to sitting in the stands? One pitch. I received this painful reminder Saturday afternoon. I was the home plate umpire for a 17U game. In the top of the 5th inning, the pitcher threw a fastball chest high, the left handed batter swung and fouled the pitch back. This minor redirection meant the baseball slammed into the right side of my throat. I do not know if I was slightly out of position in my stance, if my chest protector had slid down, or how the ball missed my mask, I wear the hockey style mask, and throat guard. All I know is I never want to experience that pain again.
Derek working behind the plate before getting hit in the throat later in the game. (The Winning Run/ SCL)
As luck would have it my parents and wife were watching my call the game, they were sitting 20 feet away. They said I dropped like I had been shot. I remember getting hit and I remember landing on the ground, I do not remember falling. After what seemed like forever, but was probably only a few seconds I was moving around collecting myself. I was trying to determine if I was hurt or injured. I sat up and started to move around. A coach waiting to play the next game came on the field to examine me. He is an ICU doctor. He said I was ok, but if my head started to hurt or if my neck swelled I needed to go to the Emergency Room immediately. I felt well enough to continue, so after reassuring my wife and parents and we continued the game.
At the end of the half inning my head started hurting and I was having difficulty turning my head. Clearly I had no business on a baseball field. The coach/ doctor checked me out again and said I needed to head directly to the Emergency Room. After several hours at the Emergency Room, the doctor said I am fine beyond some swelling and bruising. Relieved I avoided serious injury, I thought about how easily it could have turned out very differently.
The best I can describe getting hit in the throat with a fouled off fastball is imagine you are in a serious car crash but only to your throat. My entire right right is still sore from the impact. My throat is swollen, I still cannot full turn my head side to side. It is difficult to find a comfortable position to sit or lay down. I sound like I have been a heavy smoker for the last 50 years.
Jesse working behind the plate at Georgia Gwinnett College. (The Winning Run/ DJ)
I asked my wife and parents individually if I turned my head at all before the ball hit me. They all said I did not move. Flinching is dangerous when you are umpiring behind the plate. If you are moving around you are opening yourself up to pain and injury. Even in some magical world where I knew the pitch was coming for my throat after it touched the bat, there is not enough time for me to move.
Even when you do everything correctly, there is no guarantee you will leave the field uninjured. It may be a baseball or a bat or a non-contact injury that ends your career. No one stays on the field forever. One pitch can hasten your leaving the field for the last time only return as a spectator. Cherish every moment, good and bad, you are on the field. You never know when you step off the field for the last time.
The romanticized version of baseball has the players as the boys of summer. Playing a children’s game on an immaculate diamond in perfect weather. In reality, those boys of summer are sweating under the hot midday sun. The umpires are feeling the heat even more than the players, literally and figuratively. Amateur baseball is almost never played in a stadium, usually it is just a diamond, some fencing, and not much else. Once summer hits in earnest, the sun begins to cook the diamond and those on it.
Umpiring during the summer can be exhausting. The games begin to blur together, especially if you work a weekend tournament. Three, four, five, or even six games in a day takes a mental tole on you in the best conditions. Switching out with a partner to break up working games behind the plate or in the field does help maintain your mental focus, but regardless of position the time on the field wears on you. Adding to the stress and strain are parents and coaches who sometimes forget baseball is just a game. One of the first things you learn when you begin umpiring is if you take everything people say about a call you made to heart you will not make it as an umpire. Studying the rule book, proper mechanics, proper angles, and hustle are an umpires best friend. Taking all of these challenges then adding 100 degree heat can make the best umpires question themselves.
On almost every close call umpires are making at least half the people ate a game unhappy. (Alan Mothner /Associated Press)
It is a hot summer day, then put on plate shoes, pants, ball bags, a chest protector, and a mask. This is a recipe to make it look like you went swimming. Personally I wear the hockey mask which gives me better protection around my entire head, but what I gain in protection I lose in air flow. The hockey masks breathes fairly well, but at a certain point sweat begins to pour down your face. My chest protector has a band across the chest, which pushes it away from my body slightly. This allows better airflow, and keeps me cooler. While the band helps prevent heat rash, it does not mean I am cool, only I am cooking not being broiled. My shin guards and plate shoes fit snugly against my legs and feet. As you would imagine what I gain in protection I lose in coolness. I also wear a cup, I will never step on a baseball field without on. Getting hit in the cup is painful enough, I have no desire to experience what it is like getting hit there without a cup. Every piece of equipment is necessary to protect me. I would never work behind the plate without all of it on. A single missed pitch by the catcher or foul ball are not worth the extra coolness.
Umpires move on every pitch. This constant motion, especially in the heat, wears you down. Squatting behind the plate and in the field to watch the pitch. Moving from behind the plate, down the first base line to watch for a pulled foot at first, or moving out to gain a better angle on a fly ball to the outfield. Running with the runner around the bases to ensure they touch each base and to be in a good position to make an accurate call regardless of the base. Umpires are constantly moving and they do not retreat to a dugout between innings. Finding any amount of shade, no matter how small is an oasis on a desert diamond. The fight to stay hydrated and eat enough to maintain your physical health is vital if an umpire is going to survive a long hot weekend.
Night games can be a saving grace. Jesse might still be hot, but at least the sun is no longer beating down on him. (The Winning Run/ DJ)
Umpiring in the heat is no joke. If you do not take care of yourself before and during the games, you can quickly find yourself in big trouble. Dehydration and sunburn are painful reminders that you were not prepared for the conditions. Any endeavor which requires long stretches of focus and physical exertion quickly teach you to take care of yourself. You did not get enough sleep last night? Great, you will be missing pitches and hearing about it from coaches and fans. You have been eating a garbage diet? You probably will not withstand the physical toll multiple games in a day takes on you. You were not hydrated to start the day and/or you have not continued to hydrate in the heat? Your muscles will cry for mercy, your mental focus will escape you, and once you have dug yourself a hole it is nearly impossible to get out while on the field.
Few people begin umpiring for the money. It is a nice side job, but doing it for the money will quickly show, as money is not always the best motivator to improve. Every baseball game has three teams; the home team, the visiting team, and the umpires. I do not mean the umpires are trying to win or make calls against a team. Each team has a job to do; the home and visiting team are trying to score the most runs before the end of the game, the umpires are working to ensure the game is played according to the rules of baseball. When an umpire does not properly prepare for a game they are letting their partner down. Yes, the heat can get to anyone, no matter how well prepared they are. This does happen. However, everyone should do their best to be ready for what awaits them on the diamond. The pressure cooker that is umpiring only gets more intense as the temperature rises.
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.
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.
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.
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.