Kill the Ump

umpire.jpgMy father was not a Sports Guy. He had almost no interest in athletic endeavors. In high school, he ran track, and he had a self-made mosaic of medals to prove it, the trophies glued to a field of black felt and hemmed in by a wooden frame. Once in a blue moon, he’d demand to watch some running event on The Wide World of Sports, as that sport still held a grip on him long after he was able to actually run, or even jog. But he could care less about the big, all-American team sports (my mom, a huge Mets fan, is solely responsible for that sickness).

But he did make an effort to get involved with his kids’ sporting endeavors. He told me his father–who was a legendary soccer player back in his hometown in Ireland, or so I was told–never went to any of his track meets, and that always bugged him. He rarely expressed any resentment about his father, so it was remarkable to hear him express something close to hurt about his upbringing.

He went along with family trips to far-flung outposts of the tri-state area and beyond, as my brothers played in an endless series of soccer tournaments, outdoor and indoor. Parsippany. Binghamton. Katonah. Danbury. We even went to Montreal once. Dad was delighted by the Quebecois translations in the local McDonalds.

He was willing to pitch in, especially when it impacted our pocketbooks. We could all get discounts on joining the CYO basketball league if a parent volunteered to work Bingo Night at St. Mary’s, so dad took one for the team. I don’t think it was a hardship for him, because he’d come home with harrowing tales of the sad sacks he encountered there. Like most comedians, he found other people’s misery almost as hilarious as his own.

At some point, he thought it might be fun to be a little league umpire. The reduced membership fee for three kids was a factor, too, but I think he honestly believed it would be enjoyable. Which was off because, as with most sports, baseball’s charms eluded him, and he’d grown up with immigrant parents who had a similar lack of interest in the Great American Pastime.

He told me he actually went to a game at Ebbets Field, not long after he first came to New York from Dublin. To Little Kid Me, that was like saying you’d been to Heaven itself. I was obsessed with old-timey, sepia-tone, classic Subway Series baseball. I was fascinated by the fact that Brooklyn–Brooklyn! our Ancestral Home!–once had its very own major league team. I was a ten-year-old Ken Burns.

What was it like? I asked.

Dirty, he said. Smelly. Loud. Full of drunks. Full of puking drunks. People screaming the most horrendous things at the top of their lungs. I had no idea people would go out in public and do things like that.

That wasn’t the answer I was looking for.

When my dad decided to do something, he did it. He studied the rules of the game. He went to the mandatory umpiring class. He brought home a handheld pitch counter, and often clicked through it with one hand while completing a crossword in the other, as if the balls and strikes were each another bead on a rosary.

Dad’s umpiring career started out fine. At first, he only had to man the amorphous middle infield position. Every now and then, he had to call a close slide at second base. Otherwise, it was as easy as summer work out in the sun could get.

The little league wouldn’t let parents umpire their own games, because, duh. So he would often be umpiring some other game, and mine would finish, and I’d have to wander over his field and wait for his shift to end before we could go home. It was very strange to sit in the bleachers and listen to him declare OUT and SAFE with extreme authority, in stark contrast to the backseat he took in most family affairs.

He certainly sounded like an umpire. He was an excellent mimic, and he knew having the right voice is half the battle. Sounding authoritative is 75 percent of being so.

Things began to change when he started umpiring behind home plate. Because that’s when he had to call balls and strikes, and as anyone who’s been to a baseball game can tell you, everyone in the stands thinks they can call a strike zone better than the man in blue behind the plate.

He started to get hassled by angry parents, which he did not enjoy. He was still adjusting to sobriety. He couldn’t handle simple annoyances like getting stuck in traffic or jostled in a crowd, and he certainly couldn’t handle being yelled at by angry parents who disagreed with the strike zone he called for their Precious Babies.

After each game, he became less and less enthusiastic, until he began to dread his work behind the plate. What happened was inevitable, really, but it was still horrible/awesome when it happened.

It was already a bad day in the household. Though I had played catcher for the vast majority of my little league career, I got it in my head that I wanted to pitch. I still don’t know why I thought I could do this. I still don’t know why I wanted to do this. I really enjoyed being a catcher. It didn’t matter to me that it was an unglamorous position. In fact, I liked doing a necessary but hard job no one else wanted. It made feel tougher than everybody else.

Whether it was a desire for the spotlight or the general delusion of Little Kid-Dom, I begged to take the mound, and my coach let me do it. My first start, I did okay, good enough to earn another shot. My second time out was disastrous. Several hits, several runs, and then walk after walk after walk. It was as if the ball was afraid to go near the strike zone, because it knew it would be smacked around.

The league had rules in place: each pitcher could only issue so many walks. After that point, he could run up an endless full count if the batter wasn’t willing to swing. It was supposed to save the poor pitcher some shame, but all it did was emphasize how terrible I was. I could feel my team becoming silently furious behind me. The coach finally, mercifully yanked me. I stalked back to the dugout, humiliated. The rest of my baseball life would be spent on the other side of the battery.

By the time my game ended, my dad had begun umpiring another one. I sat in the bleachers, not far from a ragged looking man who decided to make his life a living hell. Every single pitch, this guy bitched about it. His voice was high-pitched and ruined, either from years of smoking or drinking or both. No matter what decision my dad made, this man hated it. I was still ambivalent in my feelings towards my father, but I still didn’t want to see him slandered by this jerk. But I said nothing. I sat and seethed about my hideous pitching performance, and this loudmouth.

Finally, after a few innings, my father had had it. He pulled off his mask, dropped his chest protector to the ground, and stalked off to the fence that separated the field from the stands.

You think you can do better?! he yelled at his tormentor. The man was stunned. He hadn’t expected to be directly confronted, and he had no answer. I’ve always had it in my head that maybe dad knew this man, that perhaps he was a member of his Other Family. It was odd that the man would stop being such a jerk just because my dad, not an intimidating man in any sense, took of his umpire’s mask.

You think you can do better?! my dad repeated. The jerk looked around, as if my dad might be addressing someone else.

My father began walking up the foul line, and he kept on walking. Past third base. Past left field. All the way out into the gravel parking lot. You can’t leave! screamed one of the coaches, but my dad strenuously disagreed.

I ran after him because he was my ride. We didn’t say a word all the way home. My father never umpired again and, as far as I know, never willingly watched a baseball again for the rest of his life.