More Than A Game

BehindPlate

August 12, 2011

More Than a Game: Making a Living on the Wrong Side of the Game of Baseball

J.J. Garrocho

My season has just ended and let me tell you I’m not much of a drinker but I could really go for a double shot of whiskey! After making a living in the game for two seasons, I’ve realized that baseball is like a teenage girl. It has a hell of an attitude, it is stubborn, hostile, one moment everyone is happy and the next you end up in a shit-storm so bad that General Custer might look down and think, poor bastard. It is a tough way to make a living. But in my opinion, it’s also the best!

As I write this I am some 30,000 feet in the air somewhere in between New York City and Chicago. Less than twenty-four hours ago I was the plate umpire in a league championship series game that was decided in eleven innings. It’s ironic really. Before that game I wanted nothing more than for the season to be over. I was ready to hop on this plane and get the hell home. Now that it is happening, part of me wishes it wasn’t. Less than one day removed from my season and I miss it. I really wish there was a game today. I suppose changing my mind in this fashion fits well into the teenage girl analogy. That probably makes me crazy. Then again you have to be crazy to want to do this job.

Opening Day

My sophomore season began with all the pomp and circumstance that is usually afforded to opening day in small Upstate New York towns. The state of New York is quite different from my native Texas. For one, these small towns seem to have the same mentality towards their baseball as we do back home for high school football. It creates quite the festive atmosphere and really gets one excited to get the season started.

My first game would be played in Amsterdam New York. There is just something about this town. It seems that everything worth writing about always seemed to take place here. The city is small consisting of a population somewhere around 18,000. But these 18,000 love baseball, and show up at the ballpark in droves.

The Amsterdam Mohawks play their games at Shuttleworth Park, a small baseball complex that was built in the early twentieth century. I laughed a little bit when I heard it referred to as historic Shuttleworth Park. It’s a small stadium that was once home to the Amsterdam Rugmakers of the New York Penn League, and is the current home of the Amsterdam Mohawks. Really, how much history could this place have. It is, after all, not Yankee Stadium. Turns out although it was never home to big monumental baseball moments, its history is nothing to scoff at.

One story that I was told to me more than once took place in the 1940s after World War II. The New York Yankees were scheduled to play an exhibition game against the Amsterdam Rugmakers. The big names that were going to step on that field had the war weary town excited as they eagerly anticipated the arrival of some of the game’s all time greats. Six days before the game, however, disaster struck and Shuttleworth suffered a fire that rendered the stadium unfit for play. They, like all of America at the time, suffered greatly during the previous years and desperately needed something to cheer about. The spirit of the town showed itself, and the city came together and helped rebuild the stadium in time for the Yankees to play. The pride they hold for their ballpark was evident in the voices of each and every person who told that story, especially in the few who were old enough to remember it. It truly was an honor to set foot on what was in fact hollowed grounds.

We arrived at the ballpark a little over an hour before game time. The stadium was already flooded with people. The field was abuzz with activity. The team was holding a homerun derby for the city’s little league players. I could not wait to get out there and get the game and season started.

The Albany Dutchmen had made the fifty minute drive to visit the Mohawks. At the plate meeting we went over the ground rules and talked with both managers for a few minutes. I had met them the year before and had a decent rapport with both of them. It didn’t last long and when it was over we were ready to go. The 2011 season was moments away.

Shuttleworth Park is a homey place. In fact the fans are so close to you that you could catch up with the day’s gossip by working a game behind the plate. The plate umpire always knew who was sleeping with whom from listening to the ladies sitting in the front row. In baseball terms, it meant the place was absolutely deafening in big moments. So when Albany’s lead-off man stepped to the plate, Shuttleworth let off a thunderous roar. In this ballpark you could actually feel the ground rumble whenever it was this loud. It was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life.

First pitch of the season was right down the center of the plate for a called strike. I was feeling really good at the moment. The next pitch was a fastball on the inside corner and at the top of the strike zone. It was swung on and foul tipped straight into my hand. After I had a chance to catch my breath and looked up at the score board. It was a 94 mph pitch. In other words, it hurt like hell. The catcher walked up and spoke to his pitcher to give me a few moments to recover. It’s a courtesy between catcher and umpire. I walked the ball to the pitcher many times during the season to give the catcher a second.

I was fortunate to have a excess of adrenalin at the time. I recovered quickly and continued the game. I will never forget this at bat. Strike three hit the outside corner of the plate and entered the catchers glove. The whole stadium entered a state of suspended animation. I could hear everyone collectively take a big breath and did not exhale until I rung him up with an emphatic strike three mechanic. At that moment it was like I was conducting an orchestra. The crowd went crazy, but could not until I raised my right hand signaling that it was in fact strike three. There are a few moments in an umpire’s career that define the very reason as to why we love doing what we do. For me, this was one of them.

Death of Alacrity

It doesn’t take long for reality to set in and the grind of the baseball season to take hold. It is a long season, and there just aren’t any breaks. After a while going to a game starts to feel like going to work at every other job I’ve ever had. I hate to admit, but there were many days when I just didn’t want to go to the ballpark. After you’ve had a few arguments and a few more ejections, the game becomes a job to an umpire. It is something that everyone that makes a living this way goes through. But it is also something that you need to get out of your head quickly.

In mid July everyone always seems to be in a bad mood. The excitement of opening day is long gone, and the season is in its dog days. It’s not uncommon for both teams to drive over six hours only to meet at the ballpark without much sleep. In these situations, the last thing anyone wants to do is play nine innings of baseball. It is these days, those mid season days when no one want to be there, that can make or break a career.

It’s easy to get hyped and be at the top of your game on opening day in Amsterdam. It’s easy to get pumped for a high intensity rivalry game, for a playoff game, for a championship game, but can you get excited for a mid July game between the two last place teams in the league. You better. Because baseball can turn on you just like that proverbial teenage girl. On July 17, 2011 I had such a game. The Watertown Wizards were visiting The Little Falls Diamond Dawgs. In professional baseball you are always one pitch away from chaos.

In the bottom of the sixth inning the Watertown pitcher let a curve ball get away from him. The pitch was up around his head and completely failed to break. As a result the batter had to throw himself on the ground to keep from taking one in the face. As expected he didn’t like it very much and let the pitcher know it. The two of them stared each other down for a little bit. The foul stench of tension lingered in the air. We knew it wasn’t over.

I was working on the bases this day. All of us came together between the sixth and seventh innings to talk about our little situation. It was not yet appropriate to issue warnings, but if something, anything happened, we would not hesitate to warn both benches. We would not have that chance.

First pitch of the seventh was a fastball that found its way into the back of the Watertown batter. The plate umpire reacted exceptionally and quickly put himself between the batter and the pitcher. The batter made his way towards first. His eyes never leaving the pitcher. He walked slowly while at the same time letting the expletives fly. The plate umpire warned one bench and turned to warn the other. Before he could, the batter decided to charge the mound. What we had was complete Pandemonium!

This was my first bench clearing brawl. We are trained to stay back and circle the fight watching carefully and taking the number of anyone we see throwing a punch. It seemed simple enough at umpire school. In practice, I found it was damn near impossible. Everyone is moving so quickly, you definitely see the punches, the elbows, the kicks, the take downs. You see them throwing knees and beating the hell out of each other, but amid all the madness and without the benefit of replay, I could not get a single number.

I’ve seen these brawls on TV before. In all honesty they don’t look that bad. But when you’re standing just a few feet from the action, I can assure you the experience is quite different. There is just something innately violent about 25 professional athletes engaging in a free for all with another 25 athletes. Let’s just say if we weren’t able to get ourselves psyched for this game, baseball, that lovable teenage girl, found a way for us.

Farewell to a Season of Baseball Perfection

There is something that I find astonishing about my profession. There comes a point when you start counting down the days until it’s over. It happens surprisingly early in the season. After the games we would gather in the clubhouse, talk about the game and say, “Only fifty more. Forty more, thirty more, ten more, just one more series.” Then finally we shook hands and it was over. I had a timer widget on my phone that was counting down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until I would finally be sitting on this flight. This long, arduous season is at last over. So why am I staring at my phone (which is on airplane mode of course) and wishing it wasn’t showing a bunch of zeros? There is something unique about being an umpire. You are hated, you are often blamed for the mistakes of others, you are the butt of many jokes and yet someway, somehow you are also invisible. It means this teenage girl can be cruel, but in the end she doesn’t even know we exist. This surely reminds many of their experience in high school. But let me say this from the bottom of my heart, I love this game!

It won’t be long until the widget on my phone is counting down to opening day. But not yet. Right now there is a clock in my head and it is counting down until I land at O’Hare and can quickly make my way to the nearest bar. At this moment, all I want is that double shot!

Music’s developmental fermata

Right after I graduated high school I came to the conclusion that I was not finished with music.  At Ysleta I played in the drumline only my senior year and I felt I wanted to continue that journey in college.  As a result I played with the UTEP Marching Miners for four great years.  During my time with this band I met many great musicians.  I still am amazed by the great talent I played with during that time.  Every year the UTEP music department graduates talented musicians and sets them off in the world where they have embedded themselves in all facets of the music world.  None stood out more that a pianist by the name of Edward Bachman.  He is soft spoken, friendly, and in the world of the treble and base clefs, he is one of the most competent, amazing, and brilliant pianists I have ever had the pleasure of meeting.  When Edward comes to mind it quickly becomes evident that the English language just doesn’t have enough adjectives to adequately describe the superior level of ability that lives within him.  The best I can do is tell you he dropped my jaw one day and all I could think of saying was … fuck!
 
After rehearsals I would sometimes drive the equipment truck from the Sun Bowl to the band room.  Since I was driving I would often be the first to arrive.  This was so on one particular day. Edward was sitting in front of a piano playing a very complicated, very difficult, and beautiful sonata.  I stood at the door and decided to put off unloading the truck until Bachman had finished playing.  His rendition of this tune was mesmerizing, moving, and nothing short of amazing.  He brought the piece to life.  The control with which he played was remarkable.  His poise and feel for the instrument made the cheap piano that was in the band room sound better than most that cost twenty times as much ever will.  His right hand would come off the keys for a split second and effortlessly turn the page without missing so much as a fraction of a beat.  Like I said, only a profane four letter word beginning with an “f” could describe the moment.  When he finished he sighed and shook his head in disgust.  He was not impressed with his performance.  It was that moment that I realized he had been sight-reading!  I walked into the room and unlocked the equipment cage.  He greeted me and apologized for the horrific sounds that he had forced the piano to create.  I asked him if he was indeed sight-reading which he confirmed.  Then he asked me if it was obvious. All I could do was smile.
 
I can say without hyperbole that I was in the presence of greatness.  This man’s talent is one that I don’t believe I would witness again in ten lifetimes.  He possesses a breathtaking genius and sadly, you will probably never hear of him again.  The unfortunate truth is American culture doesn’t have a place for a man like this.  Edward Bachman will never make the millions that the likes of Demi Lovato, Ashley Simpson, and Justin Beiber have made.  The mentioning of these so called pop “stars” in the same sentence is nothing short of an insult.  I will not comment on the talent level of today’s pop “star,” but I will say that even the best of them is not in the same league as Bachman.  I recently pulled up a youtube video of him doing his thing.  His control, his passion, his raw talent is evident the moment he plays his first note. Yet he was performing in front of a small audience.  In and of itself, that doesn’t say much.  Let’s be realistic.  A recital performance of Bach, Beethoven, or Debussy just isn’t as exciting as a major concert.  Fair or not, this is the business that Bachman chose and I’m sure he doesn’t do it to win millions of screaming fans.  He performs for the love of music, for the love of his craft.  Where I have a problem is rise of the pop star whose talent level is such that the word horseshit comes to mind.
 
I’m not going to comment on any individual pop sensation other that Ashley Simpson.  Simply because that nepotistic, pseudo star’s Orange Bowl rendition of La La was probably the worst individual performance in human history.  No I’m not forgetting A-Rod in October (2009 notwithstanding), Sophia Coppola in Godfather 3, or the Emperor Nero at the quinquennial Neronia.  To draw a parallel between the ever popular Richter and the horseshit scale, Simpson may be the big one we used to hear so much about.  Ironic that it struck in Florida.  And yes because of Ashley Simpson the horseshit scale must be logarithmic.
 
Now it’s unfair for me to criticize her being that she is still a better singer than I am.  Her pop “star” status is not her fault.  She reminds me of a high school football player who is treated like a superstar within his school.  In some Texas towns athletes are celebrities and are treated as such not only by their peers and sports fans, but by the school’s faculty and staff as well.  What would anyone expect out of these kids other than for them to take advantage.  Ashley is the younger sister of a pop “star” and someway, somehow, that qualified her to begin her own career as well.  Nepotism is rampant in the entertainment industry and often it produces horseshit like her career.  In all honesty though, Ashley Simpson did exactly what anyone in her position would do; she took advantage.  The blame for her infamy lies completely in the heart of the public.  If anything, her rise into the mainstream is a bigger indictment of the American educational system than it is of her lack of ability.  Make no mistake of it, Ashley Simpson sold a boat load of albums.  More in fact than her big sister Jessica. It is bad enough that the public is tolerant of an act this bad, but it is inconceivable to me that there are so many willing to shell out hard earned cash to listen to her particular brand of “music.”  This, however, does speak volumes to this country’s musical stupidity.  Let’s face it, as a country we are completely ignorant when it comes to even the basics concepts of music.  We spend money on horseshit because we don’t know any better.
 
Winston Churchill once said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”  The average person is relatively clueless about everything.  How else do you explain the pile of crap that has inhabited El Paso City Hall and that cesspool that is the Potomac. (Thanks for the metaphor Lisa Simpson.)  Unfortunately that extends to all facets of life.  Even jazz music, the once sacred genre, has fallen pray to this phenomenon by way of Kenneth Bruce Gorelick, best known by the masses as Kenny G.  Normally I would have no beef with the man.  Aside from the fact that he is hated by every serious musician on the planet, he is no Ashley Simpson.  Love him or hate him he earned his stardom.  A master musician Kenny G is not, but he knows how to wow an audience.  The world’s most popular saxophonist cannot dazzle his audiences with brilliance, so he baffles them with the perfectly timed fast run, or holding the incredibly long note.  Never mind the fact that he is consistently sharp, he holds the Guinness Book record for the longest note.  He held an E-flat for 45 minutes and 47 seconds in 1997.  I’m not going to take anything away from that.  It is an impressive feat.  Whether or not that is a musical feat is completely debatable.  Lisa Simpson once pointed out that “You’ll never go broke appealing to the least common denominator”  Kenny G is far from broke unlike many musicians that are superior in talent and ability.

 

The point where I began to despise the pretentious bastard that is Kenny G, was when he shit on the grave of one of the greatest jazz musicians to ever live by overdubbing himself onto Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World.  This type of musical necrophilia floored me.  I was left speechless really.  It was best articulated this way:  

[W]hen Kenny G decided that it was appropriate for him to defile the music of the man who is probably the greatest jazz musician that has ever lived by spewing his lame-ass, jive, pseudo bluesy, out-of-tune, noodling, wimped out, fucked up playing all over one of the great Louis’s tracks (even one of his lesser ones), he did something that I would not have imagined possible. He, in one move, through his unbelievably pretentious and calloused musical decision to embark on this most cynical of musical paths, shit all over the graves of all the musicians past and present who have risked their lives by going out there on the road for years and years developing their own music inspired by the standards of grace that Louis Armstrong brought to every single note he played over an amazing lifetime as a musician. By disrespecting Louis, his legacy and by default, everyone who has ever tried to do something positive with improvised music and what it can be, Kenny G has created a new low point in modern culture – something that we all should be totally embarrassed about – and afraid of. We ignore this,“let it slide”, at our own peril.    -Pat Methany-

Ouch!  Take that Gorelick!
 
The question that has been posed to me is why does Kenny G anger me so much?  Although I truly hated his narcissistic presumption that Louis Armstrong would have wanted to share a stage with him, I don’t really care at all about the man.  He is but one player in a sea of saxophonists, the majority of which are mediocre like himself.  Plus he plays the saxophone far better than I ever could.  What I have a problem with is the culture that thrives in today’s musical environment.  There are few things in life that are more innately human than music.  It lives in the soul of every man, woman, and child alive.  It is embedded in our everyday lives.  It affects our moods.  It brightens our day.  It allows us to express ourselves in ways not possible in any other manner.  You can’t go a day without hearing music and if you did it would be a shitty day.  So I pose this question, how can something that is so fundamentally embedded in lives of human beings be so unknown to the people who enjoy it?  Let’s face it, most people know shit about music.  So that leaves serious musicians with two options.  They can bastardize their music in order to appeal to the masses, or they can continue on their paths of relative obscurity.  I believe that if the greats lived now they would be as unknown as the best musicians of today.  Blasphemous is the thought that if BB King were a younger man, his entire career would be completely eclipsed by the likes of Ashley Simpson and Justin Beiber.  This makes me worry about where the future of music is heading.
 
Every generation has had that one performer or musical group that transcends the industry.  Micheal Jackson, and The Beatles come to mind as two of the most recent.  I came to the realization that there really aren’t any world class young musicians in the mainstream.  The music industry today is nothing more than a real life version of American Idol.  People everywhere cast their ballots with every $.99 iTune purchase they make.  Those that are winning this election unfortunately, are not always the best of musicians.  So this begs the question, who is going to influence the future of music.  It seams that currently our biggest contribution to future generations is Auto-Tune, that magic device that could even make Kim Kardashian sound like she can carry a tune.
 
Music brings an inordinate amount of joy into everyone’s life.  So I would like to challenge everyone out there to learn just a little bit about the craft.  Just like we have a responsibility to help our children learn how to read and write, I believe we also have a responsibility to teach them about music.  Children should be exposed to Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and the rest of the greats.  Children should at one point in their young lives come across music that has more than 12 fuckin’ notes.  Add Brian Setzer to you iTune’s library and let them witness first hand that improv can consist of more than chromatic runs and sharp pseudo-jazz.  Let your children hear a saxophone solo where the musical accompaniment is not synthesized horseshit.  While you’re at it, expose yourself to the music of truly talented musicians.  Teach kids what good music really sounds like.  Now kids are going to be kids.  I have three little nieces, and while one of them is too young to show interest in any particular brand of music, two of them were big fans of the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus.  They are going to love their Disney stars.  \emph{Best of Both Worlds} is unfortunately going to be part of our music library for a while.  My hope is that one day they graduate to more sophisticated music as they grow older.  I don’t want them to be those girls that will embarrass my family name by approaching a DJ and requesting the \emph{Cupid Shuffle}.  As they grow their taste in music should mature along with them.  At least I hope it will.  But perhaps the idea that Branford Marsalis will one day come out of my niece’s stereos is but a fantasy.
 
What I really want is for music to evolve and continue to grow as it has been doing so for all of time.  I fear that we are currently in the musical Dark Ages.  I want men and women like Edward Bachman to influence those that will one day follow.  For those of you that were with me at UTEP, you are probably wondering how it was you never met Edward Bachman.  Well that’s because that isn’t his real name.  If you were there, I’m sure you can quickly figure out who he really is.

This Could Only Happen to Me: A Tale in the Life of an Idiot!

I was calling a basketball game at Ysleta Middle School yesterday. I did something that I don’t believe anyone else could ever do. As most of you know, I periodically do things like this. For example, I once lost my keys before getting off of my car. It’s aggravating as shit! It’s not my fault that I was born with such stupidity. Or maybe I wasn’t born this way. It’s possible I was dropped on my head long before the ossification of my fontanelles. It’s something that my parents both adamantly deny. But there’s nothing I can do about it. I’ve learned to accept the fact that I’m an idiot, and there’s nothing that I will ever be able to do that will change that fact. But I digress. Back to my story.

It really was amazing how the chain of events unfolded. If just one of these links were absent, I’d have no story. But they all occurred as if destiny was playing some horrible game with me, and laughing every second of the way.

It started around noon. The cafeteria lady messed up my lunch order. She ended up piling on my tray a few items that I did not order. As soon as she realized her mistake she said, “Bueno, pos ya la rege. Tenga, no le voy a cobrar.” Now far be it from me to turn down free food. I smiled and told her not to worry about her mistake, and let her know that I would make the sacrifice and consume the extra food. More for her sake than my own. This would be the first link of the chain. I ate more than I usually do during my abbreviated lunch time. Therefore, I would not have a small snack before my game later that evening.

The second link was the Indian Ridge school bus was sent to the wrong school. They ended up showing over an hour after the scheduled start time. So my fellow official and I had to find away to kill time waiting for the games to begin. Link of the chain number two.

Now before I get to the third link, I should mention that my chain isn’t chronologically sound. The third link came to fruition this past Summer. But for the sake of my story, I’ll call it the third link. (Got that Patty! No smart ass comments!!!! ) So the third link occurred when the powers to be at YISD appointed a new guy to coordinate the YISD middle school pre-season tournament. I don’t know this guy, and honestly I don’t care to know him. But he decided to add a hospitality room to this middle school basketball tournament. It is the only middle school tournament that I have ever called that has a hospitality room. In other words, this guy is a great man. (I still don’t care to know his name!)

So there we were with nothing to do for an hour. Like anyone else would have, we spent that time in the hospitality room. The fourth link was that this nameless man chose to purchase two mouth watering, 6 foot sandwiches. That was 12 feet, and I do mean feet and not inches, of hoagie deliciousness sitting right in-front of me. As I walked into the room it was just like it happens in the movies. You know what I’m talking about. The whole room goes dark and all that you see is the blessed sandwich glowing in the middle of the room. I can honestly say that I heard a choir sing, in perfect harmony, the word, “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh” as I entered the room. Well now that I think about it, the bastards were a little flat. Jerks, ruining my moment! Anyway, my point is, the moment was surreal.

Now we get to the fifth and final link. Earlier that day, one of the concession girls decided to dress in a tiny, tight dress and stilettos. This is a very attractive lady mind you. Lets just say she filled the dress rather nicely. She happened to get to the hospitality room before I did, and found her way to the table. She was serving herself some of the sandwich as the other official and I entered the room, and was directly in the line of sight between me and the food. The chain is now complete!

This is where the story gets interesting. All links of the chain now fully intact, I rub my trim stomach and say, “Damn I’d like me a piece of that! Man I wish I could hit that before the game!” The other official, an 19 year old dude, cracks up laughing. I looked at him and thought, “Dude, it’s not that funny. I’m just not hungry right now.” Needless to say, the girl turns and gives me a dirty look. I’m still completely oblivious to what’s going on. I see her giving me the dirty look, but I just figured she didn’t like referees. She wouldn’t have been the first. My mind however, was still occupied with the hoagie sitting in front of me. I thought to myself, “Maybe I can get some if I only get a small piece.” Well I did, and it was damn good!

Well the team eventually showed, and I noticed that this girl was giving me the evil eye every time I walked by her. I said, “Wow, that girl really doesn’t like referees.” The other ref laughed. I still didn’t know what was going on. The little dude had to explain the whole thing to me. Then it all made sense to me. Between games and at halftime she kept staring at me, beaming lasers of evil my way every time we crossed paths. I thought it would have been great to walk up to her and either give her a Braulioism. The patented, “Oye chica. Porque tan solita” would have been appropriate. Or maybe I could have walked up to her and said, “Bitch, not you the sandwich!” Yeah that one would have been funny as shit! Wish I would have done it. I just finished the games and left without saying a word. She’s probably told all of her friends about that asshole referee who wanted a piece before the game. They’ll never know that all he wanted was a damn sandwich!

Report from Kissimmee: Week One

Report from Kissimmee Florida: Week One

From  the moment I left the warmth  and comfort of my bed in El Paso, life has been a hectic go go go, and has held an element of the unknown.  I was holding a standby ticket which meant if the plane was sold out, I wouldn’t be on the flight.  It being New Years weekend, most  flights were pretty  full.  So I didn’t  know which plane  I’d be getting on.  I didn’t  even know what  city I would be catching  my connecting  flight in.  Thankfully,  everything  worked out  perfectly.   I landed  in Orlando  at  a decent hour.  I walked to the baggage claim where I saw a man holding a sign that  read  Jim  Evans Umpire  Acadamy.  Just  like in the  movies.  He would be my ride to the academy,  and thus  give me my first taste  of umpiring  in professional baseball!

When I actually  arrived in Kissimmee, my first stop was the Quality  Inn Motel, which serves as the dormitory for the academy.  It is your typical hotel. Two rooms in the hotel were converted  to serve as the academy offices. As I walked in, there were pictures  of famous moments in major league history on the walls, including one of Jim Evans  separating  Thurmon  Munson and Carlton  Fisk in a brawl.  One of many those two had through  out their  big league careers.  In the office I was issued six academy t-shirts,  a windbreaker, a cap, a plate brush, and a ball and strike indicator.  But before the indicator was released too me I was told,  ”This  is not  a clicker.  You will be fined if you ever call it a clicker.” I searched  for a smile, or any indication  that  he was joking.  There  was none.  At the  academy,  calling your ball and  strike indicator  a clicker or a counter  is considered a grave offense.

The Osceola County Sports Complex is the Spring training  home of the Houston  Astros,  and  in January and  early February, it is the  home of the Jim Evans Academy of Professional  Umpiring.  This being orientation  night, everyone was gathered  in the Astros clubhouse waiting for it all to begin. In the  front  of the  room were the  instructors, and  a 78 year old man  by the name of Dick Nelson, but  everyone just  called him Sarge.  He walked with a limp, but instead  of using a cane,  he used a baseball  on a stick.   It  is a training tool. It’s just a baseball with a hole drilled and a dowel shoved inside of it.  The baseball has numbers  similar to dice.  Sarge has the homely look of an old grandpa.  He has a caring smile and is your quintessential  example of the little old man.  He opened up the orientation. The moment he opened his mouth,  his venerable  sage wisdom and  knowledge of the  game was immediately evident.  He speaks with a quiet intelligence, and the confidence of a man who unequivocally knows his shit.  He spoke of his career as an umpire, and of his job as an umpire supervisor for Major League Baseball.  This was a eureka moment for me, a sort  of, your ass ain’t  in El Paso  anymore Dorothy.  We were shown pictures  of Sarge’s home where he holds a collection of baseball memorabilia  that  more resembles a room in Cooperstown’s Baseball Hall of Fame than  it does someone’s home. He has baseballs signed by Cy Young, Ted Williams,  Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Bernie Williams, Reggie Jackson, Jackie Robinson, and of course the grand daddy of them all, a baseball signed by Babe Ruth which he refuses to ever play with.

“I learned my lesson with that  movie,” he said.  “After  I saw it, I never played with it again.”

This is but  a sample of his collection.  He owns over 10,000 baseballs, he owns bats, jerseys, shoes, and all sorts of memorabilia that he keeps in a climate  controlled  room in his home, and  has the  collection insured  for 10 million dollars.   Yep, these men take  baseball  very seriously indeed!

After  Sarge gave us a breakdown  of what  life would be like during  the next 5 weeks, in walked Jim Evans.  It was as if Michael Jordan  had walked into a room full of young basketball  players.  When it comes to umpires, there probably isn’t a better,  or more accomplished one anywhere in the world. He addressed us, and gave us his brief philosophy on umpiring.  It took all of 10 seconds to realize this man’s brilliance.  He knows the game, and understands the rules better  than  anyone in the world. He had a book published pointing out  237 errors in the official baseball  rules.  At this  moment I realized how fortunate  I was to be taught by a man who has no equal anywhere  in the world. Jim Evans is the Nobel Prize winning Harvard  professor with one big exception;  he actually  shows up and  teaches  the  class everyday.   He is the math  professor with a Field’s Medal.  He is the professor with an impressive curriculum vitae that  includes being the first base umpire when the Yankees and Red Sox needed a one game playoff to decide the AL East  crown.  You know that  game.   When  Bucky F’n Dent  broke all of Boston’s heart  with a single swing of the  bat.     (Read  my I love New York  blog where  I talk all about  Bucky Dent’s famous homerun.)   He umpired  the 1983, and 1986 World Series, including being the second base umpire when Bill Buckner let the ball roll right through his legs. He was the plate umpire when Nolan Ryan threw  his first no hitter.   He was the second base umpire when David Cone pitched his perfect game. This list goes on and on. He is it when it comes to umpiring,  yet he is one of the most humble men I’ve met.  He doesn’t have an ounce of pretension  anywhere  in the  body.  Truth of the  matter is, Jim Evans can’t be described as anything less than a true gentleman.

According to Jim,  there  are 3 stages of learning  proper  umpiring.   The first is unconscious incompetence,  then comes conscious incompetence,  then at the very end comes, conscious competence.

“Now let me tell you. You may think you are a good umpire, and I don’t doubt  that  you all have talent. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t.  But  let me be the  first of many to tell you this,  you are all horseshit  umpires!  I’d like to change that.”
I was so moved by this,  that I wrote down his exact  words.  Something that  he proved in the first two minutes of field exercises. I realized that  my knowledge of baseball umpiring to this point was . . . well horseshit!

That  brings me to the word horseshit.  If you’ve known me long enough you’ve probably heard me say it a few times.  It’s usually during the baseball season as it is innately  a baseball term.  It is similar to bullshit,  although  it isn’t exactly the same thing.  We all know what bullshit  means.  It basically means bologna, or nonsense.  It is primarily  used as a noun.  For example, a called strike three  that is pure bullshit.  Horseshit on the other  hand  means inept,  incompetent,  unskilled,  maladroit,  etc,  and  is commonly used as an adjective.   An umpire  who doesn’t get into  proper  position  to make a call has  horseshit  positioning.   An umpire  who likes to  call an  outside  pitch  a strike has a horseshit  strike zone.  And of course, one who isn’t very good at bullshitting, is a horseshit bullshitter. Although  it isn’t primarily a noun, it can be used as one. An umpire who is not very good is just horseshit.

After being completely  inundated with rules, philosophies, and baseball lore, I showed Jim  the  famous picture  of Chuck and  me.  It  did make him laugh.   I mentioned  that  I had  made  a Christmas  card  out  of it,  and  he thought it  was hilarious.     He of course  one upped  me  and  showed me  a Christmas  card that  was sent to him by then Yankee manager Billy Martin. It said, “Jim I hope you have a very Merry Christmas, and a prosperous and happy New Year.”  It is a typical Christmas  card aside from that  fact that  it was sent by Billy Martin.   Then  I opened it up.  It read,  . . . Cause you sure had a horseshit  summer!

He was many stories that  are just hilarious, some of them are outlandish, but  all of them  are true.   Reminds  me of one of my favorite  quotes  that  I often overuse, “Fact is stranger  than fiction, because fiction must stay within the realm of possibilities.”  Mark Twain.

One of my favorites  is when he was calling a game at  Fenway  Park  in Boston.  A pitch caught the outside corner which Evans called strike three.

“That’s  a horseshit  call Jim!”  Came a voice from the dugout! “You’re fuckin’ horseshit!”  It continued.

Jim of course walked towards the dugout  and yelled, “Stanley  you’re out of here!”
Red Sux manager  John  McNamara  storms  out of the dug out and says, “You can’t throw him out Jim!”

“Like hell I can’t John,  he’s gone, and I don’t want to hear another  word about  it.”

“Okay,  but  Stanley  isn’t here dumbass.   He’s on a rehab  assignment  in
Pawtucket.”

“Oh!”  Said Evans and turned  and walked away.

The  moral of the  story,  make sure you know who you’re ejecting before you do it.   Jim  has  tons  of stories  like this.   And  in the  classroom while going over the  book, he has a story  for just  about  every rule in the  book. And almost always, he seems to have got the worst of it.  I’m sure I will be reporting  many more later.

On the  first day  of field excercise, Jim  was giving us instruction  as to what we were supposed to do on a specific play.

“Plate  umpires, on this play you’re supposed to run half ways to the forty five foot line. J.J.-  What’s  half of 45?”

“Uhmmmm,  it’s twenty some . . . ”

“It’s  twenty  two  and  a  half.     It’s  okay,  you’re an  umpire  not  a  math major.”

I didn’t have the heart  to tell him that  I hold a math  degree.  Maybe at a later date.  I’m sure the next statement out of his mouth  would have been, “What  horseshit  school did you go to?”   Or worse, “Thank  God you’re an umpire ’cause you sure would make a horseshit  teacher.”

All in all, this first week has been nothing  short of great.  I have learned more in this  one week of umpiring  than  I have  in my entire  career  as an umpire.   It’s been a tough  and intense  training.   We start  our day at  8 am and we go until  12.  We break for lunch and then  work on the field until  6. We break for dinner.  Then we have our film breakdown.  We see our film and have everything we did wrong pointed out, and I mean everything!  I was told that  I need to be more emphatic  when I take off my mask, and not to let my cap move when I do remove my mask.  We get back to our rooms at  about
11 and then  we have our homework and reading assignment.  It reminds me off college while I was in the  drumline.   It’s pretty  intense,  but  I wouldn’t have it any other way. I have four weeks left to go and it will likely get more intense.  Stay tuned,  more is still to come.

Behind the Plate: A Day in the Life of a Minor League Umpire

Jesus Garrocho, Jr.

The air was cool that night. It was June, but the temperature in the small Upstate New York town of Amsterdam had dipped below 70 degrees. I took a look around me. The place was packed, but every single seat was empty since everyone was on their feet. We were in the middle of an eighteen inning marathon, and the home half of the inning was approaching. The pitcher finished throwing his warm-up pitches and we were ready to go. As the batter approached I could actually feel the energy of the entire complex beneath my feet. It was crunch time and this was no time to make a mistake. The batter stepped in the box, the pitcher stepped on the rubber and I put the ball in play.

I told myself, “Relax. Take it one pitch at a time. Track the ball. See it enter the catchers glove.”

The pitcher dealt a slider which caught the outside corner. “Strike!” I yelled. The batter adjusted his batting gloves never so much as moving his feet. The pitcher delivered . . . foul ball first base side out of play. The count was now 0-2.

This time the batter took his time. He stepped out of the box and played with his gloves a second time. He returned to the box and once again I put the ball in play. The 0-2 pitch was swung on and hit down the left field line. I pulled off my mask and found my way up the line and traversed it as far as the play allowed. The ball hit the ground sending a puff of chalk in the air. It was a fair ball. I pointed the ball fair as it caromed into the corner and took a weird bounce that completely fooled the left fielder. He miss played the ball and now had to chase it rolling along the back wall. When he finally picked it up the runner was rounding second, but this left fielder had a gun! He fired on a line into third as the runner dove into the bag. The base umpire read the play perfectly positioning himself at the grass dirt cut-out and was completely still when the ball arrived. “Safe!” He yelled and the stadium erupted. Their Mohawks now had the winning run only ninety feet away.

The visiting manager walked out of the dugout and said, “J.J, time please.” I obliged him as he made his way up the mound. I brushed off the plate giving him sometime to discuss what he was going do do next. Considering the situation, I gave him more time than usual then made my way up to break up the conference.

“J.J. we’re going to walk the next two batters.”

No surprise there. He returned to his dugout and I took my place behind the plate. The catcher stood and stuck out his right hand open and parallel to the ground. The crowed booed loudly as the pitcher delivered eight straight intentional balls. In a tie game with no one out in the bottom of the eighteenth inning, the bases were now loaded. The pressure had now risen ten fold. The intensity was so thick it could be cut with a sharp knife. The next batter wasted no time and dug in.

The pitcher delivered in the dirt ball one. He was not happy with himself as he punched the inside of his glove and walked around the mound. He mumbled a few things to himself and then took his place on the rubber. I came set and once again told myself to relax. The right hander delivered a 1-0 pitch breaking high and inside around the plate. “Ball!” I yelled emphatically.

“Come on J.J. I need that pitch. Where was that?”

“The pitch was up and in.”

“That was not up and in! J.J. that was a good fuckin’ pitch. I need that pitch!”

“It missed. You’re not getting it.”

This exchange between catcher and umpire is quite common. So long as the catcher doesn’t turn around and show me up I have no problem with it. The profanity, although common on a diamond, is not so common in such an exchange. The extra inning game had raised the level of intensity, and thusly shortened everyone’s temper.

Now the last thing a pitcher wants to do in this situation is fall behind 3-0. He took a little time and took his place on the rubber. He reached a little deeper and delivered a 94mph fastball. Unfortunately for him, it was right down the middle of the plate. The batter ripped it in the gap in left center field and no one so much as made an attempt to get to it. It would go down as a walk-off single in the 18th. The crowd went nuts. In this particular stadium we have to walk out of the playing field and walk amongst the crowd in order to get to our dressing room. They were of course very friendly and shook our hands telling us how great a job we did. Can’t help but laugh at the fact that their perception of our performance has nothing to do with how well we umpired the game. Often in a fan’s eyes our performance is graded on the outcome of the game.

Later that night I listened over and over to an archive on the internet of the radio broadcast and watched videos of the game. This is why I can describe the sequence of events accurately and as they occurred on that night. As I listened to the archive I paid particular attention to the call of the 1-0 breaking ball that I was certain missed the zone. The announcer, who was employed by the Amsterdam Mohawks, talked about it as if the pitch were nowhere near the plate. It was close, but I was 100 percent sure that pitch was a ball. It was huge because it forced the pitcher to throw a fastball on the next pitch. The batter knew it was coming and dialed in on it. It’s a part of the game that both scares and excites me. A few weeks before this game I was in Allegheny County and an 0-2 pitch that was a strike I called a ball. The batter of course didn’t ground or strike out and let me off the hook. He hit a towering three run homerun over the center field wall. That homerun was on me. To this day, years after, it haunts me and causes a sharp pain in my gut every time I think about it. The irony is that those that were most upset by that call have long forgotten it. I sure as hell have not.

I must have listened to that broadcast of the game in Amsterdam all night. It had many close plays and was one that very easily could have been influenced by us. I listened and analyzed not only the big important plays such as that 1-0 pitch, but the minutiae of umpiring that often makes or breaks an umpire and goes completely unnoticed by all but the men in blue. Did I break quick enough to cover third on an umpire rotation; did I blink when a fastball came up and in; did I momentarily lose focus? In this game there were several instances where I made small, tiny little insignificant mistakes that if events had unfolded a little bit different they would have bit me right in the ass. Former Major League umpire Jim Evans compares these mistakes to a mouse nibbling at cheese lodged in an old fashion mouse trap. The traps didn’t always snap and sometimes the mouse got away with eating the cheese. Sometimes the traps failed to work like they were suppose to, but sometimes the trap would snap shut. “If you continue to make these small, minor mistakes you will get away with it most of the time,” he would say, “but I promise you eventually you will get caught.” I do not take Jim’s words lightly. An umpire must realize that if he neglects even the most picayune detail, he may end up making a huge mistake. Getting caught by the metaphorical mousetrap is something that scares me more than anything else that can happen on the diamond. Luckily this night I did not. The next day we were on the road traveling across the state to Watertown, New York. The season is tough and is a real grind. Baseball doesn’t stop and neither do the umpires. I don’t know why anyone would want to make their living this way. I honestly can’t tell you why I do. But I do, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.