August 12, 2011
More Than a Game: Making a Living on the Wrong Side of the Game of Baseball
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.
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 load. 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!