There’s a thick divide between these coaches and fans and their players, between these adults and the adults who know they’re watching 12-year-old youth baseball. The divide is so obvious it’s almost visible. I can see it in the way Starpath Blue’s manager glares at his second baseman as he fumbles a groundball, before recovering it in time to make the out.
Number nine makes it to second base on the play, but is nearly tagged out after not sliding. A short, round 40-something long past his high school varsity prime yells angrily through the wad of dip in his mouth. “What the hell are you doing out there?! Are you even paying attention?” The kid turns back to the first base coach and responds with half-hearted, hesitant force. “Shut up! Shut up…” He’s not a snooty kid, I can tell, from my position in between the pitcher’s mound and second base. His voice and his face are more tired than they are rebellious. This is just an innocent looking 12 year old who will eventually grow up to quit baseball for the same reason that I did. “I’m trying! I’m trying!” he says. “No,” his coach sneers, allowing about a five second awkward pause as he cooked up his commanding, authoritative response. “You’re not.” The round man looks pleased.
The divide is so obvious it’s almost audible. I can hear it as the Mud Hens’ head coach publicly humiliates his pitcher for wearing the wrong color undershirt after the plate umpire politely asks for it to be removed. I can hear it for two hours, as fans from both teams ridicule and mock me to the back of my helmet every time I call a strike on their child.
Going into an umpire job is like going into war. As I and the other prospective part-timers arrive at the complex for training, General Dullard, our boss, gathers us inside the concession building for a briefing. He dedicates about half of his speech to the rules of umpiring and the curious and uncommon game circumstances we’ll have to govern. He dedicates the other half to the enemy: the foaming coaches and the physically volatile parents. As we go outside to take a look at the fields, I overhear one veteran ump who calls himself Junebug tell a story of a fan who charged him after a game last year. Junebug is a tall, black man with an age-worn face and a terrifying presence behind the plate and who, as I learned later, once held the Missouri record for the 100m dash. I would sooner swallow my shin guards than be charged by anyone bold enough to attack Junebug.
“Just call ‘em as you see ‘em,” stresses General Dullard in conclusion. “Make sure you yell out your calls with enthusiasm, and you’re less likely to have them questioned.”
I am just a base umpire, most of the time. I’m new, and so I’m given the rookie, low-risk positions. It’s important to distinguish between the base umpire and the home plate umpire, because the difference is as wide as “front-line infantry” and “medic.” The plate umpire positions himself at the exact spot at which the scorn from both teams’ bleachers intersects. He then calls strikes and balls on every single pitch and futilely hopes that the 11-year-old in front of him stops every 55 mph pitch coming for his throat. I’m content with remaining a rookie until the end of all known time, but I still occasionally sit behind the plate for verbal and physical thrashings of my very own. On good days, though, umpiring is the easiest $25 I’ve ever made.
I am, however, not the victim. I’m a big boy, and I can remind myself that I don’t have to become these people in my own future, even if I have to subject myself to them for my next paycheck.
When I’m the base umpire, my main duties are to call people safe or out at first, second, and third base, as well as verify that pop flies and line drives are caught and not faked. In other words, I only perform when something significant actually happens, a semi-rare occurrence in baseball. I spend most of my time inventing numeric games on my ball-strike counter and observing as the cockroaches of parents and major league expectations bleed through the gilded final product of that 1-2-3 bottom of the third.
BC Baseball is the most competitive youth baseball league I’ve ever seen. I distinctly remember not being as good as these kids when I was 12 years old, and I ruled Clark Griffith Little League with an iron fist. I see diving catches, curveballs being taken to right field for bloop singles, and first basemen that could beat me up. When General Dullard says that BC Baseball is as competitive as any youth baseball league in the nation, I believe him; these kids have been molded into some damned talented players. At a cost.
I see a lot of players who already see baseball as a job, where hard work is rewarded with statistics in the wins column and more hard work. This is why I quit baseball in high school. I hated that baseball was no longer a game, but an assignment. I was put out by the fact that our high school sports system has made it impossible to compete in athletics without taking the entire concept so seriously it consciously drains away any element of “fun.” Four hour, 6:00 a.m. Saturday morning practices and daily endurance-focused weightlifting regimens aren’t fun. They’re designed to tear down the childish aspect of sport and rebuild its athletes into mechanical players that only continue, according to testimonies from my own ex-teammates, because they’re too used to baseball to quit; it’s all they know. I see the same type of effect in ten year olds who don’t even know what girls are yet. And that’s bullshit.
But let’s be honest. Eight out of ten coaches are really nice guys who treat players and umpires with respect. Most of them come out after the game and shake the umpire’s hand and thank them, even if they disagreed with his calls. And a lot of them treat their players like younger brothers and know that the worst-case scenario is not losing a Tuesday evening league game, but seeing an 80 ft. pop fly crack off their pitcher’s head. The head coach of the Blaze is one of my favorite people I’ve met this year, for example. But one bad egg can spoil the bunch; some of these people are absolutely despicable. There are two kinds of these, I’ve decided. There’s the first type, who are simply obnoxiously competitive, obsessed with winning of any sort to the point where they cannot be stopped by the feelings of children or the tendons in their arms en route to a regular season win in an 11U game of youth baseball. I call them bad coaches. The second type is the kind of people who want their kids to go to the same colleges that their parents did, to live their parents’ glamorous, unfulfilled dreams instead of their own. The ones who see their children as extensions of their own bodies. I call these bad parents.
“Good God, those coaches are dicks,” I say to my partner Andy between innings, referring to the Mud Hens’ abusive head coach with rat-like eyes and the first-base coach with the braces. The former had spent the previous half inning degrading his players in the field, and the latter had taken the liberty of about 40 seconds to denounce what a fucking disgrace Andy’s strike zone was.
“Ah, it’s fine,” he says. Andy looks like a high school quarterback blended with a bit of country. “They’ve been out here all day and they’ve been losing pretty bad. It’s not a big deal.”
Later that game, a 10-year-old Cardinals player slides into home plate and afterward wipes off the dirty home plate for Andy. Andy smiles and gives the smiling kid a fist bump and a “thanks” as he gets up to run back to his dugout.
“Oh, okay, so that’s why we’re not getting any calls!” comes the immediate response of a hostile Mud Hens fan. Several surrounding fans loudly voice their agreement that Andy is very obviously manipulating the game in the Cardinals’ favor.
Okay. Listen, parents. I don’t care how badly you want your team to win. I can guarantee you, almost without a shadow of a doubt, that none of the umpires or referees are rooting for the other team, ever, and nor are they ever intentionally doing anything to help either team win. Especially in little league baseball. This goes for about 40% of the rest of America's sports fans as well. Those terrible, stilted umpires are making their calls on an individual, exclusive basis. There is no agenda, I can promise you. Your son is just not a fast runner, regardless of whether or not he is from the same county as the umpire. Berating me for calling him out, followed by berating your son for not being safe is not the solution to the disgrace that your son has brought upon your family.
Kids are not machines. Athletes now are nurtured and shaped at younger and younger ages. Full-grown athletes achieving unbelievable feats may be fascinating to watch, but they're created at an expense. There is, for one, the hundreds of thousands of kids who will become disillusioned to the idea of actually playing sports by the endless hours of working to field mock groundballs at shortstop. There’s a certain divide between creating a solid team and demanding too much out of your kids. We must take care not to cross it.
“Still think they’re just having a bad day?” I say to Andy after an inning littered with potshots and on-field yelling matches. Andy laughs.
“It’s just ridiculous,” he says. “These people need to stop acting like children. And you know it’s going to be rubbing off on these kids, too.”
There are plenty of times when I see the divide crossed where I want nothing more than to quit and walk away from the debacle. But then I remember that $12.50 an hour and that head coach from the Blaze who makes his pitcher and his catcher smile to each other every time he makes a mound visit during a rally. So for now, I’ll just keep calling ‘em out as I see ‘em.