I’d been playing baseball since I could first swing a bat, so I pretty much knew the rules of the game when I was asked if I would like to be paid to ump Little League. I must have been 16 or 17 that year. I had no idea how ruthless that job could be.
As a Little League umpire you pretty much have two responsibilities. First, to accurately call balls and strikes. Second, to declare who is out and who is safe when there’s a play at one of the bases.
Here’s the rub. When you make a bad call, you’re going to feel some heat.
One of the features of being an umpire in Little League is that you make all the decisions and your word is final. The downside is that you do not have a secondary ump on the field to turn to if you need a second opinion. It’s all up to you to make the right call.
Interestingly enough, it’s an almost godlike power that everyone understands, from the kids to the coaches to the parents screaming in the stands. Right or wrong, your word is final.
There’s one problem. When you make a bad call, if you change your mind, no matter how obviously wrong the first call was, all of the parents and coaches will not only flip out, but will hurl more fury in your direction than a fire-breathing dragon if you change it.
Here are two of my worst experiences. I’m lucky to be alive.
SECOND WORST CALL
An important part of making a call out on the field is getting a good angle on the play. For example, if there is a slow dribbler down the first base line, the proper thing for the umpire to do is to run out toward the pitcher’s mound so you can fully see the action.
Unfortunately, I made the mistake of assuming a slow grounder toward first was going to pull the first baseman up and the runner would pass unscathed. When the first baseman fielded the ball he whirled around and slapped the runner on the back.
I hadn’t run to a spot where I could get a good angle on the tag, and when the tag was applied — I assumed — I called the runner out.
The first base coach went ballistic. “He missed him by a foot.”
The coach was screaming from over by the bench.
The runner was shocked.
And then I made the unthinkable decision. I changed the call. “Safe!” It seemed, from all the reactions, that they were in earnest. It was very possible that I had been wrong.
Oops. The umpire is not permitted to be wrong, and suddenly the furies were unleashed from the opposite bench.
There are no hiding places on a Little League ball field.
WORST CALL IN HISTORY
That one was mild compared to this one. It was a windy day and a dry, dusty infield. The wind was blowing in from center field, directly into the face of the batters, catchers and the umpire.
He wasn’t the best pitcher in the world, but he could throw a pretty hard fastball. The count went to three balls and a strike, and just as he was winding up a gust of wind threw a handful of dust into my eyes. I didn’t see a thing.
What I did see was that after the pitch the ball had gone over the backstop. I naturally concluded that our tough little batter had taken a mighty swing and fouled the ball up and over, so I called, “Strike two!”
Immediately I was the object of parents with flamethrowers, and a batter whose eyes were wide with disbelief. The ball had hit the plate and bounced over the backstop.
I was still the umpire and my word was final, but guess what? In my effort to make a righteous call, true to what actually happened, I apologized to no one in particular and said, “Take your base. Ball four.”
Wow! It was like kicking over a hornets’ nest. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. And not one person present who cared about the truth.
It seemed like I was making the right call based on the evidence, but who knows? I didn’t.
Last other night there was a bad call in Game 5 of the World Series and pundits are now clamoring for robots to decide whether a pitch is in the strike zone or not.
I can tell you this. The robots won’t be looking for a hole to crawl into or a rock to crawl under when they make a bad call. Like Spock, their indifference will become a thing of legend.
As we watch Game Six of the 2019 World Series, let’s close with this quote from the 1879 Cincinnati Gazette: “The baseball mania has run its course. It has no future as a professional endeavor.”
Another good reason to not try to make predictions about the future.