On August 6, 1920, Cleveland Cavaliers shortstop Ray Chapman was struck in the head by a pitch. Hours later, he passed on, as a result of his skull shattering into a thousand pieces. We like to think of baseball as something dissociated from the harsh realities of the world. Yet danger is always lurking.
And over the course of one hot May afternoon in 2011, I was scared I was going to go the way of Ray Chapman.
Perhaps you may find this something of an exaggeration. If that is the case, you have not seen, up close and in person, the horror that is Little League Baseball.
I started umping Little League games when I was sixteen. I’ve always harbored a love for baseball that is similar to the love a “fat kid” might hold for a “piece of cake.” So it was only natural that I borrowed my brother’s dilapidated shin guards and catcher’s mask from years before, to gain another perspective on the game I loved.
It took some time, but I became more and more comfortable calling the shots from behind home plate. Throughout most of high school it was my main source of income, which means I was able to afford the gas it took to get me to the games in the first place, and very little else. But I digress.
The story I want to tell took place the summer after my freshman year of college. I did reasonably well in school, making the Dean’s List and taking part in several student organizations. I learned a lot about myself as a person, and all that good stuff. Yet none of that mattered that May afternoon, because the second I put the hat on my head and told the kids to “Play ball,” I was merely reduced to the umpire. Nothing less, nothing more.
In my extensive experience as a Little League umpire, I presided over games in which pre-adolescent human children attempted to throw a baseball forty-five feet, while others attempted to hit that baseball with a bat that was the weight of one of their legs. When dealing with eleven- and twelve-year-olds this all seemed overly ambitious, yet somehow they managed to execute the fundamental aspects of the game. It wasn’t always pretty, but more often than not they succeeded in getting through each game three outs at a time.
On this day, I came into the parking lot a young man of quiet but assured confidence. Peering from my Camry I could see the faint outlines of the people with whom I would be sharing my life over the course of the next two hours. There was a blue team and a green team, probably named “Blue Team” and “Green Team.” The middle school had two fields, and I happened to be umping the far one, so it took some time for me to realize just how small both teams were.
I don’t mean the teams were small in terms of their roster sizes—they each had plenty of enthused participants. I mean the players themselves were really, really tiny. No matter what size shirts they were wearing they were three sizes too big and billowing in the wind, so the field looked more like a presentation of the colors and less like a collection of young athletes. Their hats were twice as large as their heads—they all seemed to resemble Pablo Sanchez, but without the preternatural hand-eye coordination that allowed him to carry my Backyard Baseball team to fifteen consecutive pennants over the Red Wombats.
On my way to home plate, after traversing the length of the near field, I came across the coach of the hometown team. He laid out the situation:
- The little people were so little because they were quite young—seven and eight years old, in fact.
- Being as young as they were, the players were not trusted with the art of pitching. As such, they would use the Pitching Machine, a futuristic monstrosity fueled by the powdered bones and shredded souls of kids who had walked too many batters. It was conceivably designed to deliver precise and accurate pitches that would minimize the drama of a seven-year-old’s baseball game. This also meant that instead of kneeling behind the catcher, I had to stand at the back of the pitcher’s mound, to feed the contraption before every pitch.
- The coaches didn’t expect the kids to make many plays—after all, they weren’t far removed from T-ball, so I was expected to remain patient, and to call any close plays in the favor of the defense. That is, as long as the first baseman touched the base when he caught the ball.
This all meant that this game would veer far away from what I was accustomed to, but I wouldn’t let that get me down. Surely the coaches and parents would all be patient, and surely the kids would play for the fun of the game, without any hatred in their guts. Right? Well…
After meeting with the home coaches, I met with the leaders of the green team. One of the guys looked like Ozzie Guillen, only if Ozzie Guillen had two frighteningly-detailed and colorful tattoo sleeves. His assistant looked as if he were the offspring of a grizzly bear and the Rocky Mountains. He was so big, and so bald, and he could have easily snapped me like a wishbone. Instead of doing that, though, they both shook my hand and thanked me for continuing the proud tradition of teenagers getting paid shittily to be yelled at by two groups of adults. I said of course, it’s just my job.
The game started and spirits were high. Competitive frenzy was in the air. The Machine roared and delivered, as the batters used all four feet of their frames to smash the ball to another dimension. There’s something so elegant about the game of baseball, and that showed quite clearly that day at the middle school far field. The ping of the high-tech hybrid bats, the whoosh of the Pitching Machine, the cries of the coaches as they reminded their players that first base is to the right side. Standing behind the mound I was transported back to the idyll of the Elysian Fields. “Safe!” “Out!” “Please step inside the batter’s box—you can’t hit the ball from the on-deck circle!” Things were going swimmingly.
Then the call happened. There were two outs, and the home team was in the field. The bases were loaded. The team at the bat was up by a couple runs—but who cares about the score in a game of such young children, right? The Machine sent a pitch over the plate, and the batter connected, sending the ball right to the blue team’s shortstop. Miracle of miracles, he fielded the ball cleanly and threw it to first in a reasonable amount of time. The play was close, but I was told to favor the defense in such plays. So I called the runner out, and as such the half-inning came to a close.
I turned around and Tattooed Ozzie Guillen was in my face. “IS THAT A JOKE?” Joke or no joke, I didn’t appreciate the amount of spit flying in my face. “IS THAT A JOKE? ARE YOU KIDDING ME?”
No, I assured him, my call was not a joke. In fact, I believed the runner was out at first.
“HE BEAT THE FUCKING THROW! YOU CAN’T BE SERIOUS!”
There’s something poetic about a baseball coach arguing a call. Of course, there’s no wrinkle in the system that allows for their argument to actually result in anything meaningful—once the play has been ruled one way or the other, there really isn’t anything anybody can do about it. Yet here he was telling his players to stay on the bases, screaming until he was as red as the dragons on his arm, and emptying gallons of spit on an eighteen-year-old umpire who would most likely prefer sitting at home eating popcorn and watching The Godfather.
“YOU GOTTA BE FUCKING JOKING ME, THIS IS FUCKING RIDICULOUS! ARE YOU KIDDING, ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?”
After a few minutes of my closing my eyes and hoping Tattooed Ozzie would return to his dugout, he transitioned from screaming obscenities to casually delivering passive-aggression. “Whew,” he said, shaking his head. “That was really unbelievable. That was really something.”
“Thank you,” I said. Fresh out of material, he slumped back to the dugout, motioning the baserunners to follow.
As the home team came to bat, tension was high but manageable. I took my place behind The Machine, fed it a ball, and watched as the batter smacked the crap out of it. The next batter did the same, hitting it so hard that it almost left the infield. One after another, the home team had some good swings, rallying to get within striking distance of tying the score.
In an eerie parallel to the previous inning, the home team was now at bat with the bases loaded and two outs. Once again, the batter hit a dribbler to shortstop. The shortstop gobbled it up and sent it to first. The first baseman caught the ball in plenty of time, putting his hands up in the air to celebrate such glorious glovework, reminiscent of Don Mattingly’s finest moments. The only problem was, at no point did he touch first base.
Have you ever had a moment where the entire world stops and looks at you? Have you ever knocked the air out of the lungs of fifteen children and their entire extended families at once?
This time I turned around and there was Tattooed Ozzie, only this time he was joined by his beluga whale of an assistant coach, who was also unusually talented at sending mucus flying through the air into my slightly acne-ridden face. To be honest, it was difficult to discern who was saying what, but their main messages revolved around a few similar themes:
- I was ruing the game for the beloved children.
- I was biased in favor of the home team, because apparently loyalty to one small town in Connecticut over another small town in Connecticut is a supremely powerful thing.
- Did I mention I was ruining baseball for the children? Apparently the kids would never want to play the game again due to my sorry display of flawed judgment.
- And for good measure, they felt obligated to remind me once more that I was ruining the game for everyone and they were genuinely concerned about my vision. They also seemed pretty sure that I was playing some kind of practical joke on them, although that may have just been leftover passive-aggression from the previous inning.
In essence, there were two lunatics, both twice my size and angrier than a New Yorker when someone insults Derek Jeter, or doesn’t insult Derek Jeter. After analyzing my situation, I concluded I didn’t have a multitude of options at my disposal. I couldn’t just command them to return to the dugout, because they had clearly eaten multiple bowls of Wheaties that morning and as a result had energy to yell at me for days. I couldn’t realistically eject them either, because then they might actually murder me, cracking my skull open like that pitch did to poor Ray Chapman eighty-eight years prior. So the option I chose was that of waiting for them to exhaust themselves, because they could only think of so many ways to call me deaf and dumb and blind and biased and an affront to the pure game they are trying to promote for their innocent children.
While the coaches were yelling, the rest of the field was going crazy as well. The away team, believing it was their right to leave the field and come up to bat, inched closer to the confrontation at the mound so that they could add their two cents. I think one of the players said that he hated me. The home team’s coach looked on from the side, not really doing much in terms of helping anybody out. The away team’s parents were having a field day, playing the part of Romans in the Coliseum viewing a particularly thrilling lion fight. One parent yelled at me to go to school. Of course, I didn’t have time to inform her that I was currently on break from school, and that umpiring wasn’t the only thing I did in my life, but I couldn’t quite manage to reach her, what with the scary men all but threatening my life and all.
I look back now and I think of all this in a peaceful, relaxed way. Against all odds, I did survive, living to ump other games, with other coaches and players who may have hated me just as much but never vocalized it in such a frank way. I just can’t believe there was a moment in my life when an entire group of people wanted to chop me up and put my head on a post.
The scary thing is that this incident wasn’t uncommon in substance, but merely in the degree to which it got out of hand. If you go to any Little League game, you will undoubtedly hear some of the gems I heard that day. It is our worst-kept secret that we take sports way too seriously, and that includes those that feature children who are barely old enough to even dress themselves. There are coaches just like Tattooed Ozzie Guillen and the Man Mountain who are doing everything they can to share their vision of the ‘right way’ to play baseball, pitting their impressionable kids against umpires and the other team and anybody else who stands in the way of a victory, even if that victory comes against a pitching machine.
It doesn’t make sense, any of it. But that’s the way it is, and that’s the way it will continue to be.
The rest of the game was terribly difficult to get through. Every call was contested from the dugout and from the bleachers. Through the final out, I was constantly accused and accosted, everyone around the field sharing their heartfelt opinions about how awful I was at umping a baseball game.
But it ended eventually, as all trying times do, and so I gathered my things and power walked away from the far field and back to the parking lot. Midway through my journey, a hometown parent stopped me. “Thank you,” she said.
“Have a good one,” I said back, and kept walking. There was still popcorn to be eaten, The Godfather to be watched. And may Ray Chapman rest in peace, but thank goodness I didn’t join him that day because of a silly old game.