I was just minding my own business watching my two boys, Derek and Shane, play in a church-league softball game when the behind-the-plate umpire split the seam out of his pants. “Hey, Mac!” he hollered. “Take over for me while I change my britches.” With that, he was off.
The opposing team was ahead by one run in the bottom of the seventh and last inning. If we could get in the tying run we were confident we could win it. There were two outs and my son was on third base. The batter hit a solid ground ball to their shortstop who scooped it up and threw a perfect strike to the catcher at home plate. My son, faster than a speeding bullet, was sliding into home when the ball arrived. A cloud of dust totally obscured my vision. I don’t know to this day if Shane was tagged or not. But because he was my son and I didn’t want any hint of favoritism levelled at me, I confidently pumped my fist and yelled, “Yer out!”
Father and son stood at the plate and watched the other team break into a joyous celebration. They would advance to the next level—and we would not. All because Brother Mac, the lousy substitute umpire, was blind as the proverbial bat. And it isn’t any easier in the big leagues. In one ball game a batter had dribbled a dying grounder down the third base line, and it seemed to stop outside the foul line. “Foul ball!” shouted the umpire, while the ball, in its final revolution limped over a pebble and perversely rolled back into fair territory by a hair.
The dugouts spewed ballplayers by the dozens. “How could that be foul?” the manager shouted in triumph, guarding the little sphere with outstretched legs and calling upon the stands and the heavens to witness the mockery of justice.
“It sure looks fair,” the umpire admitted, benignly shaking his head to share the sorrow. “It would have been fair yesterday, and it will be fair tomorrow and for years to come. But right now, gentlemen, it’s foul, because that’s the way I called it, and it ain’t nothing at all until I call it.”
Umpires have taken a ton of abuse through the years. They have been pelted with bricks, bottles, bats, and dead cats, pummeled with parasols, and even shot at. A hothead in the Texas league once entwined his fingers in the ump’s mask, stretched the elastic as far as it would go, and released it to explode back against “hizzoner’s” face. The ump went down as if felled by a hammer.
When umpire John Stevens was rushed by a third base coach on a close call, Stevens simply told him that he made the decision the way he saw it, and if he wasn’t behind the plate calling them, some other blind man would be. The coach walked away in dismay: “How could you argue with an answer like that?”
There is a limit to an umpire’s restraint but not to his inventiveness. Umpire Charlie Rigler was called into the front office to explain to the association president why he had punched the Cincinnati manager, Buck Herzog. The umpire stated, “I didn’t mind when he called me a bum, but when he said you were a bum, I struck him.” Case dismissed.
Rarely does an umpire draw any applause unless he should be hit in the head with a ball and only then after a decent interval of unconsciousness. In one minor league game an umpire’s chest protector caught on fire and he had to put himself out. What did the fans do? They booed him for making another bad decision.