“Under the water tower…” that’s where I was told to park, prior to the games, by the athletic director of the host school of the doubleheader baseball games that I was going to umpire that night.
Easy enough to find in small town Iowa, water towers can usually be seen miles away…and it would seem that the AD liked to put his umpires there because it was away from the fans. Before, in-between and after games finds umpires at the rear of their vehicles putting on or taking off equipment. The weather lately in Iowa has been wet, windy and wacky. July 1st temperatures were only in the low sixties. That night’s games brought a steady and stiff breeze, a ten minute rain delay, cool temperatures then….a pleasant moonlit night. Looking back into the bleachers folks were wrapped up in blankets and hoodies…more football game apparel than July 1st gear. Hang around long enough…you’ll see it all.
With many of my mid -June games rained out I was anxious to get back out onto the field before the season ended. I enjoy being out there for whatever reason, maybe it’s the unique experience of seeing the game up close, or being a part of the game. Maybe it’s the journey to and from, taking me to places that I either haven’t been to in a long time or would have no business going there on my own.
Maybe it’s the athletes and people that I meet along the way. Maybe it’s the challenge of “doing it right”. Have you ever called a batter out on a beautifully delivered curve call that dipped as it reached the plate and froze the batter? I have…it’s a great moment, unless you’re the batter or his third base coach. Or watching the littlest guy on the team come up to bat as the last guy in the batting order against a giant of a pitcher who’s throwing fire and then working the count to 3-2 then watching him take a tentative swing, just putting his bat over the plate and sending a rocket line drive over the centerfielders head and the little guy ending up with a double…from the reaction of his teammates and family members in the crowd…he’s earned a special moment. As he stands alone on second base his body language and look on his face are “how on earth did I hit that and what do I do now?!” The body language of the pitcher is that of “who knew the little guy had it in him…?” Never a dull moment….it’s fun, interesting and rewarding.
The game of baseball can actually lull you into a certain sense of security, and boredom if you let it. Nothing’s going on…no one’s doing anything for innings at a time…then all of the sudden something wacky happens in a split second and you’ve got to make an educated, impartial and (most of all) RIGHT CALL. Another thing can happen; especially when you’re the base ump…you can get hit with a batted ball. I crouch pretty low to the ground as base ump…to stay out of the way of the defense and in case the ball comes my way. These past two days I’ve actually hit the turf, laid out flat, to avoid line drives hit directly at me. Tuesday night while behind the plate I took a foul ball to my collar bone. It struck me where my chest protector doesn’t protect….at it’s very top. The force of the foul drove me back a couple of steps and put me to my knees. The game stopped for a couplea minutes while I caught my breath and the trainer checked me out. It hurt like nothing else that I’ve experienced and made my eyes water (but it wasn’t crying….since I only cry at sentimental things….not foul balls). Three pitches later I took another foul ball, this time to my mask. KKKKAAAIIINNNGGGG!!! It displaced my hockey-style mask and I walked up the first base foul line with it under my arm as I collected my wits, glancing at my partner who was laughing at my misfortune. I turned to the bleachers, whom had been fairly vocal at their displeasure of my strike zone all night, and said to them “I hope that someone over there is getting this on camera.” They laughed and someone called out “I’m sending it to America’s Funniest Home Videos”. No more cat-calls were heard the remainder of the night. As I got back behind the plate the catcher turned and looked up at me and said “I’ll take the next one for ya Blue.” I put the ball back into play and we continued without incident. Because of the collar bone hit, I inadvertently flinch and sometimes bail out on pitches that come in “high and inside” for the next two games. It bothered me that I did that…I chalk it up to “self-preservation” and make it a point of emphasis to “stay put” and watch those pitches without moving. I’m a work in progress.
Baseball is a game of mixed messages. For instance, when a batter sees a pitch coming in at their head they usually duck out of the way. After they pick themselves up it’s not uncommon for the third base coach (usually their head coach) to yell at the batter “WEAR IT NEXT TIME!!! OWN IT!!” The reason that this is said is that a batter hit by a pitch is awarded first base. Base runners can become runs scored, though I’ve always felt that it’s a heck of a way to get on base…being hit by a pitch. It hurts. Take one anywhere on your body and you’ll understand what that coach is asking from his players. As the kid got up, and the game continued, he hit the next pitch, sending it screaming down the third base line right at his coach. This thing was a heat-seeking missile. The coach, a portly man, saw it coming and did an amazing elusive move of timing and dexterity that only fans of Dancing With The Stars would appreciate. It was really something to see the old ball coach move so quickly, so precisely and rhythmically to the crack of the bat to the split second it took for said heat-seeking missile to miss him by inches. I called the ball “foul”, but everyone’s eyes were still glued to that coach who, after returning to his normal stance, wiped his brow with his wrist and returned to delivering instructions. I looked at the batter and asked “do you want me to ask the coach why he didn’t ‘wear it?” That kid flashed me a big grin and once again….we started playing again.
Some schools athletic complexes are so vast that you need a GPS just to find the correct field. Soccer, football, softball, freshman fields, practice fields and baseball fields all laid out willy-nilly. Honestly…before I leave for some schools that I’m unfamiliar with I’ll check out that area “satellite view” style. You just can’t hide a baseball field from a satellite. As I worked a game one morning I heard what sounded like a commercial jet warming up for take-off. As I glanced over to where the sound was coming from (on the varsity diamond) I saw a tractor pulling a small trailer with an industrial sized leaf blower on it…working its way from foul line to foul line in the outfield. Back and forth, for an hour. This blower was kick-ass big and LOUD. I asked the host coach what it was doing. He replied “it’s blowing the grass clippings off of the outfield.” I worked a doubleheader later on that day on that field…and not one player tripped on any grass clippings, or pebbles or candy wrappers or foul lines or anything else for that matter. Well done groundskeeper. Well done. Other schools have a much smaller athletic budget where players wear the same uniforms for several years…the stitching fraying on their jerseys numbers, their uniforms hanging from the skinny kids frames like those castaway clothes put on a scarecrow. It doesn’t diminish their skill, dedication or love of the game….just an economic difference that sticks out between schools that are growing and the schools that aren’t ….hanging on…putting those dollars somewhere else.
Before last night’s doubleheader I arrived an hour early, so I put the tailgate down on my truck, opened the cooler and had a little pregame picnic. As I sat there…reveling in the glory of a late afternoon, not a cloud in the sky, low-seventies early July day…I thought to myself “good God in Heaven…what a great season and what a wonderful place to end it!” The diamond was behind and BELOW the school buildings….like forty feet below, down a steep hill. The hill was terraced in such a way that forty foot long, six feet wide sidewalks extended parallel to the third base line…INTO THAT BIG HILL…where folks could bring their lawn chairs and have a birds-eye view of the game!! Before the game I turned around and saw that the hillside terraces, three of them, were filled with folks nestled into their lawn chairs, a “full-house” so to speak. The “event people” brought out a great set of speakers, hooked them up to a laptop computer and played classic rock from the 70’s and 80’s. It was announced that “we’d like to wish number 24, relief pitcher Colton Smith, a happy birthday today! He turned fourteen!” The starting line-ups announced, our National Anthem was played. Players lined the foul lines or took their positions on the field, caps on the ground facing our flag, me and my partner at home plate. As I looked beyond our flag at the wispy clouds now made orange-ish-pink set against a deep blue sky I couldn’t help but notice a lump in my throat and, again, a deep gratitude to our Creator for moments like these. I don’t deserve them…but thank goodness I’m given them by a grace-filled God.
The game progressed without incident; these are farm kids…not spoiled, just happy to play the game. The visiting team wins 8 to 0. I head to the concession stand to get a bottle of water and the AD stops me to tell me that I did a good job. We end up talking about comfortable shoes and the renovations going on at his school. As umpires we really aren’t supposed to talk to either schools officials for the sake of appearances of impartiality…but this is Iowa and you can go suck an egg if you think that I’m not going to be friendly to friendly people.
The second game is just like the first, played out efficiently, no problems. A kid takes over the music being played and a Beyoncé song comes on…and I hear the players in the visitors’ dugout singing along with it. I wonder if their choir instructor knows of their abilities. I doubt it…and those boys can sing! The home team wins its first game of the season, actually its their first win of the last TWO seasons. They’re happy and relieved to get the monkey off their back. I head to my truck, sweat-soaked, un-dinged and ready for the hour and fifteen minute drive home.
Its been a great first season of working high school baseball. While I learned a great deal…there’s so much more to learn and/or be better at. As I thought of the season (both baseball and basketball) during my picnic in the parking lot before my last game, I grabbed a piece of cardboard lying next to my truck and jotted down these thoughts:
• Thank you to the concession stand volunteers. Cooking and feeding the fans, players and umpires while they themselves usually miss out watching the games. Arriving early and staying late, the proceeds benefitting the schools and teams, you’re always my friend when I need a bottle of water to refill what I just sweated out on the field. Case in point…the following peppy conversation during my last game with a lady working the concession stand “if ya need a bottle of water before the game ya come and see me and I’ll get ya one. If you run out during the game my sons the head coach…tell him that you’re thirsty and he’ll send one of the boys up here and get ya another…okie doke?!” “Yes Ma’am…okie doke”.
• Thank you to the groundskeepers who mow, trim, weed, fertilize, water, drag and chalk the fields. In smaller schools the groundskeeper is often times the coach and his assistants, maybe some players and their parents. Grooming the diamond to pristine condition, it sparkles when its “show time”. Without you it’d be a tougher night for me and my partner.
• Thank you to the parents of the athletes. While a handful of you are my biggest critics the majority of you are just absolutely top-notch folks. Thank you for paying for your kids to participate in the sports that I officiate. Driving them to and from practices and games, washing their practice and game jerseys, feeding them and showing up and paying for tickets to the games. We both have a vested interest in seeing that your kid gets a fairly called game, me so that I’ll get hired again at that school and conference. Without you and your kids….I wouldn’t have any games to officiate. I get it.
• Thank you to the coaches and athletic directors. Compared to me, coaches have an incredibly tough job, balancing playing times, practices, games, personalities and the like. After a game I get to go home and put the game behind me. After a game a coach may have to read text messages and e-mails from angry parents. Players sulk. Players get injured. Players get into trouble. Parents pull their kids who “don’t get enough playing time.” I don’t have to contend with that….coaches do. Without coaches coaching those kids…again…I’d have no games to officiate. Thank you, I appreciate your efforts. I get it.
• Janitors. You rock. You’re the unsung heroes of our schools. You deserve a potluck dinner served up by the players of each sport. You keep our gyms, locker rooms, school grounds and schools clean. Show me a janitor and I’ll show you someone who’s earning their keep….year-round.
Thank you to the guys that I’ve worked with…my fellow officials. I’ve enjoyed working with you and meeting those challenges of game management, while a handful of you have become close, personal friends.
And last but not least…Thank you to the athletes. Without you participating I wouldn’t get opportunities for moments like these. I work hard to give you my best effort. I quietly root for you all, hoping that you’ll have your best game ever. From the starting varsity kids to the last kid off of the bench….you matter. I can tell when you’re not sure of what to do next. I know that all of those “instructions” shouted at you by your coaches, teammates and fans are tough to digest, but quite honestly…I’m your biggest fan…just try hard, hustle and play fair is all that I can ask…all without saying a word. You’re not perfect and neither am I…lets have some fun in this moment.
I leave the school, it’s a quarter to ten. The last light of the day is peeking over the tops of thousands of acres of corn. Fireflies hang lazily over the fields as I pass, windows rolled down as cool air pours in. Frogs croaking as I speed through hollows, the smell of a hog confinement operation coming closer. I wonder why I enjoy these drives on old highways and county blacktops. Is it the ditches lined with orange and black tiger lilies. The flat as a pancake fields of corn and soybeans? The glistening grain operations that can be seen for miles around? Is it the universal “hey” nod of the head or two fingers coming off the steering wheel as you meet another truck coming at you on the road? It doesn’t matter I suppose…it just “is” and that’s fine with me.
My season’s over. It’s time to put away my equipment . I won’t miss it for a while. I’m sore. I’m bruised. I’m tired. A cool shower and bed is an hour away. Thank you Lord Jesus for Iowa.
Peace to you and yours,