Random Thoughts and Musings on
Little League Umpiring
By Ivan V Avetissian
Once in a great while life can still surprise me. Allow me to elucidate.
A few months ago I took leave of my senses and volunteered to be a Little League umpire for my son’s team. For the uninitiated, Little League Umpires are those people who crouch behind home plate at small baseball fields throughout this great nation and, with enthusiasm and malice aforethought, systematically destroy the self-esteem of more young men than acne and rejection from girls combined. With seemingly unintelligible flailing of arms and barked commands that would be the envy of a Paris Island Drill Instructor, they serve as a one man Greek chorus to the epic struggle that is played out on the deceptively pastoral setting of a baseball diamond.
Baseball seems like a simple game, but has more rules than the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic Church. And its rule book is written in a way that could drive a Talmudic Scholar to convert to Methodism. Yet volunteer umpires are expected to be encyclopedic in knowledge, Solomon-like in wisdom, infallible in matters of interference and obstruction, have the eyesight of a falcon and be able to absorb insults like a lesbian African-American Jew trapped in an elevator with Don Rickles and Jerry Falwell. Even the seemingly simple act of calling balls and strikes can be a challenge, especially when young pitchers begin to develop pitches that slide, dip and curve like a ferret with AD/HD. We usually come home from games bruised and battered, mainly because young pitchers develop velocity somewhat faster than young catchers develop the hand-eye coordination necessary to catch the ball, and baseballs seem to have a built in seeker for the most sensitive part of an umpires anatomy not protected by padding. In addition, the vast majority of us receive no remuneration for this service. If we are very lucky, some kind parent will bring us some lukewarm Gatorade as we swelter under the sun in just slightly less pads than a member of the FBI bomb squad might wear.
Unfortunately for practitioners of this arcane art, we are also often the targets of the kind of verbal abuse that is normally reserved for child molesters and personal injury attorneys. Mothers, fathers, siblings, grandparents, uncles and mere passers-by seem to take great joy in calling to question our visual acuity, mental capacity and the marital status and morals of our mothers. For some reason people sitting 45 feet away (at an obtuse angle no less), most of whom have never even played the game, feel that they can judge where and at what height a small white ball moving at over 50 mph crossed a 17 in square plate of whitened rubber better than the person who is advancing the onset of arthritis in their knees by crouching behind same. And God forbid that their angel should be called out on a close play at home plate or as a result of something as Byzantine as the Infield Fly Rule. I have seen apparently rational people turn into raving lunatics if you even hint that little Myron left the base path to avoid a tag, as if to infer such a thing was like accusing them of voting for a third party candidate.
So imagine my surprise when, at the conclusion of a recent game, a parent from one of the teams approached me, extended his hand and offered kind words of appreciation for my efforts. Not that this kind of thing is unheard of, but after a game Little League Umpires are usually avoided like an Amway distributor. I have heard rumors of men having to enter witness protection programs after particularly close games, especially in the post season. I have even detected a hint of disdain in the eyes of my own much beloved bride of 17 years when my strike zone was slightly erratic.
My first instinct as he approached with his hand extended was to kick him where I KNEW he would not be wearing padding and run like hell before he could do anything to me. And yet this brave and kind-hearted soul, like Mother Teresa ministering to the lepers of Calcutta, smiled, shook my hand and said those three little words that Little League Umpires long to hear “Nice game Blue”. “Blue” is the universal name for baseball umpires because of the color shirt we wear, and is pretty much the nicest thing we can expect to be called during the course of a season. Most of the other things we are called are hyphenated have a lot more syllables.
Suddenly the pains of the bruises and verbal abuse were at least partially forgotten. I remembered why I was there in the first place: to help young men learn something of life and competition on the field of athletic endeavor, which is easier to forget in the heat of battle than one might imagine. What this man probably saw as nothing more than a act of common courtesy will likely sustain me for countless innings, and just may deaden my ears to the derision of so many others. So if you ever have the opportunity and inclination, thank an umpire. You'll never know what joy you will bring. But if you can't bring yourself to thank them then at least , for the sake of every person who takes on the thankless task of judging your children’s athletic events, please leave our mothers out of it.