Night Games, War Stories, & Stump the Ump

Double-header on Thursday and the back half was my first game of the season under the lights. It was cool, but clear, and the field shone like … well, like sharp green grass under bright lights. We’re at a beautiful ballpark in Kirkland, Washington, named Lee Johnson Field. It’s a gem that lay right in the center of downtown Kirkland. The photo is not Lee Johnson, but it’s not far off.

There is nothing quite like a ball field under the lights. The bright light from the stanchions captures objects on the field very differently than daylight does. It’s not better or worse, just different. And delightfully so. Everything is in sharper contrast – the players, the cutout of the grass, the pitcher on the mound, the foul lines, the batter – and the action seems sharper. It’s an optical illusion, of course, but it’s optical none the less.

The teams were Pony 13U, but the play was pretty good. In the first game of the double-header, the pitching on both sides was decent, but one team was bigger and hit much better and the game ended on the mercy rule after just four-and-a-half innings. Normally, it’s a welcome event when a game ends quickly (you can’t wait to get onto the field, and then can’t wait to get done).

When you have a double-header, however, you pay a price. We finished so early that, instead of the standard thirty minutes between games, we had nearly and hour and a half. That’s a daunting interval when you’re tired and sweaty and have nowhere to go and not much to do. So what happens is you pull up your camping chairs at the back of your vehicle, pull out a half sandwich and banana or maybe a power bar, and you shoot the shit. My partner last night, Mike Carter, has been at this for 45 years, he tells me, so he has a pretty big bucket of war stories.

We spent most of the time talking about screw-ups we’ve faced when working with partners who don’t know what they’re doing. It’s not too uncommon to meet umpires who’ve been poorly trained. That’s a shame, but it’s a fact.

Most rookie umpires start out when their kids are in Little League. They come out of the stands (kicking and screaming, quite often) to help out because the coach has asked and because the kids need someone to ump the game. About one in five of these (maybe more) discover that umpiring their kid’s ball game isn’t half bad, so they make an effort to do a decent job. And then about one in five (maybe more) of those end up getting hooked and stay with it after their kids have done with baseball. That’s my story.

I was geographically fortunate in this. I live in a neighborhood whose Little League is joined to a district (District 9, for you movie buffs) whose umpiring organization is well run, and which provides really good training. Geographical serendipity could have treated me poorly in that department. But I was lucky.

So Mike and I are on the same page about working as a team – knowing that the key isn’t so much knowing what we (each of us) will do in a given situation (that’s in muscle memory). The key is knowing what your partner is going to do under any set of circumstances. This is crucial, particularly when you’re working two-man (which is what most of us do most of the time), where even under the best of circumstances there are blind spots.

If you’re unlucky you get an assignment with a new partner and he turns out to be one of those “I do it my way” guys. You don’t get this very often, but it happens. It can be painful because their not knowing what they’re doing creates enormous pockets of unknowns. And it’s not because they’re Cretans, because they’re not. It’s just that they … well, they just had bad geographical serendipity.

So we’ve still got about 30 minutes to game time but it’s time to start gearing back up. The war stories are wearing thin so Mike turns to another distraction we turn to when there’s time on our hands – stump the ump. It’s not that hard to stump an umpire, because there are so many tiny holes and edge cases in rules interpretations. Mike has one, and it’s a good one, and he stumps me. He asks me, “How can you have a swinging strike without having a swing?”

I think for a few seconds but quickly give up. I just can’t picture it. There are swinging strikes and there are called strikes, but I’m stumped at the prospect of a swinging strike without a swing?

The answer is pretty good and a true edge case. On the pitch, you have the batter start, but then check his swing. However, on pulling back the bat the pitch just barely grazes the bat and then goes sharp and directly to the catcher’s glove and is legally caught. “And that,” Mike gloats, “is not a foul ball; it’s a foul tip.” And, as it turns out, a foul tip is technically a swinging strike (scorekeepers will tell you that), and yet a checked swing is not a swing either. Hence, you have a swinging strike without a swing. Good one, Mike.

The second game came off without a hitch, and again we ended in five full. A short game on a lovely night with the bright lights framing the field and the players like a set piece in a gilt frame. I love this game.



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