Northwest NEWS

July 15, 2002

Features

Play Ball!

by Glen Alberts
   Special to the Weekly
   Last year while riding our bikes along the Redmond bike path, my daughter and I came upon the Woodinville Little League Complex.
   There were several games in progress, so we decided to take a short detour and see what was going on. As we watched a game, I couldn't help noticing the umpire behind the plate. He looked as if he was having a great time. For that matter, everyone at the game seemed to be enjoying America's pastime. I was amazed at how skilled the players were. I was never that good when I played little league baseball. As we continued on our bike ride, I thought about checking into volunteering my time as an umpire. More pressing needs soon crowded out the idea, and before I knew it the Woodinville Little League season was over.
   When spring came around this year, I decided to make a few phone calls to see if there were any umpiring opportunities in Woodinville. A week before the season was to begin, the coordinator of the Woodinville Little League Umpires called me and welcomed me to the league. As a matter of fact, there was to be a meeting at his house that evening to review this season's schedule. At the meeting, I was given a 2002 Rule Book, a chest protector, shin guards, a mask, and an official umpire's shirt. I was asked to purchase gray slacks and black sports shoes to complete the uniform.
   The first several games of the season I worked as a field umpire, making sure I understood all of the rules. I studied the plate umpires to see how they called balls and strikes and kept the game moving. Each umpire had his or her own style.
   I had the opportunity to pick the best from each one. Then one cool, rainy evening in early May, I was asked to put on my umpiring gear and work behind the plate.
   Standing in the drizzle trying to tuck in my shirt over the chest protector was a struggle in itself. Looking a bit like the Michelin Man, I met with the managers of both teams to review the safety rules. I must say it was exhilarating to bellow "Play Ball!" to start the game. Aside from fastballs passing by the catcher on their way to my mask and foul tips banging off my shin guards, there was one incident in the third inning that I'll remember forever. There were two outs and the bases were loaded. The count on the batter was two balls and one strike. The catcher looked back at me and asked if I could call time. He was squirming back and forth like a salamander. I called time and asked him if he was all right. The fellow was eyeing the nearby Porta Potty. He said he really had to go to the bathroom. I called the manager over. When the catcher told his manager that he really, really had to go to the bathroom, the manger asked him if he could hold on for a few more minutes. The next pitch was high. The count was now three balls and one strike. If the inning kept on going, I doubted the catcher would be able to hold it. The batter fouled the next pitch off. I was about to call time. I heard the catcher murmur that he hoped the next ball was a strike. His prayer was answered. The batter swung and missed the pitch. The catcher jumped out from behind the plate, ripped off his mask, and made a beeline to the Porta Potty.
   As the season progressed, I continued to work behind the plate. My strike zone became more consistent. My view of the entire field became more precise. At times I thought I was having more fun than the players were.
   I was surprised at the poise and sportsmanship of the players and coaches. The ultimate goal was to not to win, but to learn the fundamentals of baseball and have a good time. There were no incidents of coaches or parents becoming irate over a play or the outcome of a game. At the end of each game, the winning team would immediately congratulate the other team on a great game.
   On a warm, sunny Saturday afternoon in early June, I experienced what was to be one of the high points of the season. The game I was umpiring was moving along at a brisk pace. There wasn't a cloud in the sky. The smell of hot dogs and popcorn filled the air from the small concession stand nearby. I couldn't help but think that this was the peak experience I had thought about the year before as my daughter and I watched a game from our bicycle seats. This time I was behind the plate. It didn't matter what the score was, or who would ultimately win the game. All that mattered was the moment, and the fact that baseball is indeed universal, providing enjoyment to both those on and off the field.
   When the season came to a close, I thought back on all the great plays I had seen, the interesting people I had met, and the pleasant feeling one gets from volunteering their time. But as so often in life, there came an unexpected surprise. Just after I found a home in the garage for my gear until next season, I was asked to umpire an All-Star Game in the Washington State District 8 All-Star Tournament.
   When I arrived at the field, I quickly realized that the All-Star Tournament was taken very seriously. There was even a broadcaster who announced each player as he came up to bat. There must have been close to 200 spectators in the bleachers. I knew I had to be at the top of my game. For a first year umpire to be working behind the plate at an All-Star Game was, I felt, quite an honor.
   The game was one of the most exciting games I had worked all year. The quality of the players was unbelievable. The support from their family and friends was at times deafening. After the regulation six innings, the score was tied at 4. With extra innings looming, the excitement mounted. The colored flags encircling the field were waving in the wind. The coaches were giving inspirational speeches to their teams. The scoreboard in right field was updated to reflect the score. I had been once again swept up into the game. I carefully watched each pitch as it left the pitcher's hand. I knew each call had to be perfect. Then all too quickly, the game was over with a base hit to left field that scored the runner on third base.
   I watched as the winning team threw their hats into the air. I heard one spectator say that this was the most exciting game he'd seen all year. When the cheers subsided, I heard the announcer remind the teams and spectators to acknowledge the work of the umpiring crew. I lifted my cap a few inches off my head in acknowledgment. I was thanking them for a great season.
   There's an old saying among umpires: "You have the best seat in the house, but you have to stand." I can't wait until next season.