Monday, May 28, 2007

The Amish Umpire and the Raptors' parents

He might have been 6'4", kind of pear-shaped, wearing an old-fashioned balloon-type chest protector, with a long white beard that made me think, on first seeing him, that he probably played ball in his day for the House of David.

When we reported this story later to Middle Son, he said he remembered this umpire from freshman baseball. That was six years ago now; the umpire was the sort that makes a lasting impression.

He was the umpire at three of our four games this weekend at Youngest Son's Memorial Day Tournament. He was "the Amish Umpire." That was how the big fellow introduced himself to the coaches of either team. He had printed business cards that identified him thus. And, although he is the focal point of our piece, you will see he is not the subject of our story... unless you're the type that thinks Field of Dreams was about Joe Jackson.

I haven't written about Youngest Son's travel team much since the season started; there are a couple of reasons for this. For one reason, as Linda recently reminded me, not everyone is as enamored of baseball as I am. For another, the best stories about baseball aren't just about balls and strikes, or wins and losses; they're about people. And not every game produces such a story....

Saturday was a miserable day for a ball game. It was raining constantly. But it wasn't raining hard enough for water to pond up on the field. And the sponsors of these holiday tournaments are notorious for proceeding despite inclement weather: They get a lot of money from the teams that enter. They don't want to have to make refunds. So our game went on as scheduled.

So I thought at first that maybe the Raptors' parents were just in a bad mood.

But I now believe it was more than that.

The Raptors is the name I've given Youngest Son's travel team. It isn't really the name of the team, of course.

Most of the Raptors have played baseball together for years. I wrote last Fall about Youngest Son's tryout for the team. The Raptors took on three new kids from those tryouts, one of whom has since quit.

The Raptors' coach had an idea for this year: He would carry a dangerously small roster (13) for the team's ambitious 60-game schedule. This way no one could complain about playing time.

And by "no one" he meant the parents of any kid who wasn't playing enough to suit the expectations (realistic or otherwise) of that kid's parents.

But the unexpected resignation brought us down to 12. Then a very good player dove for a ground ball in practice and came up with a broken wrist. That put us at 11. And another strained his leg and is out for a couple of weeks; we were then at 10.

And these are 8th grade boys: There are graduations and dances and field trips that must be taken into account when scheduling. The coach used his own son's schedule, naturally, in trying to work things out. That worked well for the four boys that attend school with the coach's son... but that schedule doesn't quite jive with Youngest Son's school schedule. There's another boy on the team who attends school with Youngest Son; he was the one who told Youngest Son about the opportunity to play for the Raptors in the first place. And there's another group of three or four that attend still a third school, which has its own schedule.

Once the boys get to high school, it becomes easier, at least in Illinois. The Illinois High School Association simply does not permit a team to use high school players before the end of the high school season. So the seasons of 15 or 16 year old teams don't start until later... but there's no Junior High School Association, and all of these kids were playing for their own grammar schools as well.

So there were games at which the coach had only seven or eight bodies he could count on. You can play with eight. You take an out each time the ninth spot comes up in the batting order, but you can play. You can't play with seven. The coach was able to reschedule one of the games where he anticipated only seven effectives; the grammar school coaches all jumbled their schedules around the traveling players.

So scheduling has been a mess. And a source of tension. But the coach didn't want to deal with the team parents about playing time, or the lack thereof.

There is one group that will not juggle their schedules: The team parents. This one takes a vacation in these weeks, that one takes a vacation in those. The coach purposely did not schedule out of town tournaments for the team this year because the parents grumbled that these were not played in places where the parents would like to vacation. I was in the Quad Cities for a Memorial Day tournament a few years back, and I realize that the Quad Cities are not on anyone's Top 100 Vacation Getaways List so I guess I can understand the feeling -- but I can't understand that the coach would cater to it. Or select boys for his team whose parents would even think about having their kid gone for a week or more during the season.

But I was looking at this from an outsider's perspective. The coach's problem was quite different: The core of his team has been playing together for years. And the parents have become quite chummy, too. For every email from the coach about scheduling, there's another from a parent about who's bringing the mojitas.

The Raptors are based in a suburb adjacent to Chicago. You know how the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence? It really is greener when you cross the city limits into that suburb. And so too are the bank accounts. The Raptors' parents all drive Lincoln Navigators and BMW's and Mercedes-Benz automobiles... well, we have a minivan, but we're new. And we live in Chicago.

The team parents are all young looking. They can't be as young as Long Suffering Spouse thinks they are, though: Most of the kids on the team are the oldest of their respective broods; there are a lot of little kids playing in the bleachers and along the foul lines during the games. But that would make the team parents at most a decade younger than Long Suffering Spouse and me, and I doubt any of them had their kids as early as we did.

I'll say this for them, though: They are loyal parents. They were sitting out in the rain Saturday, just as we were. We just weren't watching the same game.

This was not the first time, apparently, that the Raptors have seen the Amish Umpire. He had called a number of games for them last year... and the parents had taken an instant dislike to them then.

Why, he looked like a clown in that get-up! And his strike call was loud enough that both benches could hear it clearly... but it was polysyllabic! He didn't say "strike" at all, but something like "AAAHHHEEEYAH." And he kept talking to the boys!

Oh no, the team parents did not like the Amish Umpire. And they remembered the dislike from prior encounters, and they elaborated on it, in the rain, on Saturday. "He's a pirate!" said one, and the others judged her clever. Soon, they were all making imagined pirate noises "aaaaaarrrrggggghhhh" whenever the Amish Umpire called a strike.

But the team parents had no problem with the Raptors' new player: A big kid, he'd not tried out for the team because he'd graduated early. Now that his high school team was done, this looked like his best opportunity to play. And the coach, poor man, was only too happy to take him in because his roster was so depleted. We had three games to play Sunday: The most fanatic parent would not complain that his son had a couple innings' rest during such a marathon.

The new player came complete with his own personal coach -- his father. Who took up residence on the bench with the other coaches. But the team parents did not think this amiss -- not since they feel free to wander in and out of the bench area during games, offering drinks or snacks. Emailed warnings against this practice have been ignored.

Youngest Son is primarily a catcher for the Raptors. At this level, he relays signs from the coach to the pitcher, who throws the pitch the coach calls. But the new kid has his own signs; these are different from those that all the other boys use. And they are relayed by his father. But this is not an issue with the team parents.

At one point over the weekend, the Amish Umpire ambled out to the mound to chastise the pitcher against going to his mouth on the mound. This is a balk -- a violation of the rules -- and the umpire was doing the kids a service by teaching them instead of automatically penalizing them. I could figure out what he was talking about because he was pantomiming the motion as he talked to the pitchers. And he talked to the pitchers on both teams.

But the team parents saw only a clown, bothering their boys. "Aaaaaarrrrrggggghhhh!" they shouted from the comfort of their chairs down the foul line. "Aaaaaaarrrrrgggghhhh! Why is he talking to them again? Why doesn't he let them play?"

Our coach made the mistake of leaving the bench area shortly after one such incident; he was immediately accosted by one of the mothers: "Why are you letting him do this? Can't we protest? Can't we get a new umpire?"

The poor coach tried to explain the balk rule, but the team mom was having none of it. I stood up and intervened: "It's a standard rule. The umpire is teaching the boys and not penalizing them. He's doing them a favor." The coach picked up the line: "We play standard high school rules. This is in the rules."

The mom subsided somewhat, but she wasn't entirely willing to concede: "I've never heard of this rule before." Sure you have, I told her: When you watch a ball game on TV in cold weather and the announcer tells you that the umpires have given permission for the pitchers to blow on their hands. But I don't think my explanation helped. She did sit down, though, and resumed reading an article in People or Us or whatever it was about Brad and Angelina's love child.

The biggest offense committed by the Amish Umpire, though, was his strike zone. During three games this weekend (he umped three of the four we played), he called a low strike. His strike zone also extended a couple of inches beyond the plate, if it was low and the catcher set up there. He didn't call a high strike once in three games: A pitch across the letters would be a ball, even though in the video games that too would have been a strike.

But he was consistent.

And so were the parents: Every single, stinking time one of their darlings received a called strike on a low or low and outside pitch they hooted in derision: "Aaaaaarrrrrggggghhhh! He's crazy! That's not a strike."

And their offspring, equally stubborn, would not swing at those pitches no matter how often they were called out. And when the boys took their turns pitching, did they pitch to the zone that the umpire had established? The boys on the other teams seemed to... and certainly did after an inning or two... but not the proud Raptors. And each pitch above the belt that was not called as a strike brought forth new howls of "Aaaaaaaarrrrrgggggghhhh!" from the offended Raptors' parents. "That umpire's crazy!"

Albert Einstein said that insanity is "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Given that the umpire had every right to call the game as he wanted to... who really were the crazy persons here?

One little vignette from the weekend encapsulates the entire experience for me: It was late in the game on Saturday. Our shortstop ventured out of the bench area to clean off his spikes. He employed a stick for this purpose and was making slow but steady progress at his task. A team mom called out, "Honey, do you want me to do that for you?"



The Beach Bum said...

Curmudgeon -

This post really brings back memories of my childhood.

The first memory is the House of David. My parent's family had a summer home in Benton Harbor, Michigan. We used to get "veggie burgers" at a small store owned by the House of David.

Another memory is playing baseball and umpires I started in little league at age 9. I played ball until I was 17, both in Pony league and in High School.

Back in the 50's and 60's parents rarely came out to the games. But my Dad did, he had a love for the game at any level. I have inherited this from him. I love Baseball.

I pitched and played Right field in both High School and Pony League.

I was once ejected from a game for arguing with an Umpire. Basically, I was asking him where the Strike Zone was in his opinion. I guess I wasn't being to nice with my query.

I was sent to the bench where I was chastised by the Coach. And then later by my Dad. My expulsion cost us the game.

I did however learn a valuable lesson.

The Beach Bum

Empress Bee (of the high sea) said...

this is sports again, i know it is. i am going to go read about your bugs now!

smiles, bee

sari said...

I for one am happy to read about baseball. And though my kids play, I'm not one of those moms who is out there cleaning their cleats...that's their job to learn.

Good post today! (sorry Bee, but much better than the bugs!) :-)

Dave said...

Nice post.

I played softball in grade school and a year of whatever Little League was called back then. No hit. No arm. That means first or second base. I did stop the ball. Not necessarily with the glove.

I have only one umpire story. In, I think, sixth grade we had a game on a very windy day. On an at bat, the pitch was going way outside, I knew not to swing. The wind got it.

It Came Straight Down The Middle Of The Plate. "Strike!"

I looked back with a hurt look on my face. The Ump said "you know it did son." He was right.

landgirl said...

Why does he call himself Amish? Is he? You write well when you write about baseball because it is clearly something you care about so it makes me enjoy it too even tho I am not a big fan. Sadly, when I got enough grandchildren for a baseball team I was in a place where no one plays it.

susan said...

Oh, goodie. I think I know a bunch of those parents and I'm pretty sure they're the parents of all the kids in the neighborhood that are LG's age. Now I really can't wait for him to be old enough for T-ball!!!

How did the "Raptors" do?

cmhl said...

is he really amish? fascinating! honestly, I need a photo, but if he is really amish, I suppose that might cause a problem?