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April 13, 2018 BASEBALL

Balls and Strikes II: And the Word Was God

Richard Johnston

Balls and Strikes II: And the Word Was God photo

I suppose all sports officials are gods of a sort – gods whose powers an age of instant replay has grossly curtailed.

Home plate umpires have weathered this change better than most. Their basic, most elemental calls – I’m speaking of balls and strikes, the first of which can set the tone for an entire half-inning – can never be disputed, despite the fact they are the ones most prone to error. I mean, how can the human eye really judge whether a 100-mph fastball has nicked the outside corner of the plate? The answer is it doesn’t matter. Like in the Bible, an ump creates with words –  the pitch is what the umpire says it was. If that’s not the ultimate power, I don’t know what is.

Add to that the malleability of an umpire’s strike zone. Forget everything the rulebook says about armpits and knees. A few years ago, while waiting to see my psychiatrist, I read an article in Scientific American about how the strike zone is a bit like putty. Statisticians had found that pitchers like Greg Maddux with exceptional control could actually stretch the strike zone by as much as 25% over the course of a game, because they could locate a pitch

here, then here, and then here.


But woe to pitchers who couldn’t find their location. Their strike zone would irrevocably shrink into something the size of a shoebox. An umpire wouldn’t give them shit.

So umpires, like the ancient gods, are part-human, too. They can be swayed. Impressed. Annoyed. It’s like how, around the time of Sophocles, the Greeks began praying to this brand-new goddess named Fortune because they’d started to believe the gods were exempt from fate and could, with the rights words and an eviscerated bull or two, be persuaded to change it.


My wife believes my fascination with umps is indicative of a god complex, and something I asked her a few mornings ago only confirmed her diagnosis. It had snowed overnight and turned bone-cold, so I had gone outside to replenish our bird feeders. A family of Northern flickers had gathered in the branches above the empty suet basket, and a mess of little brown jobs was flitting about the shrubs near the hopper and tray feeders. All the birds grew still as I approached, but I could have sworn that one of the flickers actually bowed to me as I placed a fresh cake of suet into the basket. 

“Honey,” I said as I was making coffee, “do you think the birds out back believe I’m God?” 

“You would like that, wouldn’t you.” 

“Well, you never feed them,” I said. “If it wasn’t for me, they’d starve to death.”

“Honey, they’re wild animals,” my wife said. “If they starved to death, it would mean they’d become dependent on you.”

“Exactly,” I said. “They wandered in the wilderness. They found no city to dwell in. Hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted in them. They cried out unto the Lord in their trouble, and He delivered them from their distress.” 

“You’re insufferable.” 

I suffer no woman to teach, nor to usurp a man’s authority, but to hold her tongue in—” 

“For God’s sake would you shut your mouth hole? It’s not even seven.”

I was kidding, of course. I know that I’m no god. Whatever illusions I had about being or becoming one were shattered in the seventh grade after I got a job umpiring Little League games.


I got the job from Trevor Russell’s dad. He had been my coach in slow pitch and was universally hated. My parents and my teammates’ parents despised his foul language. Other parents loathed his habit of starving the clock when our team was up and dusk was approaching. I didn’t mind him so much. Once he let me try some of his wintergreen-flavored Kodiak dip.

My first and only season as an ump, Trevor was my partner, and he habitually failed to show. I suspect he was screwing Jennifer White in the back of his jeep. In any case, this meant I had to call a bunch games myself from behind the mound. 

Pray to God you’ll never have to do this – it’s an impossible task. Most of the kids tossed these comical little pitches that went way up, then way down. Did a pitch pass through the zone? Who could tell? If a pitch landed on the plate, then the rules stipulated it had to be a ball. If it didn’t, you’d have to replay the whole thing inside your head and, after accounting for velocity, trajectory, and location, make the best call you could. I credit my half-season of umpiring for the fact I earned a higher score on A.P. Physics than on A.P. English.

There were some good pitchers in Little League, of course – precocious twelve-year-olds whose dads permanently fucked their arms by teaching them how to throw curve balls and sliders. My best friend Dave was one them. He struck out practically everyone and made it onto the county all-star team every season, but he also had surgery for tendonitis when he was in the eleventh grade, and I heard in college that he’d brag about having to learn to jerk off lefty. 

But pitchers like Dave were few and far between, and a good grade in physics three or four years later was an invisible silver lining in the very heavy and very dark clouds that began gathering above the bleachers in the minutes leading up to every game I called. 

“How on Earth was that a strike?”

“Are you blind, ump?” 

“Who the hell hired you?” 

“Hey, I work with your dad, ump, and you know what? I’m telling him about this shit.” 

“Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me? Christ, are you fucking kidding me?” 

Sometimes parents from opposing teams would gather behind the chain-link backstop and, after arguing with me, start to argue with each other.

“BallThat was a strike, you idiot. That kid should be out.” 

“Hey, that’s my son you’re talking about.” 

“Oh, so you’re the one who taught him never to swing.”

“Don’t listen to him, son. You just focus on the pitcher.”

“And swing your bat like a man.”


It happened like this: there was a kid on third with one out in the bottom of the fifth inning. The batter hit a fly ball to shallow left, the runner on third tagged up, and the left fielder made one of those rare, perfect, Little League throws to his overweight catcher, who was standing right on top of home plate and looked completely surprised when the ball arrived in his mitt. 

The runner, of course, only did what he’d probably seen Pete Rose do a hundred times on the TV: he lowered his head like a bull and plowed into the catcher, laying him flat on his back like the real human cadaver I had once seen on a third-grade field trip to Sherman Chiropractic College. The ball squirted out the catcher’s mitt and rolled pathetically to the backstop. 

One half of the parents began cheering and the other half started screaming, but they changed parts when I walked over to the runner, who was standing on home as proud as a little general, called him out for runner interference and unsafe play, and ejected him from the game.

Immediately, the kid’s father rushed down from the bleachers, vaulted the short fence adjacent to the backstop, and came at me, hurling oaths.

I told the kid’s father that ramming a catcher was illegal. I explained the Little League rulebook was quite explicit on this point. I got it out and showed it to him. I wasn’t required to have it on me, but sometimes I’d study it during Geography class or between games of a doubleheader.

“Well, what was he supposed to do?” the father yelled, motioning toward his son. “Just let that fat-ass catcher tag him out like a pussy?” 

I gave the father ten seconds to leave the diamond. When he didn’t, I ejected him from the game and told him he had thirty seconds to leave the field. If he didn’t, I said, I’d declare a forfeit. The father glared at me and said I didn’t have the balls. I told him I had balls of depleted Uranium. He looked at me, baffled, called upon his god to witness the injustice of it all, and left the field with seven seconds to spare. 

On his way to his truck, he spotted my mom’s car. She was sitting in it, waiting for the game to end and reading a magazine. He marched over to it, snapped its windshield wipers off, and waved them at me.


Occasionally, parents called the house to complain about my work, and once the Dick Bailey Automotive Superstore Tigers egged it after I ejected their pitcher for hitting three straight batters. My mom called the police, but they told her they couldn’t do anything if she hadn’t witnessed it. Then they said she should wash the house before the mess hardened. 

“But the shells! There must be fingerprints on the shells!” 

I can still hear my mom shouting this at some poor rookie cop over the phone. 

My mom wanted to call the cops on the windshield wiper guy, too, but he was an oncologist in Greenville and an important client of my dad’s, so he talked her down.

“Well, he’s not treating me if I ever get cancer,” she said.

And he didn’t.


image: Aaron Burch