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April 20, 2018 BASEBALL

Balls and Strikes III: Transfiguration

Richard Johnston

Balls and Strikes III: Transfiguration photo

The last Little League game I umped ended in bedlam. It was a Thursday, and I was in a foul mood because the Tulip Ball was the following night and my folks had ordered me to go despite the fact I didn’t have a date. They thought it would be good for my “social development.” I had also just gotten one day’s detention for drawing a nude in art class. My mom, who loved art, was furious and told me I could change into my rental tux after detention hall and wait for the dance to start at the bowling alley a block from school. 

It was the wrong day to heckle me.

The heckling began when a pitcher named Troy Calhoun, who lived a few houses down the street from ours, walked three batters in a row. A chicken with its head cut off could have found the plate more often than Troy, so the opposing coach naturally instructed his team just to stand inside the box until they got a strike. The coach’s son didn’t even raise his bat to his shoulders – something Troy’s coach, his parents, and his teammates’ parents found rude and unsportsmanlike. “How about a strike, ump?” Troy’s coach yelled.

A chorus of similar pleas gradually swelled as Troy proceeded to walk two or three more batters. My interpretation of the strike zone was pretty liberal, but I bucked at the notion that it was my responsibility to give Troy anything. If home plate had been a barn, he wouldn’t have hit it once.

Still, the heckling made me sweat. I was also getting bored. 

Troy’s next pitch actually sailed behind the batter – who, however, by rotating his body 180 degrees to follow the ball’s moonlike trajectory, completed a vague swinging motion. 

“Strike,” I barked.

Words were lobbed at me then, followed by abuse and, seconds later, by a half-empty can of Miller Lite that landed at my feet. It was the closest I’d come to a drink for several years.

I retraced the can’s path back into the crowd of angry mouths. There could be no doubt: Troy’s mom, who was sitting by herself on the top row of the bleachers, had hurled it. She had an open cooler next to her, and someone was trying to restrain her as she rooted around for an empty. I guess she thought I’d insulted her son by awarding him such an outrageous strike. I picked the can up calmly, shook it, placed it in Troy’s mitt, ejected him for drinking, and declared a forfeit. All hell broke loose, and I made a beeline for my mom’s car.


I didn’t have to put up with any of that crap in Japan. In that civilized country, my word as an umpire was law. 

Occasionally, if I called a dubious strike, a batter might cast me a sidelong glance. But a catcher wouldn’t if I called a dubious ball, as that would require a turn of the head and thus a public questioning of my judgment. Instead, he might hold the ball in his mitt for a second longer than usual before tossing it back to the mound with a slightly exaggerated arc. In every case, the game went on as usual. There were no arguments. No words. Not once.

And, thanks to this, I found redemption. I regained my confidence and became a half-decent and, I must say, a regionally famous ump. Two years later, when I left Japan, I toyed with the idea of enrolling in the Harry Wendelstadt School for umpires in Daytona. But the prospects at my age, and with my eyesight and my build, were grim. A PhD in English seemed like a safer option.


I moved from England to Japan in the summer of 2002 for a number of reasons, the first being that I had made a blood vow one drunken night in London not to return to the United States whilst George W. Bush was still President. I also respected Japan as a fellow baseball nation, and I admired its cuisine. I also had a thing for its women.

Shortly after settling into my tiny, twelve-tatami apartment in Sendai, a city about three hours north of Tokyo by bullet train, I borrowed a neighbor’s one-speed bike and rode to the International Culture Center to find a language partner – that is to say, a girlfriend. I spent half an hour looking at the colorful flyers designed by Japanese coeds, most of which made liberal use of pink glitter, and all of which had photographs. 

There were five or six other Caucasian men eyeing the board, and I kept a respectable distance from them until I saw a hand-written flyer for a baseball team in a local recreational league. It said, in garbled English, that it was looking for baseball players. “Sumimasen,” I said, reaching in front of a pallid Brit and tearing off a slip of paper with the number to call. When I told the bloke good luck, he gave me a look that was the picture of exile and despair.


I called the number when I got back to my apartment. Junichiro – he was the manager – worked at a florist’s shop and spoke a bit of English. I wrote down the essential information on a little note pad. Practice was on Saturdays at noon. Games began at six in the morning on Sundays. “Gozen roku-ji?” “Sodesu ne.” “Roku?” “Sodesu.” Three teams would meet and play round-robin. When a team wasn’t playing, it would ump for the other teams. The membership fee was 75000 yen – about seven hundred dollars. What the hell for, I asked? With the help of an electronic dictionary, I discerned the reasons:

1. Three uniforms: a home jersey, an away jersey, and an alternate away jersey, in case the regular away jersey was the same color as an opponent’s away jersey.

2. Van rental: while nearly everyone on the roster had a car, the team preferred to travel together by van. 

3. Bats: only wood bats were permitted by the league. 

4. Balls: a dozen new regulation-sized balls for each home game. 

5. Baths: Postgame trips to an onsen, where the team would soak together and focus on the following weekend’s games.

The Japanese, God love them, take things seriously. You see people on Mt. Fuji dressed as though they’re tackling Everest. When they drink, they drink hard. They take their baseball especially seriously. I don’t think I had ever swung a wood bat until I lived in Japan. 

Grip them tightly. If you don’t, and you make contact, they sting.


The first Sunday I played with the team – the literal translation of our name was the Sendai Golden Fire-Breathing Fighting Dragons – Junichiro and the other managers played jun ken po to decide the order of games. They played it so fast I hardly recognized it as rock-paper-scissors. I’ve seen a class of 40 high school students play a dozen rounds to decide which one of them was going to wash the chalkboard. It took less than ten seconds. You can imagine the practice that takes.

We were home for the first game against the Matsushima Baseball Ocean Temple Gods, and away for the second against the Ishinomaki Super Fireworks. This meant we were ump for the third. 

When Junichiro relayed this, my teammates looked dismayed. No one wanted to help ump a game after playing 18 innings of ball beneath a brutal sun. (Since four umps were required for all regular season games, every player on our twelve-man roster would have to ump for three innings.) And absolutely no one wanted to put on the catcher’s gear and work the plate. 

Everyone except for me – I volunteered to do the whole game. “Honto ni?” Junichiro asked. “Hai,” I said. 

Junichiro called the other managers over. A change this monumental to the normal course of things required a few minutes’ deliberation. 

There were no major objections.


I’ll never forget my first called third strike in Japan. The victim was the leadoff hitter for the Matsushima Baseball Ocean Temple Gods in the bottom of the first. He had a one-two count and got caught looking on a nasty slider. Nasty, but clearly a strike. After a moment’s hesitation, I gave the poor fellow a good old American chainsaw. It was rusty, but it did the trick.

Maybe it was the beer my team had started drinking immediately after beating the Fireworks, giving our team a 2-0 record to begin the season. Whatever the reason, my teammates and all their girlfriends and wives broke out into spontaneous cheer. “Daisugoi ne!” they shouted. In Japanese that means something like “awesome” or “sublime.” The batter for the Temple Gods slunk back to his dugout. His teammates were laughing hard and saying something about the “Americajin umpu.”

The poor batter looked ready to ritually disembowel himself. I couldn’t have been happier. It was as though I was doing what God had put me on Earth to do.


I worked the entirety of every game that summer, even the ones that began at six in the morning. And, thanks to my chainsaw and other assorted calls, I bathed and ate and drank for free. 

Japanese umps, you have to understand, are a bit more rigid in their style. A few professional umps have adopted the American method, but most that I saw rang up balls and strikes as coolly as a check-out clerk in a stationary store. So my chainsaw became something of a spectacle. You won’t believe this, but somebody even did a story on me for the local paper. God knows how that came about, but we got a sponsor from it: a local grocery store. Our new uniforms, which were paid for, spelled out in kanji: “Itabashi Fresh Grocery Sendai Golden Fire-Breathing Fighting Dragons.”

I invented all kinds of variations on the American chainsaw during my two years in Japan. There was the Japanese chainsaw – a miniature, more subtle version scaled down for bonsai trees – the tsunami, the harikiri, the hanabi, the yakuza deathsquad shooting, and the crazy sushi chef. They weren’t impromptu, either. I’d practice them in front of a mirror, typically after taking a shower – just as I had done as a kid, aiming to be the next Harry Wendelstadt. They were choreographed. They were rehearsed.


When I umpired Little League games, I could never bring myself to do to kids what I saw real umps do on television. It seemed cruel to give a child the chainsaw, especially if you couldn’t say for certain whether a pitch was really a strike because you were standing to the left and a few feet behind the mound and the ball’s trajectory resembled that of a Civil War cannonball.

In Japan, though, I didn’t have to stand behind the pitcher. I could work the plate, and I had three teammates covering the field of play. I was completely protected, and the opposing team never questioned my authority. 

The word that best describes what I felt? Transfiguration.


image: Aaron Burch