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April 16, 2013 BASEBALL

The Umpire

Eric Nusbaum

The Umpire photo

The thought of home was more than he could bear. The sunk-in feeling of his recliner, the smell of Linda’s pot roast, the weight of her body pressed up against his in the bedroom doorway -- all of it was just too much. The umpire deserved no such comforts. He deserved exactly what he had, exactly this: to fumble with tiny bottles from the mini-bar, to stare into the depths of the pale, floral wallpaper, to channel surf, carefully skipping the local news, the cable news, and especially the sports networks. Sitcoms were safe, pre-recorded late-night talk shows, Law and Order, old movies, pay-per-view.


After the game, the umpire shook the kid’s hand and apologized. The press room was too bright, microphones stuck under his nose like a bouquet of plastic flowers. But he could hardly talk. All he could do was remember the kid’s eyes, all glassy and damaged like a pair of jellyfish drying up on the beach. The umpire was sure he would always remember those eyes.


Later, safely ensconced in the hotel room, he said “Linda. Linda. Linda. What happened?”

“You’re a human being,” Linda said.

“That’s the problem.”

He laughed. She laughed. He hung up the phone.


It was a groundball. Nothing less, nothing more. The umpire could see the pitch perfectly: a sinker low and inside, driving down toward the batter’s ankles. He could see the swing, a half-assed check swing was all it was, and hear the click of the ball against the bat. Nothing more than a click. Then the ball tumbling forward over the grass toward second base.


The hotel room had two beds in it, but neither was working. This was Detroit, so the room was decorated with pictures from the glory years of American manufacturing. Above one of the beds hung a stylized photo of the factory floor of a Ford plant in the 1950s. The workers were tiny and purposeful, all in motion. Peak efficiency. The umpire’s father had been a machinist in a factory that made airplane parts, and had told him to always focus. If you don’t focus you could lose a finger. I’ve seen it happen.


Some jobs are inherently futile, the umpire thought. He was pacing and eating potato chips from a plastic tube. The clock radio said 3:17 and was playing some kind of symphony. Classical musicians are supposed to reproduce great works flawlessly, practically erasing themselves in the process. It seemed impossible. Umpiring was impossible, too. You had to be invisible but also everywhere at once. The umpire had blown calls before. This was different. Normally, it was a case of obstructed vision; a case of too close to call, tie goes to the runner (a real rule because there had to be a rule).


Topspin. He remembered topspin, and he remembered the batter charging up the first base line toward him, plowing golden dirt with his cleats. He remembered the throw to first, the runner’s foot crashing against the bag. Too late. Too late, he could remember saying to himself. But which was too late? The runner or the throw? The throw or the runner? A series of flashes went off behind his eyes, like somebody was taking pictures inside his skull.


He was in the bathroom now, staring at himself in the mirror. The umpire’s hair was gray and his gut hung over his belt, but otherwise not so bad. He was a solid man, solidness having always been important to him. It was the inherent belief in his solidness that led him to umpiring school after he finished college in Toledo, Ohio. He would be a high school history teacher from September to June and umpire during the summer. Nothing would be absent from his life.  At least that was the idea. The umpire had always trusted completely in his own impartiality, which he now realized was absurd. He walked over to the light-switch and flipped it on and off for a few moments, thinking perhaps he could recreate the flashes. But nothing happened. He turned on the shower.


In the shower the umpire thought about human error. He had committed a human error. It was the same thing they said about plane crashes and nuclear meltdowns. He liked the phrase because if you thought about it a certain way, his mistake could be ascribed to something bigger; the entire sequence could be evolution’s fault. Human error, like moose error, like salmon error, like dog error. Not umpire error. In this context it was not so bad. He was not so bad. This would all be swallowed up by time anyway. The umpire turned off the shower, and the room was very quiet.


He remembered the stadium’s quiet. The collective, anticipatory inhale of thirty thousand fans. It was so quiet the umpire could hear the sweaty first base coach scratching his ass a few feet away. He remembered the flashes disappearing from behind his eyes, his arms being raised by some force, some subconscious anti-gravitational force, and the word SAFE coming out of his mouth. The thirty thousand fans still silent. The kid on the mound silent, too. The word SAFE echoing upward into the night.


The umpire opened a curtain and exposed the shadows of the cityscape. The sky was beginning to turn from black to blue. Soon enough he would have to go outside and face Detroit, face all of it. Looking out on the tops of buildings, he realized that there was some poetry to all of this, baseball being a sport predicated on failure, a sport in which perfection of any kind is rare. The only person expected to be perfect on a baseball field is the umpire.


image: Amy Butcher