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Sunday, March 29, 1998, is opening day for French semi-pro hardball with last year's third place Savigny-sur-Orge Lions challenging a new-comer to the National league: the Cherbourg Seagulls. Cherbourg arrived a scant half-hour before play at the new stadium in Limeil-Brévannes ten miles south of Paris. It dawns on me winter is over, beautiful spring weather is with us to stay, and as the first ball is thrown out I suddenly realize I am throwing out the first ball. Standing behind the catcher at home plate, I am the Umpire-In-Chief. Is this a dream come true or have I gone over the deep-end?
The starting pitcher has worked the Japanese pros for a year with the Hanshin Tigers. He is half-French and half-Japanese. I reflect on his first ninety-mile-per-hour fast ball that pops into the catcher's mitt six inches from my nose: "If he hits me only a few fluttering feathers will remain."
Hanshin Stadium is noted for the impenetrable barbed wire perimeter protecting players and umpires from the fanatical fans. There is little danger here in Limeil, only twelve spectators are in the stands, mostly spouses and the scorekeeper. French baseball does not draw crowds.
It is all my son's fault. Umpiring in the Nationals is really a dramatic change from sandlot ball. Like most umpires here, I started as a parent. My son played left field for the Paris University Club (P.U.C.). His Cadet and Junior teams won three national championships. What a way to start! His coach asked me to drive on Sundays and after practice Wednesdays. Other parents would drop off their kids disappearing in a cloud of exhaust. As the coach said, "We are glorified baby-sitters."
I not only enjoyed accompanying my son and having a common point of reference in this mad, ever-changing, polluted city, I also enjoyed watching the game. Kids take the game so seriously it is a privilege to watch them grow up with baseball. It helps me understand my own father.
The designated umpire more often than not did not show up. Faced with a no game situation, and in spite of my ignorance of the rules (I played the game, I had never umpired), I donned a mask and chest protector and crouched behind the catcher as if I knew what I was doing. "He is an American! He must know baseball!" I was immediately accepted, and encouraged, to continue by the needy coach and the young admirers. How could any normally constituted American refuse such an opportunity?
I asked my American brother-in-law to send a rulebook. Even though French baseball was officially organized in 1921, no translation of the rules was in print when I started umpiring four years ago. There are Canadian versions out of date. And Québecois is unintelligible to the French. This lends an interesting flavor to the game. Who decides if there is no rulebook?
The French Federation of Baseball, Softball and Cricket issues amendments to the American Official Baseball Rules. But the number of coaches, parents and players that understand English, American English and American Baseball English, is understandably limited. Last year the first translation was published. It is full of errors. The first rule I learned was 9.02(a) which I roughly interpreted to the coaches and players as: "The Umpire is Always Right. The Umpire is God. If You Have Any Objections You Are Expelled." Anyone showing such force, solemnity and self-assurance with the French is immediately accepted as Le Patron.
I am far from being an outstanding athlete. Like other American kids, I started swinging a bat when I was five. Coach Rachuy, the village doctor and Napoleanic strategist, used me as a pinch hitter: so short I was practically impossible to strike out. My first season I only had one hit, but I had the most RBI's in the League. I walked almost every time at bat. In later years, as my teammates learned how to hit, pitch and make plays, my talents as a zero became less in demand. I went a whole season with no hits at all, a zero batting average. And then I turned twelve, and no more baseball. Everyone in my hometown was an avid American Football fan. From puberty through graduation, one's fate was cast in preparation for the High School Varsity Football Team, reigning champions of the Northwest Illinois High School Football League. Each year in August practice began at seven in the morning. There was another at four in the afternoon. In September for school, morning practice was moved up to six, and afternoon practice back to five.
Baseball was for little kids. Football was for real men. For years I was little more than cannon fodder, like a poilu. I never played a game. The big guys practiced their suicide tackles and downfield blocking on me. When two of them hit me at once, I acquired water-on-the-knee and a walking-cane for three months.
Then during the second game my last year, our star player invoked the ire of the coach. Coach O'Boyle put me in on defense to prove that anybody could do a better job. I held my own. Then God intervened on my side. I intercepted a partially blocked pass. Like becoming an umpire, I was in the right place at the right time. I grabbed the ball against my stomach and fell on top of it in a fetal position, muttering "Please God, don't let me lose the ball!" Not only did I hold on, but in the next two games I added two interceptions and even advanced fifteen yards. In the fifth game, the coach wanted to put me in on offense.
Just before the game my appendix was removed at Freeport Memorial Hospital. My football season was over. My mother was relieved. My friends were furious: " You moron, Nagel! You spent six years getting here and look what you did with it!"
Being a baseball umpire requires minimal sporting ability but a certain kind of hard-headedness.
Play Ball! I passed my Umpire school exam. I am now promoted to the Nationals. My instructor selected me for the first game. There are twelve teams in French "A" division: six in the north and six in the south. There are about thirty qualified umpires (I have requested number eight in honor of Doug Harvey). We work two-man crews for Sunday doubleheaders through June. There are few matches in July and August. It is impossible to field two full teams during French holidays. French Championships will be in September. European competitions are scheduled for Rome and Moscow.
All finished well. Savigny carried both games leaving Cherbourg with only one run. The Cherbourg coach was happy with his team's performance however. "We only found out on Friday we were promoted to the Nationals. We just are not ready for this quality of play." Savigny's coach liked my work behind the plate, had a few comments about my low strike zone, but no objections. He was less satisfied with my base umpiring. I have to slow down and practice European two-man mechanics better, unless I get hit by a fast ball.
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