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A Good Day
My second match in the Nationals pitted Montigny-le-Brettonneux against Vauréal. My partner, Michel, was another parent freshly promoted out of Bordeaux weekend umpire school. The new stadium is in an American style residential neighborhood. Suburban landscapes are sculpted from the former Versailles hunting grounds. The stadium is one of the few in France with artificial turf. We reluctantly try out our shoes on the plastic, but after a few slides and turns, this is evidently a well-designed field, even with the silver sheen of morning dew.
I arrive two hours early, unsure of the exact location. Excitement makes waiting more intolerable. There are no dressing rooms for umpires and players. A couple of portable equipment sheds serve as well however for dressing and locking up our stuff.
The field has no dugouts, just benches, so the homeless do not move in after hours. The outfield fence is at a respectable distance from home plate. To keep long fly balls out of the neighbor's backyards and windows there is a high net above the wire fence. Part of our duties at the beginning of a game are to define with both coaches the stadium ground rules. A ball hit directly in the net will be a home run. But a ball hitting the fence or bouncing first on the field and then off the wire or net above is still in play. This means the base umpire must run out on outfield flies.
I start behind the plate. Because of the cold weather, I borrow Michel's black vest to stay warm. I am relatively comfortable, but Michel is freezing covering the bases.
With both teams in place and the batter ready, I prepare to throw out the first ball. I realize I forgot my mask in the shed. Everyone stands waiting while I trot off to the shed. My steel-plated shoes, leg guards, athletic strap, and chest protector do not make for graceful running. Five minutes later all is in order and the game can begin.
This is a "B" division doubleheader so we play only seven innings each game. The game will be called after five innings on a ten run spread. This is more like the Little League ball I know. Vauréal gets off to an early start but falls apart in the fifth. They are trailing three to five when Montigny scores another five. I call the game in the bottom of the sixth, the score fourteen to four for Montigny.
It was not a brilliant game, but easy umpiring. A few cool rain clouds drift rapidly by with bursts of brilliant sunshine. At one point the sun reflects off an attic window beyond center field, and I am almost blind trying to call balls and strikes behind the catcher. The line between the plate and the pitcher's mound is supposed to run East-North-East. Here the line runs SouthEast making for difficult morning games for umpires and difficult evening games for outfielders.
My poor freezing partner was glad to recover his vest. I vowed to buy one as soon as possible with my earnings. On base I can wear my red, white and blue Chicago Cubs training jacket without overly distracting the players. But it is always best to dress correctly. Anything that enhances respect for an umpire is welcome. Anything that detracts leads to complications.
Michel has a livelier second match. Montigny's leadoff batter triples, but Vauréal holds them to no runs. In the top of the third Vauréal marks three. Montigny's first batter is out on a foul tip on the third strike. On a foul tip the umpire has to determine if the ball is hit, if it comes directly into the catcher's glove and if it touches the glove before touching any other part of his equipment or body. Judgment calls cannot be disputed by any coach or player. If the ball goes up in the air it is probably a foul ball, not a foul tip. These are fun calls for an umpire.
Montigny's second batter drives to the shortstop and is thrown out at first. The third batter singles to center field and then steals second. The fourth batter doubles over my head to center field and drives in the runner for Montigny's first run. The fifth batter drills a long ball, which the center fielder catches against the fence ending the inning.
In the fatal fifth Montigny scores three runs before any outs and takes the lead five to three. Vauréal puts a man on base. Their next batter pops up. The third batter strikes out and a quick throw by the catcher catches the runner off base to end Vauréal's short rally. Montigny scores two more runs but ends the sixth caught in a double play. Vauréal is able to rally for a run in the top of the seventh, but the game is over Montigny winning seven to four.
At the end of a game both teams take the field, the home team lining up at third and visitors at first. They trot out to the pitcher's mound and everyone takes a bow. There are five or six in the audience, plus the umpires, applauding. Then everyone shakes hands with the umpires. After a well-played game with no disputed calls it is a real feeling of accomplishment to hear players and coaches thank you for doing a good job. Even hotly disputed games end on this sportsmanlike note. However, if the umpiring has been really bad, or the coach is particularly hardheaded, the handshakes are brisk or non-existent, the "Merci's" are missing and there are usually a few comments about disputed plays. This situation is very rare, particularly in the Nationals where everyone more or less knows most of the rules. After all, the umpire is always right, even when he is wrong.
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