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A Day of Reckoning
My third match is the contest of the year in the North. Back in Limeil-Brévannes, last year's second place National Champions from Saint-Lo face off against third place Savigny-sur-Orge Lions. After weeks of cold, rainy weather we suddenly have a beautiful summer day, almost too hot. The playing field guardian left the locker rooms open, but another coach showed up early to retrieve equipment and relocked all the doors. We could not get into the dressing rooms so we hid under a stairwell in the stadium to get dressed. I took the first game again. My partner was again my teacher, Gilbert, who had brought along his old foam rubber, hand-held chest protector. He wanted to use it because of the hot weather. Not used to the handling and without the proper mask, I turned down his offer and wore my usual equipment for the first game in spite of the heat. If the heat were the only thing I have to worry about it will be smooth sailing.
This is "A" division hardball at its best with Saint-Lo's big hitters, like Jininian, best player in France with a season of professional ball in Japan. Taishi and Kenji have also played in Japan. Savigny has two Americans: Dillon and Schewdhelm, who play outfield and are good hitters, not to mention three players on the French National Team, including Gilbert's son who has a steady career batting average of around 350.
It is not always possible to avoid fathers umpiring games for their children, even in the Nationals. My son had the good sense to stop baseball and now plays on a local handball team
My turn at the plate is warm, but not as hot as expected thanks to a gentle westerly breeze. Savigny gets off to an early lead of three to zero and holds. I get off to an early bad start taking a foul tip in the left shoulder. I made a rookie's mistake, I moved. Instead of staying in position until the pitch is caught or batted, I jerk back just as the ball is hit. In spite of my equipment, the ball grazes the top of my left shoulder-pad sending it crashing down into my clavicle. I will have a large blue bruise to nurse for the rest of the week. Gilbert points out my error during the pause between innings. It is not always possible to analyze yourself correctly. He tells me to stop moving and stay put until the ball is in the catcher's glove. It is excellent advice.
Not only am I risking injury, I am making bad calls. I call a few strikes low and outside that make the batters wince. There are more than a few uncharacteristic comments as the foolishness continues. Nobody comes out to argue with me about balls and strikes, but it is obvious from the asides and sarcasm that something is wrong. Getting hit, and the comment from Gilbert, bring me back into the game. I realize what is wrong. I am afraid of the pitcher.
Fear is a healthy reaction to a ninety-mile-per-hour fastball. I have seen foul tips split a mask in two. I have seen umpires carried off the field with broken arms (there is no shielding on our arms). All of us have had to call time out at one point or another to get our bearings after a particularly hard blast to the head, shoulder, arm, leg, foot or whatever. A particularly sharp blast to the crotch protector can put a whole new perspective on the world.
But fear can ruin an umpire quickly. Bobbing out of position too early throws off your judgment, exposes you to danger and communicates amateurism to seasoned ball players who will start unconsciously analyzing other weaknesses. The same can be said of making calls too soon, using the wrong hand signals and unusual calls. The umpire is never the star on field. The players are. A good umpire wants to be as invisible as possible, doing his job, being in the right place at the right time, commanding respect by his knowledge and efficiency, not his authority and antics.
Saint-Lo does not come to life until the top of the ninth, scoring one run. That ends the opening game, three to one in favor of Savigny and ends my time behind the plate. Gilbert will now take over after the half-hour lunch break.
The second game starts on time at two. The first game was clean with no infield fly situations and lots of discrete griping about my balls and strikes. I try not to let it bother me, but I was hurting from the middle of the seventh. My shoulder ached and the weather was turning hot.
Gilbert's takes over behind the plate with his foam rubber shield. Saint-Lo takes an early lead in the third scoring three. In the fourth I call out a Saint-Lo runner sliding into second who then blocks the double play throw to first. I call interference and the batter-runner is out for his teammate's interference. This is not a frequent call and Saint-Lo's coach is ready to argue. Gilbert returns the coach to the dugout with a brief summary of the rules.
In the fifth Saint-Lo scores another run. The Saint-Lo catcher is thrown out stealing third and an unfortunate situation develops. His slide is particularly hard and he throws his full weight into the third baseman to break up the play. The American third baseman for Savigny makes a remark in English that is perfectly understood. The Saint-Lo runner slugs him square in the face sending his broken glasses flying in two directions. Both dugouts are immediately emptied for a general riot at third.
I get there fast and see a six-foot-six Lion kicking the head of a Saint-Lo player on the ground. I grab the Lion by the jersey and pull him away from the pile of players. "What do think you are doing?" I subconsciously justify my actions to myself that if I can stop this guy then the others will probably stop to watch me being reduced to a pile of blood and bones. Good fortune is with me however. The giant has been properly brought up and has a reverential respect for the men in blue.
"He hit first," replies the Savigny outfielder.
"But you are not helping," I scold.
"I know," he admits.
And the fight is over. The base runner, catcher for Saint-Lo, who started swinging is expelled from the game. Both coaches receive warnings that any further disturbances will lead to their expulsion and a possible forfeited game. "Just baseball, Gentlemen. Que du baseball Messieurs." And the rest of the afternoon is absolutely calm.
A calm so much so that Saint-Lo forgets they are in the lead and slackens up. Savigny comes to life in the bottom of the seventh scoring three runs to pull within a run. In the bottom of the ninth with Saint-Lo still ahead by one run, the first batter for Savigny smashes a home run to even the score. We go into four more innings of well-played, hard-fought, scoreless baseball.
I have a close call on a Saint-Lo base runner stealing second. I call him out on his slide in a cloud of dust. He pops up swearing in Québecois "tabernacle", a French Canadian epithet of serious import. It is OK to swear to yourself in baseball, but swearing at an umpire can get you expelled. I found out after the game from Savigny's second baseman, Gilbert's son, that the runner was probably safe. That ruined my evening.
In the top of the thirteenth Saint-Lo hits three doubles and marks two runs pulling ahead six to four. In the bottom of the inning Savigny marks a run on a double. Then a single advances the runner on second to third. The next batter blasts a line drive just over my head into left field that goes between the fielder's legs into the fence and the game is over on the error seven to six for Savigny. It is seven in the evening and we have been playing since eleven with only half an hour for lunch. This has been one of the longest games on record in the French Nationals.
We still have to fill in the report on the fight. On the back of the score card we record the events of the altercation and permit Saint-Lo's coach to note the blow was provoked by an American expression: "F... Y...". This will make for interesting reading when the affair is heard before the Disciplinary Commission. They will decide if Saint-Lo's catcher will be disqualified for two or four games. We could have expelled even more players, but seeing the calm that reigned after the fight, we would have added nothing. Saint-Lo collapsed after leading the game, shamed by their poor sportsmanship. No other justice could have brought home the lesson that baseball is a game for gentlemen, even in France.
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