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Home Run Day
The Federation met in emergency session last night to decide the fate of the league. Over four million French Francs ($666,000) in debt, the vote was to raise the rates for licenses or to send the Federation into bankruptcy. The decision could not have been an easy one. Politics invade every aspect of life in France. The government supplies more than six million francs per year to the National teams for travel, coaches and players. This amount will now be halved. I was not there (I represent no official entity), but Gilbert brought me up to date. They voted to raise the license rates. The auditor will decide in June if the decision is acceptable for the tax office and if debts can thus be expunged.
Games cannot begin until each team produces a check for half the total due to umpires for our rates and mileage. With my rank I earn 160 French Francs (about $26) per game, plus 1.10 Francs per kilometer between home and the stadium. This is not El Dorado, but unlike last year's umpires, at least we get paid. If I can produce a bill, I can include up to 72.50 Francs for lunch. But with only half an hour between games, no self-respecting Frenchman, or Francophile like myself, would submit to such treatment. I prepare my own gourmet sandwiches. If I persevere in this profession I can earn up to 250 Francs per game. Next year I hope to have the necessary credentials. To get there I have to umpire twenty games, receive a nomination and pass written and field tests next spring.
This doubleheader is between the Melun-Senart Templiers and the Montpellier Barracudas (last year's French National Champions). The Montpellier coach is a paid American minor league ball player. I count seventy-five people on the grass knoll behind the third base line at the beginning of the first game, an impressive turnout. There are no seats but the knoll serves just as well. It is so steep that it is impossible to mow the grass. Foul balls disappear into the shrubbery never to be seen again.
The playing field is in Savigny-le-Temple (not to be confused with Savigny-sur-Orge) and has been redone recently. There are new dugouts and the infield has been plowed up and leveled. There is no infield grass growing yet. The outfield is more rolling and not very deep. The right field wall is only seventy-five meters from home plate (instead of the recommended minimum of ninety-seven meters or 320 feet). Above the two-meter wire fence there is a net running from the right field foul pole out into the beginning of center field. In left field there is a similar net farther away but higher.
According to Melun's coach anything hit over the right field net is a ground-rule double. It is too easy for these big hitters to bang long balls there. Anything hit over the center field fence or into the left field net is a home run. Anything hit into any other fence is a ball still in play. That means lots of running out for the man on base. Usually the base umpire just covers half of right field. We agreed I would take the bases first and rule on balls hit into the fence. Gilbert at the plate would then have to cover bases when I cover the outfield.
In spite of the ground rules, the first match is a lop-sided slugfest and a hailstorm of home runs. Montpellier starts off with two homers in the top of the first plus a double over the right field net. Melun responds with a home run with a runner on. The second inning both teams mark a home run and the score stands six to three at the beginning of the third for Montpellier. Melun rallies to tie six-six with another homer. But Montpellier triumphs in the fourth with a grand slam and then holds Melun scoreless. In the top of the seventh Montpellier gets another ground-rule double, then a home run into the net in left field to take the lead seventeen to seven. Melun cannot score in their half and Gilbert calls the game over on the ten run spread. I will take over after our half-hour lunch break and a change of equipment.
Umpire equipment is an entire industry, at least in America. The steel-plated shoes for the plate umpire are perhaps the most expensive item. A chest protector with shoulder pads is next. The leg protectors strap on to protect everything from your ankles to the top of your knees. A crotch protector is worn in an elastic strap. The carbon steel mask is equipped with a wooden throat protector, to protect your Adam's apple. A black cap must be worn under the mask. The leg protectors must be worn under light gray pants and the chest protector under a light blue shirt. In cold weather you can wear a black jacket. Pro umpires wear a dark blue vest. I wear an elastic strap to hold my glasses in place, a rubber belt under my pants to keep my shirt in place, black undershorts, a set of silk long underwear to protect my legs from the straps of the leg protectors (in cool weather), and a dark gray undershirt to protect my torso from the straps of the chest protector. I also carry three strike counters, two black ball bags, a watch, an extra belt, a pen, a notebook, a towel for cleaning and drying wet and muddy balls and a soft leather pad for cleaning my glasses. For the locker room I have black shoe polish, sun-tan lotion, paper tissues, a towel, soap, shampoo and a comb, plus an extra pair of socks, under-shorts, undershirts, shirts and pants. For lunch I have an ice chest for keeping several bottles of water, my sandwich for lunch, and an orange juice for after the game. I also carry my rule books in English and French, my index to the rules from the Jim Evan's Academy of Professional Umpiring, my copies of expense sheets, my latest copy of Referee magazine, house keys, car keys, a wallet, my checkbook, my agenda for scheduling and my directory of coaches and umpires in France. On top of that, I also carry for reference special directives from the Federation concerning umpire rates, special rules and scheduling and all my notes from umpire school. French umpires do not carry a rosin bag, the home team supplies one. I have never seen ball "mud" here.
Imported equipment is subject to 20.6% Value Added Tax as well as customs duties and an inspection at the airport. Needless to say there is more than a little premium for friends and relatives bringing in your latest order.
When I umpire on base I shed all of the protective equipment except the crotch protector. Base umpires wear a black cap, a light blue shirt, light gray pants and black shoes. In France, National level ball always has at least two umpires: one at the plate and one on base. The mechanics observe European traditions, which differ radically from umpire positioning in the United States. More about that later. But as you see from the list of equipment, we need at least two large bags to carry all, and more if an overnight stay is necessary.
My game at the plate that afternoon is even worse. Montpellier gets a home run in the first and Melun answers in kind with two on to pull ahead three to one. In the second Montpellier scores five runs then a whopping eleven runs in the fourth.
We have an interesting Infield Fly in the top of the fourth. An Infield Fly is a pop up (not a line drive or a hit to the outfield) with less than two out and runners on first and second or first, second and third. The situation calls for special signals between umpires to keep their heads in the game. You must call "Infield Fly" or "Infield Fly, If Fair" if the ball is close to the foul line. The batter is out and runners can advance at their own risk after the ball is caught like on any fly.
This popup is long and high. I immediately call "Infield Fly" having no idea where it will come down, hoping it is playable by an infielder. The base coach for Montpellier sends the runners early and one scores before the ball is touched by the second baseman. He is practically in the middle of center field and he lets the ball drop to the ground, then throws to second. After the play both coaches are on me. The Montpellier coach argues this cannot be an Infield Fly to save his batter.
I tell him, "Coach, if an infielder can play the ball, I have to protect the runners. If I call it an Infield Fly, it is and forever shall be an Infield Fly." I also score the runs because the ball was not caught. That keeps Montpellier quiet but Melun is hurting.
I call the game at the end of the seventh, the score twenty-four to four in favor of Montpellier. It has taken three hours to lose thirty-five baseballs over the outfield fence and in the high grass. I never found out the exact number of home runs and ground rule doubles. The scorekeeper had lost count.
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