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This is an easy last minute assignment on Ascension, a national holiday. One of my old umpire school classmates, who also coaches for the P.U.C. Cadets, called me on Tuesday to ask if I was available for Thursday. There would be no pay, but I had my choice of games. There are four matches for a Cadet tournament. I chose the first match: 10:30 a.m., between the P.U.C. and the Savigny-sur-Orge Cadets.
There is also no help on base. I will be umpiring alone and behind the plate. In spite of the age of the players (thirteen and fourteen), these are typically the most difficult matches. The players are old enough to hit the ball hard (lots of foul balls). The catchers are not always capable of trapping these gyrating stingers. The coaches are harassed, unforgiving and short-tempered. The games are usually one-sided and interminable. To justly limit the torture on umpires and coaches, games are limited to the first of: seven innings, two hours or five innings with a spread of over ten runs. Few games reach the full seven innings.
The morning is hot. The skies are heavy with thunderstorms. The humidity is near one hundred percent. I put on all of my equipment, well aware of the beating I am about to take. It dawns on me that in eight matches in the Nationals, I have only been hit by the ball once, and I had invited injury by wincing at the fatal moment. Would my career end here?
The players are on the field two hours before "play ball" warming up. I get the line-ups from both coaches and we have at it. The only ground rule at Pershing stadium, home of the P.U.C. in the Vincennes woods east of Paris, is to keep the gates closed.
For some reason the few parents of Cadets that attend baseball matches are dog owners. Apparently Pershing is a great place to run the dog. There are four parents present at the beginning of the match, each attending their respective canine. I require the gates next to the dugouts to remain closed at all times or our happy canine friends will come bounding gaily out onto the field in the middle of a play to tilt the balance of fate one way or another. These are situations that are not supported by the rulebook. Umpires over the generations have passed on their wisdom to neophytes like myself, according to the gravity of the situation and principles of play. There is the umpire from Alabama, who one day at a Texas match had to deal with pistol-touting fans who fast drew on an Alabama home run and blew the ball to smithereens before it could go over the wall. He courageously allowed that the ball was nevertheless a home run, but with a diplomacy and tact that made him forever a legendary figure in minor league baseball umpiring. There is the legendary "Green Monster", the wall in left field in Boston, that still generates editorial heat but little light. And there are the mind boggling "contradictory rules" addressed by the professional umpire schools and years of tradition, some would say juris prudence. A poll run recently in France shows that most adults think the rules of soccer are voted in the national assembly. I am sure there would be comparable results concerning baseball among US adults.
Another item not addressed in the rulebooks is umpire mechanics. Even with four umpires there are nevertheless mechanics (notably on outfield flies and multi-runner situations). With three umpires the man covering third does most of the running, and the man on first handles only right field and first. In two-umpire mechanics there are a host of situations that require vigilance and frequent changes according to the number of outs or men on base. Communications with your partner are mandatory. In one-umpire mechanics it is a bit simpler: the Umpire-in-Chief does it all. On a hot day with all these serious young men on the field, mechanics, signaling and communication are of no avail. Constant attention to the situation, rapid decisions and lots of running are in order to keep up with the game. As long as you do not expect any praise and do not mind arguing interminably with neophyte coaches you will never be disappointed with your performance in a Cadet game. If not, it is better to never begin the match.
Today will be no exception. The foul balls start careening off facemask, chest protector and leg guards. One even goes straight down onto my steel plated shoe. I feel like I am being used for target practice. But no vital organs are struck.
The P.U.C. scores four runs in the bottom of the first. Their second out is during a steal at second. I jump up out of my stance behind the catcher and run toward the mound to try to get a view of the play developing at second. I call the runner out. The coach for the P.U.C. shouts from the dugout that the second baseman could not possibly have tagged the runner. The coach for Savigny exhorts me not to change my mind. I order the dejected base runner to return to the dugout and play continues.
Savigny comes back in the top of the second with five. The P.U.C. answers with six more runs in the bottom of the inning pulling ahead ten to five. It takes us over an hour to play two innings. One batter had so many foul balls that we had to stop the game and send half a dozen kids out searching the bushes to have enough baseballs to continue. There is no scorekeeper so the P.U.C. coach tries to keep the records, coach the fielders and coach the batters, all at the same time with diminishing success.
The third inning is scoreless but I have another general discussion with the coaches concerning a call at the plate. A Savigny batter leans over the plate in an attempted but failed bunt. I call a ball absent-mindedly but change the call to a strike over the yelling from the P.U.C. dugout. The Savigny coach comes trotting out to the plate.
"I hope we are not here discussing balls and strikes coach," I moan. I am long since out of water, getting hoarse and suffering from the heat.
"No, I know Rule 9.02(a)," he retorts. He is trying to impress me. Instead it irks me to know he has a few notions of the rules.
"It is now a strike, coach, because I said it is a strike and I changed my mind," I insist.
"But this poor kid is only thirteen. Will he understand?"
That got my goat. "OK coach."
"So it is a ball?" he inquires.
"It is a strike coach. Now let's play ball."
The discussion is over, but the two coaches are still exchanging words of baseball wisdom while I continue to cope with the game. Someone starts practicing his saxophone in the woods behind the first base dugout. There are occasional cool gusts that save me from coronary arrest. I am out of water but my shirt is soaked in sweat.
In the fourth Savigny scores another run and holds the P.U.C. scoreless. In the fifth there are no runs either. We send out foraging expeditions to recover more baseballs. There are two in-the-park home run hits ending with a tag out at home plate on long throws from the outfield. These are lots of fun and dust.
At the end of the fifth I call the game on the two-hour limit. We all shake hands even if we are all sore in mind and body. The saxophonist is still practicing over the fence. I have never heard a jazz session in the middle of a baseball game before. It took my mind off the dogs, pitchers and coaches. Even though I won my battle against the dogs today, dogs and umpires never mix. I cannot make lasting relationships with pitchers because they hit me with their baseballs. Coaches generally seem to all have been pitchers at one time or another. I guess that is why I do not like coaches. Even looking at it from the coaches' angle, their order of dislike must be dogs, parents and umpires. At least I hope that is how they see it before and after a game.
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