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The Longest Day
Last place in the South "A" Division, the Cergy Teddy Bears will try to upset second place Toulouse Tigers. Cergy has recently expanded their stadium extending the left field wall. Right field is already a whopping four hundred feet from home, the stadium doubles as a rugby pitch. We are particularly alert after last week's match here against Nice University Club. Police intervened when fights broke out between spectators after the match. Nice has the worst reputation in France for arguing, fighting and bad sportsmanship from both fans and players. Toulouse should pose no problems, but Cergy's fans are now a question mark. My partner, Benoît, is built to be an umpire. He weighs in a little over two hundred pounds standing six foot three. Broad shouldered he looks twice my size even if he is only half my age (twenty-five to my soon to be fifty).
This is our first match together and I will take the plate first. We start play at 11:30 to allow Toulouse an extra half-hour warm up after their morning flight. They begin with a walloping eight runs. Cergy responds with seven until Toulouse changes pitchers. The first inning lasts almost an hour, boding a difficult day ahead.
On a bunt-steal situation, Benoît calls interference on the batter for blocking the catcher's throw. The runner is thrown out none the less at second. Both coaches are on us. Steve Oleschuk, the Cergy coach, is a Québecois and former scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He insists his batter did not leave the box and that there was no intent to interfere. Toulouse's coach wants both batter and runner called out. We call the batter out and return the runner to first. I promise Coach Oleschuk that I will look up the rules, later. That night I reread the relevant chapters. We should have let stand the out on the runner and called a strike only on the batter (6.06(c)). Batter interference is canceled if a runner is called out on the play. It should have been my call, not the plate umpire's. Oh well, you can not win them all.
In the second a dog jumps over the center field fence. Play is suspended while the outfield herds the big brown German Shepherd away. Worse, my strike zone is moving. Toulouse lets loose with seven home runs including a grand slam. Cergy marks two homers over the right field wall no less. You cannot say my strike zone is bothering the batters. Cergy's American catcher "Babe" Gosselin even blasts one over the right field trees and into the street. I am again afraid of the ball. I am bobbing around dangerously. Benoît calms me down, but I am still missing those low outside sliders. He thinks I am lining up wrong.
At the end of seven the score is twenty-one to twelve for Toulouse. Coach Oleschuk refuses to concede the game. Toulouse cancels their evening flight and will leave late or tomorrow morning.
It is now well after three in the afternoon, we are still in the eighth when a foul tip on a fast ball catches me square in the mask. There is a loud pop, I am a bit stunned and my jaw hurts. There is a low moan from both benches and the twenty-five spectators. But I am still in the game. I regain my wits and call "Foul Ball". I think I missed a part of this inning, but nobody seemed to notice.
After the inning I accuse Coach Oleschuk:"I see what your game plan is Coach. If you can kill the umpires you think you can win by forfeit."
We go the full nine innings and Toulouse wins twenty-eight to sixteen after four hours and fifteen minutes of play. I tell Coach Oleschuk jokingly game two will not begin until I have my check. His plan to give me a coronary could very well succeed, even during the break.
Benoît's turn at the plate begins at 4:15. The power pitchers are brought out. I thought I had it rough. Benoît has to deal with Cazanoles for Toulouse and Gosselin for Cergy. Both have wicked fast balls and superb curves. Even Benoît has trouble with the low outside sliders. And we set about earning our money.
After five innings Toulouse leads seven to six. We have three infield fly calls with the bases loaded, two in the same half of an inning. In the third on a play at the plate, Benoît firmly squashes an ensuing argument by separating the players. There will not even be any discussion permitted after last week's rows.
My base umpiring also leaves something to be desired. I go out on a long hit to right which slips between the fielder's legs. Fielding is difficult here. A rain before the last rugby game leaves the grass full of uneven spots and the ball careens like a golf ball on rocks. The fielders have all they can do just knocking down grounders.
I go out too far on this hit to deep right and cannot get back home in time. Benoît has to circle the bases with the runner who is thrown out at home. That should have been my call but I cannot get back to the plate in time. Fortunately Benoît covers.
Other times I do not go out far enough for Benoît. He is trained in the "Pro" school of French umpiring, while I come from the other "Parent" tradition. I just cannot take things so seriously, except when I make a bad call. There are minor differences concerning batting coaches (are they required to be in place before play), two man mechanics and asking for help on a half swing. There is a communications chemistry that cannot be ignored.
In the seventh we are all tired and seeing double. An easy grounder to the second baseman results in an easy throw to first to retire the runner. I start the play behind first base and call the runner out on the apparently simple turn around. The Toulouse bench lets out a howl and as I round the base I see that the first baseman did not have his foot even near the bag. I change my call. The runner is safe.
"Babe" Gosselin pitching at the mound, lets out a torrent in English that leaves even the best anglophiles perplexed.
"Real major league, blue. What is this sh... ?"
Coach Oleschuk comes out to kibitz with me more to calm his pitcher than to argue. I explain, "Your first baseman caught the ball gracefully. I called the runner out. Only problem, Coach, he did not have his foot anywhere near the bag. How do you think that makes me feel?"
Gosselin calmed down but he refused to shake hands with me after the game. Some Americans confuse heaven with the colonies.
True to the coach's strategy, we had to earn our pay. Toulouse won fifteen to seven after a full nine innings and we concluded at 8:30 pm. The league statistician even called our scorekeeper on his portable phone to complain that we had not faxed the results. When he explained that we were still playing, that set a new record in France for length of a doubleheader. Both games had lasted four hours and fifteen minutes. We had not been able to even sit down for more than a few minutes since 11:00 this morning.
Benoît was having a hard time seeing the ball in the ninth. He signaled me for an appeal on the half swing, which I called a strike, which should have ended the game. But he could not even see me, he was so numb. We went on for one more pitch. I am more than glad I quit smoking last year or my career would have ended here with coronary arrest. No fighting but it was probably my most strenuous day of exercise since football practice in Stockton thirty-five years ago.
Even though Cergy's pitcher would not shake hands with me after the game, Coach Oleschuk gave me a warm send off. "I never did meet an umpire with any brains."
"Not only that, coach. But we are blessed with having absolutely no memory. That is why we can begin every play with a fresh outlook." Not only did I make a new friend, this guy really knows his baseball.
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