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First Day of the Series
In spite of all the years my son had played baseball and all the years I had umpired in the little leagues, my wife had never understood what all the fuss was about. She usually went shopping when we went to Wrigley Field in Chicago, or sat through the minor league games in Madison, Wisconsin, or Cedar Rapids, Iowa, without having to pose too many questions as to the finer points of baseball. But the chance to go to Saint-Lo for the quarterfinals of the French National Championships was something she couldn't pass up. And on top of that, we were in hotly contested waters.
The weather was atrocious. Gail winds off the Atlantic drove sheets of water billowing over the field like waves. The players huddled in the dugouts trying to keep warm. It was impossible to keep dry. I wore my Scottish fisherman's windbreaker and struggled across the field to confer with the coaches. The Saint-Lo coach assured us that for the past ten days there had been a break in the weather consistently at the end of the afternoon. He suggested we set play ball for four o'clock. My partner Yann had a wedding to attend in Paris that evening and would have to leave by six.
Until the receiving coach has handed over his lineup and allowed play to begin, the Umpire-in-Chief has no choice but to wait to get control of the game.
We came back to the field at quarter to three and the coach was ready to risk a start at three o'clock. The Saint-Lo team was furiously shoveling water from the infield and channeling the flow away from first base. Saint-Lo would be home team for the first game on Saturday. Paris would be home team for the Sunday morning match, according to Gilbert's information. If a third game were needed Sunday afternoon, Saint-Lo would be home.
My wife found a dry spot in the scorekeeper's box, and we set about starting off the quarterfinals of the French Senior National Championships.
The Paris team was so cold they hardly took any time at all to warm up for the game. Their coach was furious that he had not been informed by fax before the match that his team would be home team in game two. The home team normally is required to supply the baseballs. There was no way he would furnish baseballs to Saint-Lo without official instructions. He also objected to one of the Saint-Lo players, who was under age and probably did not have enough regular season games to qualify for the play-offs. I would have to write a note on the back of the scorecard after the game to register the objection. Fortunately Saint-Lo's felon catcher, the infamous umpire-killer Alex, was not on the lineup.
Saint-Lo blasted three runs in the bottom of the first and Paris managed to even the score in the top of the third before ceding another two runs in the bottom of the inning. The break in the weather was not very definitive. I had to call time out more than once as another wet cloud swept over the hills.
During one of the breaks I crowded into the scorekeeper's box with my wife, the President of the Federation and Madame G., current President of the Saint-Lo team. I expressed my concern that Saint-Lo was without local umpire talent and that since the unfortunate events of July, it would be an excellent idea (since I thought of it) to require Alex to not only attend umpire school, but to umpire at home for a suitable time span. The President of the Federation thought that was an excellent idea. Madame G. understood neither the olive branch extended nor the object of the exercise. For her, umpires were a necessary evil that cost too much money. Baseball players were much too valuable to waste on mundane tasks like umpiring. For her I was making a bad joke. But the President of the Federation was not only happy to hear a constructive idea, but a way out of his quandary with the umpire's association. He started raving about my talents and good intentions.
"We had a most unfortunate occurrence here in July and the umpire in question made a most improper call that our young players over-reacted to the situation. Your suggestion is the best idea I have heard yet to resolve this situation and I will bring it up at the next meeting." What he forgot to mention was that the next meeting had already been postponed until after the finals and all the coaches in the league were furious with him for acting like a coach instead of a President.
"Don't get me wrong, Mr. President. What Alex will learn in umpire school and on the field is that the umpire is always right, even when he is wrong."
At the end of the fifth inning the score was six to four in favor of Saint-Lo. Discretely my partner left the field to return to his wedding party in Paris that evening. I was all alone behind the plate in the National quarterfinals with two teams of adults ready to pound the living daylights out of each other if anything went wrong.
In the top of the sixth, Paris marked three runs to pull ahead seven to six. Saint-Lo evened the score in the bottom of the inning. In the eighth both teams scored five runs. I stayed locked in my stance on each pitch until I heard either the pop of the ball in the catcher's glove or the pop of the ball off the bat. If it was a hit, I raced madly for the pitcher's mound to follow the plays on the bases. On foul balls, I stepped back three steps to line up on the foul lines and rule the ball foul or fair. Somehow I kept my glasses dry, my strike zone reasonable if not anywhere perfect, base calls clean and the players more afraid of me than me of them.
In the ninth inning Paris pulled ahead by two runs and we went into the last half of the inning with a mariner's sun streaking behind billowing dark gray clouds roaring overhead. Saint-Lo put two men on base with two out when the best hitter in France came to bat: Carlos, the Franco-Cuban star who had played a season for the Hanshin Tigers. On a full count he popped up to left field, and Paris had won the first game of the series.
I have had easier days, but few with more feeling of accomplishment.
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