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Not Over Yet Day
The season was over. My wife washed the last dirty ball bags and undershirts. She was glad to see the equipment stowed away for the season until next Spring. Then on Tuesday I got a call from Gilbert. The play-offs for third place will take place next weekend. Saint-Lo will face Pessac on neutral ground, half way between each city at Olivet, near Orléans. Gilbert and I had been appointed for the weekend three-game tournament. It was an important match.
Savigny-sur-Orge, who finished first in France, is assured of a European Cup A-Pool berth in next summer's European championships. Montpellier, who finished second, is qualified for the B-Pool. The third place winners from France, winners of this weekend's play-offs, will meet on the European level in the C.E.B. Cup.
Savigny had gone all the way to Moscow this year to finish second behind Italy in the C.E.B. Cup. Saint-Lo had finished first in the B-Pool this year in Strausberg, Germany. Montpellier, last year's French champions, had finished fifth in the A-Pool competitions in Zagreb, Croatia.
Gilbert drove us to Orléans, and on the way he informed me of the good news. I had been nominated to be one of the six umpires representing France in international competitions. It wasn't official yet, but the odds were on my side. International competitions for next year are still being scheduled. I would have to get in touch with our member of the European technical commission to get a better idea of next year's schedule. But I was on the way up, and now nothing could hold me down.
In spite of the weather, worse than in Saint-Lo, I was on cloud nine. There were no spectators, but out of the mist emerged the President of the Federation. We shook hands and huddled under the scorekeeper's stand. The future trainer of the French National Team, a former Canadian player and trainer from Alberta, was expected later in the day. He would be disembarking at the airport and heading directly for the field.
The water poured down on us, then let up to a steady mist, just enough to allow play to begin shortly before four in the afternoon on Saturday.
Saint-Lo got honors as home team, but were unable to put on much of a show. I put on a great show on the second play. With a runner on and a short hit to the infield, I charged towards first base to make the call. Instead of squaring up before the throw to have a solid position and a crystal clear view of the play, my feet slid out from under me. I splashed flat on my back sliding ever onward towards first. There was only one thing to do. I spread my arms to brake my mad slide and yelled "Safe", as the runner charged on beyond the base.
I popped up soaking wet in the back. I immediately trotted towards home plate. I asked Gilbert, "Do you have your car keys?" He slipped them into my hand and I ran off to the parking lot to put on my spiked plate shoes. Even if they were steel-plated and heavy, the spikes would hold me in place in the swampy infield. I got back on the diamond a couple of plays later. A professional umpire has shiny black, spiked base shoes as well as shiny black, spiked plate shoes. Someday when I am rich...
Pessac pulled ahead five to nothing in the fourth, when the Saint-Lo coach protested that we should call the game because of the weather. We called time out long enough to sweep some of the water off the bases, then plunged on ahead into the fray. Pessac shut them out in nine wet innings with eight runs.
In spite of the field conditions there were very few errors: one for Pessac and four for Saint-Lo. The Saint-Lo coach is a professional harpy, he also plays shortstop. If there were nothing to complain about he would still have a list. At one point near the end while I was near second base, he asked me for the count. I glanced at my strike counter and announced, "Two Balls and One Strike."
He replied, "You must be pretty dim to have to look at your striker."
I was ready for a one-liner reply, but held my tongue: "I'm paid to think before I open my big mouth." I told the story to Gilbert later in the evening at the restaurant.
We got to our hotel around eight thirty in the evening. Everything we had was soaked. Now I know why Gilbert packs a hair dryer when he travels. It's to dry the equipment.
We had a great meal and I slept like a baby. Gilbert did not sleep as well and had worse neighbors than I. A hoard of German tourists awoke the whole hotel at six in the morning before being bused off to the chateaux of the Loire. We had more serious current events to contend with. We had set play ball for ten and were on the field and headed for the dressing room already at nine.
There was a welcome break in the deluge. I had the Umpire-in-Chief spot and we were both hoping Pessac would finish off Saint-Lo so we could all go home.
Saint-Lo scored two runs in the third. Pessac came back with three runs in the bottom of the fifth. The Saint-Lo right fielder never stopped complaining in Gilbert's ear that my strike zone was no good. How he could tell from right field showed true professionalism. I was now sure of my zone so I didn't let it bother me. It bothered Gilbert, however. When the right fielder came up to bat and blooped to the infield, he was thrown out at first. He raced on by Gilbert swearing like a sailor. Gilbert ejected him from the game immediately.
I turned to the Saint-Lo bench and explained loud and clear, "None of that stuff on a baseball field, Gentlemen. There will be zero tolerance here today."
The coach trotted out to ask sheepishly, "Does the explusion apply for more than one game?" I explained that no, this expulsion is only for the game underway. There was no more griping. Saint-Lo scored three more in the top of the sixth. Pessac pulled to within one run in the eighth but couldn't get up the mustard enough to end the tournament. They let victory slip by in nine slithering innings losing five to four. We were all damp, even if it wasn't raining, and we were all back to where we had started from.
The Saint-Lo coach wanted us to start the last game in twenty minutes now that he was on a roll. The locker rooms were a good three hundred yards away. I had to undress, Gilbert had to suit up for the plate, and we both wanted to eat our sandwiches. "Sure coach, no problem. Play ball in twenty minutes." We hoped he wouldn't start without us, important personage as he was. Forty minutes later as we came out of the locker room, it was again raining. When we got to the field to meet both coaches at the plate I immediately pointed out, "You see I'm a better umpire than Gilbert."
Everyone looked at me blankly.
"When I umpire it doesn't rain."
They looked away.
We got the game underway. It was now even wetter than the previous day, and colder. I had to keep moving, wrapped tightly and careful of slipping into another puddle of disgrace. I kept a towel to wipe off baseballs, Gilbert had another and the home team (Saint-Lo) kept up a steady corps of ball-wipers to keep the pitcher in the game.
Pessac scored two runs in the top of the first inning. Almost immediately the Saint-Lo coach wanted us to call the game because of the weather. We plunged ahead.
In the bottom of the inning Saint-Lo evened the score. Then the Pessac coach wanted us to call the game, and the Saint-Lo coach was all for continuing.
This was more like comic Italian opera than baseball.
Gilbert called a pause in the second inning and I took shelter in the scorekeeper's shed. The scorekeeper was one of the organizers of the Saint-Lo team. Even if we all had a hard time with the coach, the club President and former club President, you have to admit that Saint-Lo is the best organized team in France. All of the local business sponsors have a club membership card and are invited to all team meetings and events. Baseball is a real community activity there.
I mentioned that the ambiance on the team was at rock bottom. I was speaking to the right person. He announced that he was a candidate to replace the coach next season to get the team back into baseball again. He too was concerned about the rotten attitude everyone on the team seemed to share. "If you don't enjoy playing, why bother?" And I agreed.
We slid on into the third inning and Pessac smashed ahead by three wet and slippery runs. We again took shelter as the drizzle intensified to a minor tropical storm.
This time I was confronted with another organizer of the Saint-Lo team, Alex's father. He had played ball himself and was an European level athlete himself not so long ago. He couldn't bring himself to confront me directly, he was too nice a guy for that, but during the conversation we struck up, the talk eventually drifted on to the subject of the expulsion. Both Gilbert and I were taking refuge in the shed and I spoke up first.
"Our problem with Alex and his behavior with the umpire in Saint-Lo was that this was the second time in the same season. We had all approached the Federation at the beginning of the season to define expulsions and disciplinary procedure and nothing happened. When Alex got into it a second time and nothing had been done, Alex wasn't all of the problem. The Federation was. He has caused no one any problem since then, and I don't think he will. But if he had known it would cost him the rest of the season it would have been clearer for everyone."
Gilbert added, "Every umpire makes mistakes. It is part of the game. If you don't like the game, don't play baseball. We all try our best, work hard and try to make the game enjoyable. Players and coaches shouldn't think they can second guess umpires. The call is final."
The rain was getting even more intense. There was no way we could play again under these conditions. The Saint-Lo coach wanted a clarification from the commission. The Pessac coach wanted to know where we would go from here. He pulled out a rulebook to try to show us that the game should be suspended and replayed from this point. Both teams had foreign players that would be leaving this week. The star pitcher for Pessac was from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. Saint-Lo had a Japanese pitcher and second baseman. The complications were not easy to resolve.
We eventually wrote out everything on the back of the three game scorecards. The season ended as it had begun, in fine French fashion, total confusion and acrimony. What better ending to an otherwise enjoyable season?
I had only my own accomplishments, failures and hopes as signposts in the mist. Would I be going on to International fame and fortune? Would Pessac or Saint-Lo be playing abroad next year? Would I go to Moscow, Havana or Tokyo? Would I be happy at that level or happier and better off with the Minimes, Juniors and former Juniors I knew so well here at home?
In all events, I had the feeling of accomplishment. I had shown improvement. I had tried my best. I umpired thirty games in the season, seventeen behind the plate. I had a lot of fun.
And I had found a secret to better my umpiring. I kept a journal. Thanks for reading it.
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