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Opening Day 2000
Hello sports fans! It's great to be back in uniform deciding the fate of nations on the baseball diamond in the year 2000. Eat your hearts out Major League lackeys! This is where its happening.
There was an editorial in the Herald Tribune this week decrying the fact that the major leagues were opening the season in Tokyo (my Cubbies no less). The sports writers just can't seem to come to grips with the fact that baseball is an international sport and not a franchise. Lots of folks out here really like the game. And when a few provincials from Chicago and elsewhere offer to play on other ground, they are graciously accepted and observed. What is the problem?
Rumor has it that in two years the Major Leagues will have an opening day in Paris.
My opening day is in Cergy-Pontoise, 30 miles north-west of Paris. A day before the match I still don't have a partner. Organization is not an outstanding trait of the French Federation this year (or any other year in living memory for that matter). I am more than apprehensive going into a match between the French champions of the last two years (Savigny) and a team new to the Elite Division (Cergy).
But the sun is shining in spite of the weather report. At the last minute we find a young umpire from Québec who is more than up to the task.
We are really hurting for umpires in the Paris region this year. After last year's altercations in Italy, Gilbert has hung up his chest protector and thrown himself on his shin guards. He wants nothing else to do with European baseball politics. We are all trying to get him to come to his senses and start umpiring here again in the France amateur leagues we all know and love. But for now there is one less very competent umpire instructor, my mentor and teacher, sitting on the sidelines to no good purpose. Benoit has found a job in Belgium and will not be available more than a few weekends. Stephan also has had to pull out of the lineup at the last minute with serious health problems at home, not for himself but for is wife. She has been a dedicated baseball enthusiast watching and supporting Stephan's rise from a local parent-umpire to one of the best international umpires France has to offer. We all wish her well as soon as possible.
Karim will replace Gilbert for the scheduling mechanics at the office. He is a very young, Canadian-trained umpire who is all good intentions and will get nothing but back-handed abuse from the Federation and powers that be. I talk to him on the phone almost every other day with advice and encouragement. He'll do fine soon enough.
I had a nice Christmas. I got new shin guards and a new chest protector (major league, no less). It cost me almost $200 but at my age I have to take precautions. Everything had finally arrived as ordered. I had been all the way to Chicago and had hoped to pick up the order at the store. I phoned before dropping by fortunately, to learn that they no longer had a store, only a website with a warehouse with no stock. My stuff was on back order and would be delivered when the container arrived from Taiwan, Singapore or Vietnam. Haven't times changed?
The shin guards and chest protector are modeled on medieval armor. When I first tried them on my wife and son (who plays third base) thought I looked like Robo-cop. There was no way I should be seen in public with such a ridiculous get-up.
But on opening day in the Elite division not one player, coach or fellow umpire said a thing. My partner tried on the new equipment and was literally swept away. No more fear of getting hit by a foul-tip, wild pitch or passed ball. Sock it to me you young wiffer-ballers!
The other new piece of equipment this year is the patch from the Federation for umpires. I sewed one into my shirts and black vest. Umpires have to buy their own patches from the Federation, but I went ahead and bought a few inspite of my differences with the screwed up management we have inherited.
I got the first game. Threw out the first ball of the season. And nobody noticed. I did.
It was a cool and breezy day. The mayor of Cergy and the director of regional sports were to have been there, but it was a little cold at ten on Sunday morning.
Savigny leads off with seven runs in the top of the first inning. There is not much hard pitching. I am a little tired (bored) in the seventh inning as usual and batters start complaining about my zone. So I open up and they all start swinging like windmills.
The final is 14 to 2 for Savigny in the bottom of the eighth. I can't stop the suffering in the seventh because Cergy finally scores. Cergy and their new coach have a long way to go to get up to par in the Elite division. But there is some hope they can make it.
In the second game I loan my equipment to François who has just arrived in France from Québec City. He is a young Québecer who is also a provincial umpire instructor, a welcome addition to our short staff.
In spite of the cool weather, it has been a very mild winter. This is the earliest game François has ever played. The trees are still bare, the mistletoe is the only shade they give. I remember once someone asking me what those strange blobs are growing in the trees. I told them it is some disease. It is mistletoe. There is not yet enough sun to worry about finding shade. It is really cold when the wind blows and the sprinkles turn icy.
I get through game one without a scratch, and call it off in the eighth on a ten point spread. François takes charge for the succession. We share my sandwich during the break between games because we want to keep things moving in this uncertain weather and don't have enough time to properly dine at the local restaurant. My sandwiches are, however, worthy of my new nationality. Not just ham, please, but a little toasted houmous and mayonaise.
In game two, a Cergy pitcher balks like the windmill in Don Quixote. The problem with calling balks in France is that the game would never finish if we called them all. The Savigny coach, who is leading nine to nothing, calls me aside to enforce the balk rule. I promise to comply.
On the next pitch I call time and issue a warning to the pitcher who offers profuse appologies.
On the next feint to first I call a balk. The only problem is that François calls me into conference. It really isn't a balk, according to François, if the pitcher gets his foot off the base, even if after the throw. I change my call and send the runner back to first. There is a lot of rumbling from the dugout about the umpire who changes his call.
On the very next pitch the pitcher really balks throwing to first, but sends the ball out into right field. The runner makes it all the way to third.
Nothing will change the fact that I have to get some instruction on what is and is not a balk. I now have a mission in life.
Savigny sweeps the second game (after a twenty minute rain delay) twenty to nothing. Their coach could have blown the game arguing balks with me instead of finishing the mandatory five innings. I'm not the only one who needs to get his priorities straight. It has been a good opening day, even if I don't know a balk from a bad throw.
* * *
Karim calls me on Monday to lament about his fate. He drew Patrick as a partner last weekend and has had one of the worst weekends of his life. Patrick has given him no slack at any corner, no peace and no glory. Karim is sulking. I try to cheer him up. Patrick is unforgiving in all cases, but he is a wealth of baseball knowledge. Grin, learn and bear it is the only motto I can suggest.
* * *
I have checked my balk rule and my call was correct. François owes me an explanation.
* * *
On Wednesday Karim calls me back to ask if I will accept altering my schedule (Rouen vs Toulouse) to take Patrick this weekend for Paris vs Savigny. I respond there will be absolutely no problem. As old as I am, Patrick has long since given up trying to change my character, even if he hopes to improve my umpiring. It will be his problem now.
* * *
On Thursday I get in touch with Patrick for the game between Paris and Savigny. It is great to be in touch since our training session in December. Patrick thinks Karim has zero experience and should keep a low profile. He is probably right.
Twenty minutes later I learn from Karim that the Paris / Savigny match is cancelled because there is no field available. Will I take the INSEP / Cergy match? No problem.
Twenty minutes later I learn the INSEP / Cergy match is not in Paris as planned but in Cergy with Michel. Patrick has no game.
On Friday I try to contact the INSEP coach who confirms that as the INSEP baseball school has no home field, all games are away games and they will be playing in Cergy. This is fine with me, it is only a thirty minute drive.
I really enjoy every game with Michel. We are both parent umpires, the same age and enjoying every last minute of it. Less appealing is the fate awaiting Karim when Patrick learns he has been bounced for the weekend.
I take the unusual initiative of suggesting to Karim that he absolutely refrain in the future from altering, innovating or assigning any umpire. He is, after all, only responsible for transmitting assignments from the National Commission of Baseball Umpires (Commission National des Arbitres de Baseball).
Friday afternoon I also received my European Baseball Confederation license for 2000 as an International Umpire with a new rule book. I'm looking forward to an excellent weekend, an excellent season and it is great to be back.
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