Put yourself behind the catcher for a second. Under the hot late afternoon sun, a putrid smell has begun emanating from underneath your heavy pads. With a clicker in your hand, a couple of official game balls strapped to your hip, you squat down behind a 12-year-old who can’t seem to perform the most important part of his job: catch. The inning starts with a couple of hits and a walk and a big kid steps up to see if he can drive a few runs in.
You can tell from the moment the pitcher lets it fly that it’s going to be a strike. You have to remind yourself to wait until the ball comes in before you can call it. Thing is, the batter knows it’s a strike too. He turns on it and swats it toward left field.
Forgetting that you are not merely watching the game but actually fundamental to it, you admire the sky-high shot. The ball curves farther and farther left. Then you’re struck with the vivid sensation of responsibility: The instant that ball lands, almost everyone in the immediate area will turn his or her attention toward you. After all, the whole game at that moment depends on whether you call it fair or foul.
You have to be decisive and expressive. Baseball is nothing without rules and you are the arbiter of those rules. Therefore this baseball game is nothing without you. You’re the umpire.
The grass in the outfield is overgrown and there are no chalk lines to help make the determination a little easier. The ball bounces on the grass. An outfielder sprints toward it.
“Foul ball!” you yell in a deep and authoritative umpire voice. You were loud and confident. You did your job. But before you can pat yourself on the back, you notice a ruckus to your left. The third-base coach has doubled over and started convulsing as if some phantom fury had temporarily gained control of his motor skills. He lets out a bloodcurdling scream and throws his hat angrily to the ground. He clenches his fists and shoulders as if he is mustering up all his strength to keep himself from mauling you. Apparently, loud and confident wasn’t all that he was hoping you would be.
You pretend not to notice. It was a foul ball, strike two. The batter—who unlike his coach, seems hardly annoyed at all—walks back to the plate and sets up for another pitch.
All is well except for one thing: The obnoxious middle-aged woman whose voice makes your teeth clench and your neck stiffen now has something else to complain about. For more than 30 minutes, she has been sitting 15 feet behind you, broadcasting a frequent update of your mistakes to all the parents and neighbors within a mile radius. From what you can tell, a mistake to her is any call against her son’s team. That same woman would never dream of saying things like this to anyone else she encounters. But to you, the umpire, she has no problem. It’s hard to tell why. Maybe it’s because you wear a mask.
“That’s four. Four bad calls in three innings. This is ridiculous. This ump’s an idiot,” she says with a snarling tone to nobody in particular. A part of you wants to turn around and point out how amazing it is that those skinny metallic bleachers can hold her big fat ass. Then another part of you remembers the things you have said to various umpires and referees over the years. You remember a few times actually feeling a visceral hatred toward them. Wow, now you are the object of it.
It’s a story Darrell Cole knows well. The rugged unshaven cook at a café downtown has baseball coming out of his pores. When he was 12 years old, he served as the batboy for the California Angels. For the last five years, he’s been a little-league umpire. And he’s a good one, too. He doesn’t miss foul calls. But that doesn’t mean he has completely avoided abuse from angry fans.
The parents just need to relax, he said. “I’ve heard a parent tell her kid that if he strikes out, he won’t get to eat that night. I’ve seen parents threaten coaches, coaches threaten other coaches and a lot of angry stuff. But the kids are always cool. You treat them fairly as an umpire, they’ll remember, and they’ll be happy to see you the next time,” he said.
Cole works four or five games a week. At $27 a pop, it’s not exactly a lucrative hobby, but it’s fun, he said. Cole hopes to save up enough cash to go to a winter camp in Florida where the professional leagues scout out their umpires.
Ray Leuty, the executive director of one of those camps, the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring, says putting on blue is a way for people who love baseball to stay involved with the game. The “honor graduates” from Leuty’s academy have a chance to get to the pros. Only 10 to 15 of the people who come to the camps actually have a chance to move into the pros. And aside from learning the rules, the most important lesson an umpire can learn is to have enough confidence in his decisions to defend them when the coaches go ballistic.
“We work for days and days teaching them not to lose their temper—not to let anything get under their skin,” he said. “In the pros, not only do they have to learn how to deal with angry crowds, players and coaches, but they have to learn how to handle a real controversy. But the people who come here wanting to learn are ambitious and dedicated. They leave here knowing how to handle it all.”
For the novice umpire, that sort of confidence can be a little more elusive. The loneliness is profound. You make a good call, they play the game and don’t even notice. You make a bad call and a seething hatred ferments around the park. It isn’t any wonder why they call an umpire “Blue.”