If you follow the sport of professional baseball, you’re probably aware of the ancient and on-going controversies surrounding umpires; those stalwarts who serve as the game’s chief arbiters. Many baseball enthusiasts believe that it’s time to clean house and bring in a new generation of umpires, replacing those who have been around too long and are perhaps growing somewhat complacent in their jobs.
As I was reading an article outlining the latest proposal on this subject, I was reminded of one particular umpire who I will never forget.
It was the summer of 1961 and as I’ve documented in previous posts, I was totally focused on playing Little League baseball. It was my raison d’etre. I was the starting third baseman on the team which was sponsored by Franklin’s Drug store and we were in the middle of a rigorous eight game schedule. Truth be told, I was a so-so third baseman. What I lacked in fielding ability was more than eclipsed by my complete lack of speed when running the bases.
Based on the level of raw athleticism which I brought to the game, you may find yourself wondering why I was on my team’s starting line-up in the first place. The answer is provided in an earlier post entitled, “Remembering the (little) Boys of Summer” which can be found in my March 2013 archive. But enough with the shameless self-promotion.
As anyone who has ever coached, played, or witnessed a Little League baseball game knows, one of the most difficult challenges facing every team is finding pitchers who can consistently throw pitches which end up anywhere close to the strike zone, let alone the general vicinity of home plate. The arm strength and pitching capability of the typical 8- to 9-year old boy just doesn’t allow for many would-be hurlers to rise to the occasion. As such, I was one of many on the team who were frequently called on to fill the role of relief pitcher.
In general, the arm motion used in throwing a baseball can be divided into three distinct categories. There is the “over-the-top” delivery in which the throwing arm extends vertically over the shoulder as the ball is delivered. Then there’s the “sidearm” delivery in which the throwing arm sweeps in a horizontal motion parallel to the ground. My natural throwing motion was, and still is, what’s referred to as a “3/4 delivery “; meaning that the path that my arm followed was somewhere between that of the other two deliveries.
I recall one game late in the season when I was called on to relieve our starting pitcher. He was on a pace to consecutively walk the entire line-up of the opposing team. The parents and other fans seated in the bleachers were growing restless having to watch the kid out on the left field scoreboard change the numbers as run after run was walked in.
I felt as if I was entering a maelstrom as I reluctantly walked to the mound from the otherwise friendly confines of third base. After allowing me time to toss a couple of warm-up pitches, play resumed.
As I’ve mentioned, the spectators seated in the bleachers had already been worked up into a state of impatient agitation. By the time I’d thrown my second or third pitch, I began to be heckled from the stands. Yes, the Boo-Birds show up at Little League games too. After every pitch, a loud and somewhat abrasive voice could be heard shouting, “Throw it overhand! Overhand! ”
Obviously there was an aficionado of the “over the top ” school of pitching in attendance. I’d deliver a “3/4 ” pitch and the voice, like thunder, would come rolling out of the bleachers and across the diamond, “Throw it overhand! ”
After about ten or so pitches, the plate umpire threw his hands into the air and barked, “Time out! ” Pulling his face mask off, he walked slowly out to the mound.
When he reached me, he said, “Son, you’re doing just fine. You just do what comes natural. You don’t have to pay attention to whoever that is that’s yelling at you.”
I remember shuffling my feet and twirling the ball in my hand as I considered his genuine and heartfelt advice. “Thank you sir, but yes I do. That’s my mother.”
Finding himself with nothing further to offer, he mumbled, “Oh,” slowly spun on his heels and shouted “Play ball! ” as he returned to home.
As the saying goes, “You gotta know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em ”