There’s No Upside...
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You're Out!... It Was A Good Night
Last night was a good night of umpiring. In fact, it has left me with the realization that I have become pretty good at this whole officiating gig. There is a confidence and sense of accomplishment that only comes from many years of work investing time studying the rule books and thousands of hours spent on the fields trying to get it right. Last night left me feeling good.
As I walked off the field at 10 PM with Laetner, my 15-year-old youth umpire partner, I shared with him that nobody was going to be coming up to us telling us what a great job we did, but I asked him how it felt knowing that we gave the players, coaches, and fans our very best game. He beamed with pride knowing that he was in the right positions to make the very best calls that he could. Laetner felt some of the great sense of accomplishment that I was feeling. He commented that he had never been focused for so long. It doesn't happen as often as I would like, but I just loved walking off the field together knowing that we had done a very good job.
Were there issues? Absolutely! But we handled them with grace and professionalism and strived to get the calls right. It was wonderful being able to see the situations arise, handle the calls, and deal with all of the various personalities on the field. Let's face it, loser's bracket games in the end-of-season tournament are always tough because one team is going home for good. And for the majority of the players it means 8 more months before they play again. Yes, there were a handful of super-leaguers that will play in 60 more games this year, but for most, this was the end of their year.
So why was this night so satisfying? Just the night prior there were huge issues on the same field with some of the same teams. I was not on that particular field then, yet I heard about the issues after the fact from parents, the officials, the coaches, and from our league officials. Most of the issues arose from fellow umpires that really just needed 3 or 4 more years experience to better be able to handle all of the tournament stresses. The strange part is that the only way that you can get the needed experience is to invest the time and have the resolve to keep studying the rules and figuring out how to best deal with the coaches, players and their fans.
I came to the Orem ball fields yesterday knowing that I was going to work with Dakota on Field #1 for three games with our 13-14 year old teams. As game time approached, and one umpire no-showed, I found myself heading over to Field #3 with Brayden Hawkes as my youth umpire partner. At game time, he was left solo and we knew that the second game of the night on that field was going to be tough because his brother was playing and his Dad was the assistant coach. It was obvious that I was not going to be spending any time on Field #1 and that I needed to grab my gear and head to Field #3 to do the 8-10 year olds AA division. This is the division where every parent still has dreams that their son is going to be a Major League Baseball player. Working with the AA division meant no leading off, no pick-off moves and no dropped third strikes. The biggest concerns would be leaving the base too early and dealing with coaches, most of which do not have the firmest grasp on the rules. In fact, most of the coaches have spent the season having their way intimidating the usual set of youth umpires that normally officiate this division. Add to that the win or go home nature of the loser's bracket of the tournament, and you have a powder keg set to explode at any moment.
And even with all of the components for disaster set in place, I knew that I was going to have a good night. The first game went smoothly, without big issues. As it finished, the league decided that I was going to lose Brayden Hawkes due to the conflict with his brother and his Dad being the coach in game #2. This is where they decided to give me Laetner as a partner. I was first shocked with the realization that Laetner had not umpired, to my knowledge, at all this season. I flashed back to my working with him in a game last season and he was not particularly interested in being the best official he could be. Instead, he was more interested in getting paid. And yet, I have always liked Laetner and hoped that good things were happening in his life. He is an awesome ball player and has always been very good natured with me. It was 15 minutes before game time and I wondered where he was. With 8 minutes to game time, I walked over to the field, already geared up for the plate, and then here he came....
I just shook my head inside as I saw this young man with a baseball cap turned around backwards, cubic zirconia rocks in his ear lobes, a colored muscle man T-shirt, and baggy shorts. Laetner looked like anything but an umpire. I hesitated inside for a moment and thought of just sending him away and running the game "One Man". Certainly I could do it, but I opted for another approach.
"Laetner, how are you?" I asked. "You're not going to go on the field with me looking like that, are you?" I inquired further.
To that, he said sheepishly, "Yes."
"Oh no, this is a big time game and we have got to look like a top notch team. Let's first turn your hat around. Now take this powder blue shirt and put it on. Do you need an indicator and a brush? Here they are. Now you look good and we need to quickly talk about positioning and calls......" And with that I quickly pre-gamed with him and we headed to the home plate area and called a coaches meeting.
The first 3 outs went pretty smoothly and I talked with Laetner between the inning and we went through a couple of his responsibilities and reinforced his positioning. What is great about Laetner is that he listened, smiled, and implemented immediately anything I recommended. Many of our youth umpires have a chip on their shoulders and do not take adult guidance and advice very well. Laetner is one of those that will do what he is asked and I did my best to not overload him with directives. But being just 15, what came next totally caught me by surprise.
As the first pitch in the bottom of the first inning came across the plate I looked at my partner and he was out in the field with a green lollypop in his mouth. "Are you kidding me?" I thought. The next 3 outs could not come quickly enough as I pondered and fought with myself inside as to how I was going to deal with the issue of the lollypop. "Laetner, come in here for a sec," I called out in a friendly manner. "Look, I know it probably does not seem like a big deal to you, but you cannot be eating a lollypop while you are on the field." He looked at me initially like I was a whack job, and I followed with..... "We are a team and the coaches are sizing us up to see how good we really are. Unfortunately, you are only 15 and you have that going against you. And if you are sucking on a lollypop, they are going to think that you are just another punk kid here trying to earn some extra money. But what we are trying to do here is completely win over their confidence to the point that they know we know what we are doing, that we are in the right positions to make the right calls, and that we are serious about being umpires. Now you may be good, but for now you have the fact that you are 15 going against you. Now add to that sucking on the lollypop, and you really are stacking the odds against people taking you seriously. I am 53 and I can't get away with sucking on a lollypop while on the field. So do what you have to do and let's win these coaches over and show them that we are giving them our very best game." And without taking his lollypop away, I left him with the ability to make his own choice and I walked towards the plate. He went to the fence and handed his sucker to his mother and then hustled down the first base line... He passed a huge test.
Two innings later I called him over, and after praising him on his calls, I commented on how dirty the bases were. "Laetner, I promise you that if you keep these bases clean, our night will go much smoother. When they are dirty, nobody sees the calls clearly. Please try to keep them clean so that everybody looking out there sees the same thing you see and we will get far less grief." He immediately hustled out there and got the bases clean. Sure, I had to comment a couple more times through the game that somebody had literally stolen third base because I couldn't see it, but each time he hustled over and made it white and visible again.
With each passing inning, I invested more direction, praise, and guidance to this young man and I watched his confidence waxing stronger and stronger. We finished the first game together without major incident and the big question was whether or not he would do the final game with me. It is interesting because if he had given me attitude, then I would have quickly dumped him. Instead, I lobbyed for him to stay with me and we prepared for another big test. The final game would be a total of 6 hours of umpiring for me and 4 hours for Laetner. Four hours of focus for a 15-year-old can be tough, so we took it three outs at a time.
After the first inning I approached Laetner and said, "Hey, these 8-10 year olds are making you look slow. They are beating you to the base when they steal." And with that, I proceeded to show him what was happening and how to get a better jump. I showed him where he should end up and then promised him that if he was in the right position, that nobody would question his call. He looked at me oddly and then I reconfirmed what I just shared. "Laetner, your calls have been spot on so far tonight, but when you make it from an odd angle 40 feet away it makes the coaches and fans think you don't know what you are doing and that you could be wrong. I promise you that if you beat them to the base and are standing 10 to 12 feet from the action, there isn't anybody that is going to give us any grief." And with that pep talk there was a new field ump on the field. The rest of the night Laetner was beating them to the base, in position, and he looked good. As I would come halfway to third base and he would set up and make his call, I would follow with, "Laetner, that was perfect!" and he would beam.
Three innings into what would end up being a tie game in the final inning, I called him over again and said, "Take a look at the field. You have got the bases clean and our game is running smoothly. You are in the right spots and making great calls on the plays. We are really doing a good job." Laetner just beamed with a new sense of pride and I knew that he was feeling good about umpiring in a way that he had never felt before. But were things going along too good?
In the next inning, the runner from first went to second base on an infield hit that found him over-running second base by about a foot and the infielder tagged him out. Laetner called him out and the offensive team's coach temporarily lost his cool. I called time and looked over and said, "Wait a minute." The assistant coach hollered out rudely, "He didn't event tag him once," whatever that meant. The first base coach also chirped, "C'mon Blue, you owe us one" to which I said loudly his direction, "We don't owe you nothing!" (Poor grammar, but effective) I walked out and met Laetner between second base and the mound and asked him what he saw. Laetner shared that the runner overran the base and was tagged out. I asked whether he clearly saw the tag and he confidently said "Yes!" And with that I told him that was a good call and that he should give the out call when I walked away. He did and I headed right back behind the plate to continue the game.
The game continued on, yet I doubt that anybody took notice of how smoothly that situation was handled. Instead of fighting coaches and telling them that my partner didn't need any help, I opted to give them the satisfaction of seeing me walk out to confer. Laetner had done everything right. He was 10 to 12 feet away from the action. In fact, he had the best view of anybody on the ball field. He did not rush his call. He got it right and the coaches had nothing to nit-pick and argue about. Laetner had diffused everything except his 15 years of age. So what could have been really bad turned into yet another good play that left me once again pointing at the pitcher and saying, "Play ball!"
But coaches will be coaches, and they will, by nature, try to gain every advantage. With runners on first and third, at a very stressful point in the game, a pop fly went up about 25 feet beyond first base just in foul territory. With every eye focused on the ball in flight, the first basement made an incredible catch. The runner at third went home and the runner at first stayed put. With the home plate dust still flying, the home team's coach called out to Laetner to protest the runner not tagging up at third. I heard the coaches say things like, "Protest him not tagging at third. He was looking right at him so he will be out. Get the ball to third and protest. The field ump was looking right at him so protest now." They got the ball to third, looked at Laetner and I could see that he did not really know what was going on. As they protested Laetner started to raise his hand as though he was going to call an out and I quickly yelled "Time!!! Wait a minute!" and I started walking towards Laetner. The coaches erupted saying that he was going to call the runner on third out. Players were being beckoned off the field by their coaches and I called out, "Stay put. Let us figure this out!" And with that, everybody froze, waiting to see what the two umpires would be deciding.
"Laetner, do you know what they are protesting?" I asked.
"Yeah, they want to know if it was an out," he responded.
"No, they are saying the runner at third did not tag up and they are asking you for the ruling. Did you see if the runner tagged up?" I asked.
"No, I had my back turned watching the catch," he said.
"That's what I thought, and besides, the tag up at third is my responsibility. Never make an out or safe call on a protest if you do not fully understand what they are protesting, okay? So here is what we are going to do. Since the protest was being made to you and you did not see the play, and since I did see the play and he tagged up, we are going to separate and you are going to give the safe signal confidently." And with that guidance, I left him and he looked to the coaches and confidently gave the safe signal and the game proceeded. Loud groans could be heard, but that comes with the disappointment of a call not going your way. It was not, however, a statement of them thinking we blew the play. Instead, we conferred and got it right.
In the last inning, the visitors went up by 4 runs with the score 9 to 5. The home team came up to bat, with time having expired, knowing that they needed to match what had taken them 4 innings to produce if they were going to win this game. And sure enough, in a wild and crazy string of events, the 5th run of their inning crossed the plate and the home team won the game. I walked out towards second base with Laetner and we talked for about a minute to allow any coach or crazed fan the opportunity to come out to us and complain, but none did. We then confidently walked off together knowing that we had just officiated a great game. We dealt with the issues as they happened, and we got our calls right. It was the near perfect game on a near perfect warm June evening. I just love this game.....
And with that, I know that tonight is going to be the opposite end of the pendulum swing and I will probably come home wondering why I ever got into officiating in the first place... Such is life!
Michael Leavitt - Orem, Utah