You’ve Got The Plate, Mate
By Don Washburn
Baseball in Australia is an orphan sport. Baseball diamonds abound in most cities, numerous men and women of all ages play on them and a national competition exists. Australia has also produced several Major Leaguers an won a silver medal in baseball at the Olympics. Nevertheless, baseball is completely overshadowed by cricket in the summer and by rugby league and Aussie rules in the winter, receives minimal government funding and is virtually ignored by the mainstream media.
Therefore, I had little incentive to pay much attention to baseball during my first years in Australia. A failed Little Leaguer and demoralized Cub fan from Chicago, I’d been recruited to teach at the University of New England in northern New South Wales where “baseball” was no more than a word mentioned occasionally in American history lectures. Only several years later when I moved to Sydney and when my older son, as befitted the child of an American, began to play tee-ball, did I become involved with the game at a local level. I even played (or tried to play) a couple of seasons and on occasion was asked to umpire, especially when my younger son commenced his tee ball career several years later.
I’d always been intrigued with baseball umpiring. I knew umpire seminars and courses existed in Sydney but had been hesitant in enrolling. There was a sneaking suspicion that, although I’d learned the basics of baseball by osmosis in my youth, my knowledge of the rules and umpiring techniques were not what my background might presuppose; and that I would thereby doubly embarrass myself in front of the Australians.
Still, I wanted to be sure I knew what I was doing on the tee-ball field and in September 2003 finally fronted up to a New South Wales Baseball Umpires Association seminar. The instructors were knowledgable and enthusiastic, many having attended the Jim Evans Umpiring School in Florida, and I discovered soon enough that my fears were well-founded. I proved my ignorance conclusively and by the last afternoon was counting the minutes until the seminar was over.
Just before I left, however, a former teammate came by recruiting umpires for the local Western Sydney “park” ball league. For some reason, I agreed to help him out on the provision that I run the bases only. So shortly thereafter I found myself scurrying around the diamond and learning very quickly that umpiring is a lot harder than I’d ever imagined. But after a few weeks, it gradually dawned on me that I was looking forward to Saturday afternoons, and an accidental avocation turned into something approaching a calling. I began to fossick around for any game that would have me, juniors, schoolboys, women’s, scrimmages and gradually amassed enough confidence to try my fortunes behind the plate.
The following January I passed the Level 1 umpiring exam and became eligiblefor payment for the games I umpired. Another revelation followed. For once in my life, I felt the euphoria of beating the system. Folks actually paid me to indulge in one of life’s supreme pleasures—watching a baseball game—and from the best possible vantage point. Eventually, I joined the New South Wales Baseball Umpires’ Association and got myself assigned to games involving the best players in Sydney including former Major Leaguers Grant Balfour and Brad Thomas. I even represented NSW in Australian national baseball tournaments when more experienced umpires were unavailable. Of course, there were ups and downs along the way as I made friends, earned some respect, and was expunged from more than a few Christmas card lists.
Meanwhile, the semi-professional Australian Baseball League, which had disintegrated in 2000, resurrected itself in 2010 with teams from all the Australian capital cities and Canberra. The Sydney entry, the Blue Sox, played in a nearby stadium built for the 2000 Olympics, and I was among the few hundred early spectators. Inevitably, however, I saw myself out on the field and at the beginning of the 2011 season, I thought I’d found my
opportunity. The Blue Sox were planning an intrasquad exhibition game, with players native to Sydney (“City”) playing against teammates from elsewhere (“Country”), and, as far as I was aware, they hadn’t arranged for umpires. So I volunteered to umpire some NSW representative tryout games on adjoining diamonds that afternoon and afterward hung around the main stadium office hoping to be noticed.
Eventually, Dave Balfour, Blue Sox general manager and father of Grant, happened by, and I asked him if needed umpires. Although the Blue Sox had gone to great pains to plan and promote the season opener, they had somehow forgotten about the need for an umpiring crew. So to my surprise, Dave jumped at my offer. “Great! You can do the plate” was his response. Facing the best pitchers in Australia was more than I’d bargained for; but Dave had called my bluff, my credibility was on the line, and a few minutes later I was putting on my plate gear in kind of a fatalistic trance. To accentuate the improvised nature of it all, my fellow umpires, a club baseball player and a Blue Sox front office intern from the U.S., took the field in blue Bermuda shorts and tennis shoes.
I was nervous, and, although the first pitch to the “Country” lead-off man, Trent D’Antonio, was at the letters, I called it a strike. D’Antonio was renowned for being less than charitable to umpires but he said nothing, and, when he came out to catch in the bottom half of the inning, I apologized: “Sorry about the first pitch, Trent”. “Forget it”, was his terse but not uncivil reply, a working relationship was thereby established, and I settled in. It’s perhaps a measure of how keyed up I was, but I don’t remember that much about the game itself. Since it was a practice game, the batters were swinging early in the count, and there was enough action to distract everybody present from the operations of the motley umpiring crew. The teams changed pitchers regularly, and I’d call out: “Tell me when you’re ready”, and get down behind the catcher, ostensibly to see what was being thrown. I can tell a fastball from a curve but have no idea what happens to a slider or a two-seamer, and it was all pretty much for show.
In the sixth inning Trent Schmutter (along with D’Antonio and outfielder and former Arizona Diamondback, Trent Oeltjen, the Blue Sox led the league that year in players named Trent) took the first pitch for a ball outside. I called the next pitch a strike, and Schmutter turned to me and groused: “That pitch was farther out than the one before”. It was the only query I faced all evening, and I’m still wondering if I’d missed it that badly. Later in the eighth on a base hit to the outfield, the runner from first tried to extend to third. On such a play the plate umpire has a job to do, and I hightailed it down the line to make a call. The relay throw beat the runner by about ten feet, and third baseman Shannon Pender had the ball in his glove for a tag. But I held up my call for a split second just in time to notice that the ball was on the ground. So I made the safe signal, pointed to the ball and called out: “Dropped the ball”. It was textbook stuff, probably the best umpiring move I’d made all night, and I
realized I was finally starting to feel comfortable in what I was doing.
Consequently, when the game was terminated by mutual agreement after the eighth inning, I was both relieved and a little disappointed. But as I changed out of my chest plate and leggings (chest protector and shin guards in American baseball parlance) in the umpires’ room afterward, there occurred an epiphany of sorts. It was as if I’d just conquered Everest. A moment to savor had arrived, and, contrary to my usual habit, I took my time getting dressed.
The American humorist James Thurber once observed, not entirely tongue in cheek, that at least half the U.S. male population lulled themselves to sleep at night by mentally striking out the entire New York Yankees’ batting order, pitch by immaculate pitch. I’m all too familiar with the exercise and, like most of my ex-countrymen, have envisioned glory on the baseball field since I was about six. My moment of stardom, fulfillment if you will, finally came before a crowd of fewer than 500 people in a meaningless pre-season exhibition game in far-off Australia. I was the only person who noticed, and I’m conscious of both pathos and irony in my boast. But once upon a time on the Sydney Blue Sox website there was a photo of the game I’ve just described, and I’m there, smack dab in the middle of the picture, crouched intently behind the catcher, as though I were Bill Klem, Jocko Conlon or any other umpiring legend of the game.