Man on first, one out. A ground ball is hit, and the base runner takes off for second. He’s entangled in a giant collision with a fielder. There is slapping and tugging involved.
Baseball is not a contact sport, I ruminate, watching the play unfold from my spot on the infield grass.
I am the umpire. I should make a call here. But what is it: Obstruction? Interference? A triple salchow?
I decide to let it slide.
Suddenly, a man with a little crescent moon of a moustache is in my face, cussing like Gordon Ramsay at an intern. He’s Jim Evans, former Major League Baseball umpire and founder of the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring in Kissimmee, Fla., where he teaches the trade. For the purposes of this afternoon simulation, though, he’s an incensed manager.
“Did you have obstruction?” he demands, facial hair dancing. “Did you have interference? What the hell did you have, Gus?”
“I didn’t have anything, Jim,” I tell him, quite truthfully. “Now get off the field.” Then I stare at the pitcher — like everybody else on the field, actually a professional umpire — and mentally urge him to throw the next pitch.
More than 100 umpires-in-training are watching from foul territory. One offers: “The ball went out of play.”
That’s bad news. That means I have to do something.
My brain feels like fondue. I start to think of all the places I would rather be than this baseball field: a crowded DMV office in Des Moines, Iowa, for instance, or a Russian gulag.
These are thoughts I’ve had before, I realize in a moment of on-field déjà vu. Five years ago, I was a barista at a coffee shop on New York’s Upper East Side, being berated by haughty ladies who sucked down cappuccino foam like life serum. At age 23, I was desperate to retire from the ranks of the working stiff.
Umpire school looked like life’s greatest loophole. MLB umps make up to $400,000 annually and travel first class. They get to trade flying spittle with Tony La Russa and tell Alex Rodriguez where he can shove his endorsement portfolio.
No matter that big-league umps are the unicorns of sports, with only 68 in existence and roughly one out of every 100 umpire-school students eventually making it to baseball’s elite league. I was imbued with the overconfidence of youth.
So I enrolled at the Wendelstedt Umpire School, Evans’ archrival camp in Ormond Beach, Fla. Despite their proximity, the two academies so loathe each other that uttering the other’s name is gravely taboo.
The school was a pseudo-militaristic institution run by Harry and Hunter ?Wendelstedt, a father-and-son duo of big league umps. The dad, Harry, was built like Alfred Hitchcock on a bacon-only diet. He sat in bleachers and expressed his approval or unhappiness in grunts.
I was, as it turns out, a horrible umpire. Though umps are chided for their blubbery physiques, reacting quickly to unfolding plays requires athletic instinct I didn’t have. And I couldn’t spot an infield fly if it came with a neon banner.
On the final day of school, I received my evaluation in front of a panel of instructors. “When you’re in the field, you pop up like a Pop-Tart,” one of them lamented. “That’s no good.”
He didn’t elaborate. Such is the way in baseball. After I spent $9,000 of my café-job savings — the school’s tuition was $2,950; the rest, I guess, went toward domestic beer and Clif Bars — my career as an umpire was dead.
Until now, that is, at this inglorious moment on Jim Evans’ field in Kissimmee. Some old flint of knowledge sparks in my overheated brain. I spring to action.
“You!” I scream, pointing at the runner on second base. “Third base! You!” I holler at the guy on first. “Second base!”
The play is already mucked beyond repair, of course. If I were a real umpire, I’d be roasted on a spit behind the ballpark.
Two outs later (you don’t want to know), I scamper off the field full of relief and appreciation for an occupation many fans and sportscasters would like to see done by robots.
Evans flags me down and apologizes for the things he said about my manhood.
“By the way,” he adds, “it was obstruction.”