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Columns

Quill the Umpire: Avoiding relationship conflicts on the field

Like many who have played the game, I found myself transitioning from hardball to softball after my college years. It’s obviously not the same, yet you still get to swing the bat and play defense. Still, it’s more about getting away from the daily grind and hanging out with your pals, getting a little exercise and enjoying a few cold ones. 

It’s been years since I played softball, but I recently recalled a story about one of my teammates who ended up umpiring one of his sister’s games. Uh-oh.

He was working the bases and called her out while she was attempting to steal third base. That was the big uh-oh.

She remarked something to the likes of, “You’re going to get it when we get home!” As the two chattered back and forth the catcher asked the home plate umpire, “boyfriend and girlfriend?" And he laughed, “No, brother and sister.”

Talk about an uncomfortable situation to be in for all parties involved.

Those situations are inevitable, though, if you’ve been around the game long enough. Some can be humorous, like that one, while others can be more challenging because of concerns of bias. One of my pet peeves is the comment, “Call it both ways, blue!” and if you have a relationship with people in the game, it’s understandable why they would make such a statement, but I know for sure I’m never going to be unfair and going to call it as I see it.

It’s all about being objective at all times. It’s actually quite similar to the rule of there being no cheering in the press box. Years ago, a scribe cheered as his alma mater won a state baseball title. He was completely clueless and an embarrassment to the profession, but nonetheless there he was basking in the glory of his old school’s accomplishment. It was really disappointing to see and fortunately I’ve never witnessed it again.

In the Major Leagues, they’re extra careful to make sure there isn’t any impartiality. Brothers Jim and Randy Wolf spent time in the Big Leagues together. Randy was a pitcher, and Jim is an umpire. The league set a policy that disallowed the two to be involved in any of the same games. Similarly, you might recall me discussing the Jim Joyce and Armando Galarraga near-perfect game incident in a prior column. Since the two collaborated on a book after it occurred, they added a rule that disallowed them from working the same game together since they technically became business partners.

Basically, I consider myself to be like the Duke in “Major League.” He’s the reliever mentioned when Harry Doyle says, ”This guy threw at his own kid in a father-son game.” And what I mean is that you’re 100 percent objective in making all your calls regardless of your relationships with the coaches and players. It really isn’t difficult, but it is frustrating on the occasions where you get a coach arguing for you to call it both ways. I may miss a call, but I can guarantee you that I’m always going to be impartial and call it fair. Don’t worry, I don’t need Al Czervik from “Caddyshack” to slip me a few bills to “keep it fair.”

Last weekend, I had a coach argue with me about not being fair, claiming I was giving one team the outside corner for strikes, but not his team. Why would I do that? Why would I want to call a tighter strike zone when it’s 94 degrees out? If anything, the umpire is more likely to open things up to ensure the game keeps moving, especially when it’s a tournament game and there are a handful of games to follow and you want to stay on your time schedule. What I had was a younger coach trying to manipulate me and overthink what I was doing out there. I kindly explained to him that I’ve been umpiring longer than he’s been alive and that the strike zone is the same for both teams and would remain that one until the end of the game. He didn’t say another word.

At the end of the regular season, I had the pleasure of working a local team’s Senior Night. There’s no doubt that I know the coach really well and that there were a few kids on that team that I’ve known for years. But, you know what, I know most other area coaches really well, too. It’s not going to make me change the way I call a game. Actually, if anything, it’s going to add stress because I’m especially going to want to do an extremely good job because I know them and they’re going to expect that from me.

I’m reminded of an old teammate, Bryan Rekar, who pitched in the Big Leagues for a few years and remained a diehard Cubs fan. He wasn’t drafted by the Cubs, but his fandom of that team didn’t die after he pitched for a few other clubs. Like many, he was paid to try to beat that same Cubs team that he grew up loving. That was his job, so – as a pitcher – he wanted to shut those Cubbies down, back in the days when Scott Servais was behind the dish, Sammy Sosa patrolled right field and Mark Grace owned first base. Now that he’s been retired, I’m sure he celebrated last year’s championship like many other fans, but back when he played he did whatever he could to try to beat that same team.

It’s pretty simple when you really think about it. Once you get between those white lines and that first pitch is thrown, it’s game time. It doesn’t matter who is playing and who you know, it’s about doing your job to the best of your ability and trying to make the best calls.

Perhaps Jason Boersma, the base umpire from my original story, didn’t make the best decision in calling his sister Heather out. Then again, if he didn’t do it, I probably wouldn’t have thought about the hilarity of such an occurrence and not written about the subject of relationships and impartiality.

The home plate umpire, Tom Smith, said he thought Heather was out. I didn’t get the chance to call Heather. I didn’t want to open old wounds, though, either. She’s probably still a little mad at her brother.

• Sugar Grove resident Chris Rollin Walker is a baseball umpire with an eye for strikes, balls, gerunds and participles. Contact him at editorial@kcchronicle.com.

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