“For fans, for players, for broadcasters and everyone else, the appeal of a ball game is that it is a story, with characters, a measure of uncertainty and suspense, a beginning, a middle, an end, and in the best of circumstances a climax and a denouement.”
— Bruce Weber, As They See ‘Em
Baseball’s invisible men have been on my mind lately. In a small way I’ve identified with the figure of the umpire as I’ve written this column. I’ve been hiding in plain sight—my byline on previous columns a sort of mask, telling you I’m here, that you can see (or hear) me, but you can’t see too much. My mask has kept me (or so I thought) from attracting attention to the specifics of the storyteller, to the identity of the mom in the stands—even as I spent a year telling highly specific stories from a highly specific place on the map of competitive kid baseball. But the umpire analogy only goes so far. The mask is also an illusion, and it certainly doesn’t confer much authority or impartiality or, in the end, much anonymity. My actual name may have been missing, but so much of my life, the lives of the three people I live with have made it into these observations that I’m not very invisible, not much of an umpire, truth be told.
Ball games are stories, but so too are whole seasons of baseball, if you want to see them that way. This year had its stock characters (a nine year old protagonist, various antagonists, a chorus of chanting ballplayers, an anxious, out-of-breath messenger mom, a patient husband who pulls the curtains shut when the messenger goes on too long). It also had conflict. And, as with most stories, the experiences left us changed. With this team I called the Spark Plugs, we marched up the left side of Gustav Freytag’s plot pyramid (“rising action”), hit a crisis or two (“moment of choice”), toppled back down the other side (“falling action”), and finished out the year. Near the bottom of the ride we found that, yes, our story had a denouement. Actually it had several.
Henry got the happy ending. His denouement came with the invitation to join a new team, the resolution to weeks of uncertainty about whether he’d continue to play baseball at all. My denouement looked very different. My ending was like a lot of endings in baseball, you know, the one where the coach takes issue with an umpire’s call. A few weeks ago, after a year of hiding in plain sight, I somehow got noticed. And, no surprise, the coach didn’t like my calls.
For about a week after he left a voicemail message on my phone telling me so, I carried around this nagging guilt. I tried to imagine the bewildering strangeness of reading another person’s version of me, of things I said or wore or lived through. Someone else’s truth. I redacted details he objected to and pulled down one of the columns completely. I appealed to the (admittedly biased) umpires in my own life (“Was that an attack?” “Was that unfair?”). When you need absolution, call your mom. When you need someone to tell you to be bold, call your dad. When you need someone who’ll always have your back, marry the cute guy who sat behind you in philosophy class. My denouement wasn’t exactly catastrophe or tragedy; it might even have been comedy—if it had happened to someone else.
From the beginning, my feelings about the coach—like my feelings about travel baseball generally—were a mess of contradictions. As a character, coach was fantastic. I never needed to embellish or exaggerate his coaching style. There were times when the writer in me thought, Wow, what good luck my kid ended up on this particular team. I could just sit back and report (okay, with a little snobbishness, I suppose) on the whole mock-serious business of travel baseball.
But of course I wasn’t merely a disinterested reporter. As a mom, I saw good things and bad. I approved and disapproved, felt a mix of loyalty and anxiety. Wow, my kid ended up on this particular team. The whole culture of travel baseball in the South sent me scurrying to the library to check out books on kids and sports and psychology. When Henry would get upset about something that happened in a game or afterward, I’d turn to the experts to talk me down. I started a few of those parental “teaching conversations” with prompts that could have come straight from the pages of the most banal Parents magazine ever.
While I was still fretting or sweating, Henry was already changing into his baseball pants or stirring powdered Powerade into a cooler of water or moving his arms through the motion of pitching. He didn’t inherit my tendency to brood or over-think, and I’m not the least bit responsible for his fastball. Someday, he, too, will probably be quite surprised to discover these versions of familiar stories—his stories—and it’s likely that he’ll remember them differently.
In his book on umpires Bruce Weber writes that they are “the only ones in the park for whom the narrative powers of a ball game are supposed to be irrelevant.” Supposed to be. Even umpires (the real ones, that is) occasionally bend to a story’s power. As one Major League umpire sheepishly put it in a conversation with Weber, “umpires are people too…we have emotions…[w]e’re human.” When I think back on the umpires who called the games this last year, most were invisible men (and one woman) who showed up, did the job, and let all the rest of us follow the ball or the runner or the unfolding play, forever looking past the guy in blue positioning himself to make the call, to end each brief chapter.
During the season’s last tournament, though, a young umpire, maybe eighteen years old, attracted the attention of the Spark Plug parents. We were somewhere in Cherokee County. It was 95 degrees. He was behind the plate in full gear. His strike zone was straight out of umpire training school. And not a kid there could find it. In one inning, the Spark Plugs put in four different pitchers, including my own #44. Each one walked at least two batters before shuffling back to the dugout discouraged. When the inning began, and the first pitcher walked the first batter, a dad in the stands said to his wife, with more than a trace of annoyance, “he’s got to expand the strike zone.” When the second pitcher walked a batter, the dad got louder, addressing anyone who’d listen, “these kids are nine, he’s gotta give them some of these pitches.” We all nodded. The batters, who knew an umpire’s gift when they saw one, rarely made a motion to swing. By the time the fourth pitcher of the inning failed to throw even a single strike, the dad was up out of his seat yelling right at the umpire. “You’re gonna ruin these kids’ arms! It’s ridiculous!” The umpire walked to the fence and said, truthfully I suppose, that his zone was consistent. I figured he was going to kick this dad out, but he seemed unready for that particular subplot. So, he put on his mask, got behind the plate, and went back to work. The pool games on this hot June Saturday didn’t end until after midnight. The next day, a mom told me that by ten at night, the umpire’s strike zone was noticeably bigger. By then, he probably figured that he could move the story along a bit.
A couple of years ago, between tournament games, I asked a seasoned home plate umpire whether eight and nine year olds could even throw strikes consistently. How do umpires call pitches at younger ages and still get something that resembles a ballgame? He said umpires have what they call “the river,” several fluid inches of space on either side of the plate that they’ll give to a young pitcher. Games wouldn’t be playable or watchable if the strike zone didn’t occasionally ripple outward.
Sometimes as I watch my kid pitch through a tough inning—his body expanding and collapsing with the tremendous effort of getting a three-inch ball forty-six feet away—I think about how all of baseball comes down to that invisible rectangle. Pitcher, batter, and umpire all look at it, but none of them sees the exact same rectangle. And I think about the river, how it changes, how it’s both generous and self-serving at the same time. A lot like the truth. Or a story.