Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Baseball, rage and a cheating umpire

Lori Chipman
 Growing up I always wanted to be a baseball player. In fact…sorry Lori Chipman, not to minimize what you and I had in second grade – it was real…baseball was my first love. What’s great about baseball is that it’s a slow moving game which teaches you how to constantly fail. Come to think of it I don’t know what I like about baseball, but I loved the hell out of it none-the-less.
The reason I’m telling you this is that as I was driving around Springfield a few months ago I was reminded of something that happened on a baseball field 18 years ago. It was the only moment in my life I can say I completely, without a doubt, lost every measure of control. That’s not to say I don’t fly off the handle from time to time. When it comes to driving and sports I step into combative confrontation constantly, compadre. What I’m telling you is this particular time I didn’t lose my cool, I lost my flippin’ mind.
I was 15 years old and we had a baseball tournament down in Springfield. Being the extremely responsible adolescent I was, I couldn’t go down and stay with the team the first night because I had to work at the crack of dawn the second morning of the trip. My mom was gracious enough to drive me the nearly 2 hour drive down to game 1 (which I pitched, took a no-hitter into the 6th inning and won) then turn around and drive me back home.
Saturday morning came and I rode my bike to work at 6:00 am, served two meals (breakfast and lunch) to a bunch of elderly people who had trouble remembering their own names and rode my bike home at 2:45 as quickly as possible. My mom then again loaded my skinny butt into the stretched black Ford Aerostar (which would later be the ‘limo’ I took to Sr. Prom) and headed back down to Springfield.
My team had won early in the day and I was playing with them in the nightcap. We were facing a solid team that had also won its first two games. Their pitcher was a kid they had brought in from another team just for this tournament. He was a big ole’ horse. He threw hard…there was a reason they had invited him to play. We were getting their best…actually better than their best.
Shaun Vodka
Well, the game was going along like any other game. Very little scoring, both teams playing hard and playing well. We had Shaun Vodka on the mound so you know the other team wasn’t hitting well. Vodka’s fastball and curve both looked like they were shooting straight out of his ear. He could gas it up there in the low to mid 80’s. He was usually, and this night was no exception, very difficult to hit.
Then it happened. I was at bat and Luke Parker was on second base. The pitcher wheeled around and threw a dart to second. The shortstop slapped down the tag as both players fell to the ground. “SAFE!” yelled the umpire. I continued watching. The shortstop had fallen on Luke and he wasn’t making an effort to get up. After 2 or 3 seconds of being used like a couch cushion Luke stood up. When he stood it caused the other player to fall off of him (he wasn’t hurt, he was just resting there I guess). The guy didn’t want to fall to the ground so he kind of clung on to Luke’s jersey so Luke shoved him away...not violently. The field umpire closest to the play said nothing. The umpire behind the plate yelled “you’re outta here!!!!” Huh?
Oh no you di-ent. Oh yes, he di-id! The umpire standing more than 120 feet away decided he had observed enough malice to kick Luke out of the game! All of the parents, including Luke’s dad and Dan Nelson’s dad (from this point Dave and Ron), started yelling at the umpire. It was a horrible call. It was confounding really.  But what are you going to do? This guy is making 10 bucks to stand there in 85 degree heat umpiring a bunch of testosterone filled  little pricks so you’re not exactly getting a guy with a helluva lotta astute judgment.
Luke was a good ball player, so it was going to hurt not having him in the game. Coach Hoppel called me over after the inning said “Keith, you’re at short”. I wasn’t really an infielder at that point in my ‘career’, but I was a competitor. I ended up playing a very good shortstop for the rest of the game. But that’s not what I’m trying to tell you about. What I’m trying to tell you about is Dave and Ron…first. You see, Dave and Ron are still yelling at the umpire. Sometimes loudly, sometimes with quieter condescending remarks. Sometimes with personal insults. The umpire wasn’t liking it too much. Dave was a fiery guy, but he was also a fair guy. He knew his kid had been wronged and he had some paternal instinct kicking in. Ron was an understated fireball. He could softly tear you apart through his mustache and with Dave going crazy next to him it gave him license to belittle this skinny douche of an umpire all the more. It was on.
Now a good umpire would have taken an authoritative course of action that included a verbal warning to the fans followed by an ejection with the possible warning that they risked forfeiting the game for their kids. That’s what a good umpire would have done. But a good umpire wouldn’t have overstepped his partner’s call on the field and thrown a kid out of a game for pushing a body off of himself. A good umpire wouldn’t have had to buy a child’s catcher chest protector to fit his wussy-esque frame. A good umpire wouldn’t have whispered in Coach Hoppel’s ear “if your parents don’t quiet down you’re going to lose this game.” Wait…what?
Oh…that happened. And then so did the calls. I came up to bat with a runner on base. I had doubled off the wall in my first at-bat so I knew I could hit this guy. I fouled off the first pitch. Strike one. Second pitch came in. A curve that had slipped out of the pitcher’s hand a little. It came across at eye level. I stepped out of the batter’s box and heard “Strike Two!” I turned and looked at him and said “What the hell?” Maybe that’s what I said. Maybe I said “are you serious?” Maybe I said “are you f*@%ing joking?” I’m not really sure, but I said something. The next pitch was in the dirt, but I swung…and missed…badly. I figured I had to swing at anything at that point. But one of the odd rules in baseball is you can get to first on a strikeout if the catcher misses it. So I ran, I ran like all hell had broken loose. And I made it. Safe at first. And the moment my foot hit first base the umpire yelled “Foul Ball!” I think it was then I pointed my finger at him. “I didn’t foul that and you know it!” I was yelling as I came back to the batter’s box. Not a word from this 40 year old twerp. The next pitch I swung (again, I didn’t really have a choice) and I foul tipped it. The ball deflected off the catcher and fell to the ground. I stepped out of the box to get my composure a bit and the umpire said quietly to the catcher “pick it up and tag him.” I looked back at the umpire, confused. My mind started trying to connect the dots. None of this was computing…foul ball, tag me and I’m out…wait a second…was he? Was he claiming I hadn’t fouled it and that I had just struck out? Oh Sh9t! I started running to first again, this time I was literally yelling as I ran…”Thaaaaaaaaaat’s the ooooonnnneeee ---- I Fooooooouleddddddddd youuuuuu moroooooonnnnnnn!” The catcher picked up the ball and easily threw me out at first. I turned and started to make my way back to home plate to give the umpire a piece of my mind when coach stopped me and pushed me back toward the dugout. Fine.
Well, the rest of the game went exactly the same way for all of us. Balls were called strikes. Safes were called outs. But Shaun Vodka was mowing down the other team despite the lying, cheating, dirty condom of an umpire. So the score was tied 2-2 in the bottom of the last inning. There was one out and a runner had made it to second base. He was the winning run. Shaun stood on the mound and came set. He stood there motionless and all of a sudden the spineless gimp behind the plate yells “Balk!” When I think about it now it was actually pretty brilliant. You see, for those of you who don’t know baseball, pitchers are not allowed to make flinching or deceptive motions once they come set just before they start their pitching motion. If they do it’s called a “balk” and any runners on base get to advance one base. This diarrhea-faced umpire was getting creative with his spiteful cheating. So the winning run just moved up to third base with only one out.
A few pitches later Shaun threw a pitch that landed in the dirt. The catcher missed the ball and Shaun ran home to take the throw trying to tag out the runner who was attempting to score. The play was incredibly close. When I replay it in my head I think he was out, but you obviously know by now that it didn’t really matter whether the kid was safe or not…he didn’t have to get within 10 feet of home plate and the run would have counted. I heard the umpire yell “Safe!” and the next thing I know I’m sprinting.
Now remember, I’m playing shortstop. And I’m running as fast as my 15 year old legs can carry me. At this point things get a little fuzzy. I know I was running in the general direction of the umpire. The other team was mobbing the kid who had just scored in a celebration around home plate, so when I arrived there was a sea of blue uniforms in my way. I remember looking around quickly and not seeing the douche in black anywhere. Then I saw him…he was 30 feet beyond the backstop and he was walking briskly away. I remember pushing through the other team and basically flying the remaining 20 feet to the backstop fence and hitting it at top speed…in the air. My fingers latched on and I was a few feet off the ground stuck to that chain link like Spider Man. And I started yelling. And I wasn’t yelling things you yell in front of crowds of your mom…although I did use the word “mother” a few times. I distinctly remember screaming from the top of my lungs that he was, to quote Naughty by Nature, “another way to call a cat a kitty”. I used every word I could think of. And I yelled for a good, long time. Then I said something I had never said before and have never said since:  “Come back here! I’ll kill you!” I’ll kill you? What the hell? Who am I?
But it’s not the words that have really stuck with me all these years later. What really shook me was the adrenaline coursing through me like electricity. It was a frightening high. To this day, I honestly believe that had the umpire not fled (and after I started yelling his walk turned into a dead sprint toward his car) I would have leapt on him like a Chimpanzee and beaten him until multiple people had pulled me off. I remember seeing him run away and feeling both a sense of exhilaration from the off my handle rage and deep regret that I wasn’t going to be able to bludgeon him. Honestly, the only reason I can think of that I didn’t chase after him was that I was too enraged to think about going through the dugout 15 feet to my right to get behind the fence. I was out of my mind. I don’t really know how to convey it even now. Because as I’m typing this there is still a part of me that wishes he would have stayed just to see what I was capable of. Yet, having been to that place of unbridled fury, I know I can’t let myself get there ever again.
Here is what he looked like running away:

So you’re probably thinking that I eventually let go of the fence and calmed down and started laughing about the absurdity of it all. You’re probably thinking I finally came to my senses and realized that it was just a game and it didn’t really matter. Wrong. What actually happened is that Coach Hoppel’s brother, Coach Hoppel, grabbed me from behind and yanked me down off the fence. He got in my face and said something along the lines of “this is why we lose games because we’re always blaming umpires and not ourselves.” To which I replied with what I can only imagine was the coldest, darkest, deepest stare back into his eyes that Doug Hoppel ever received. I nearly punched him in the face. And, quite frankly, he deserved it. I played my ass off in that game and I played my heart out too and none of us deserved to have that tournament cheated away from us. If Doug didn’t see it that way then he was a fool.
After things had settled down Coach Jim Hoppel took us down the right field line and gave us the post game talk. During the talk, I was still so lost in anger that I didn’t hear a single word despite being right there in the thick of the huddle. I was doing everything I could to calm down, but it was a slow process. It was like trying to digest liquid hate and it was going to take longer than 20 minutes for me to ‘let it go’. Later Jim pulled me aside at the motel and apologized for “saying that”. I quickly accepted his apology without asking what the hell he was sorry for. Later on I asked some of the other players and they filled me in. It turned out our coach was so angry about how we had been wronged out of the game that in front of me, his half-Japanese player, he said he “wanted to Jap-slap that umpire as much as anybody.” I thought it was big of Coach Hoppel to apologize, but the truth is I never would have known he said it.
There really isn’t a moral to the story, but I do feel compelled to point out that I learned something about my temper that day. I learned that there are limits you can’t let yourself surpass. I realize that other people have stories about actual fights they were in, but this story isn’t so much about the heat of the battle as it is uncontrolled hatred. I literally would have beaten that defenseless twig until someone stopped me or until my knuckles couldn’t bear it any further. So I guess the moral of the story is sometimes you just need to walk away and hope that someday you have the opportunity to piss all over their grave.

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