Tuesday, June 8, 2010

How To Be An Idol

I met a great man last month. Doug Harvey visited the Hall of Fame for the day-long orientation given new electees, including a tour of the museum and collections and a staff reception. At these receptions, the new Hall of Famer usually speaks briefly, lets his wife say a few words, and spends 20-30 minutes chatting with staff members and posing for photos. I've been to a dozen or so of these receptions, and always enjoy talking to these men, asking them about pitching and hitting. I've even cracked a couple of them up, like when I suggested to Rickey Henderson that he could go back to playing now that he was already elected. He said if he'd known that in the first place, he would've retired earlier so he could return after election when he could still play. This year, I told Andre Dawson, "it was a pleasure watching you play, except maybe when you were swinging at low-outside sliders." He laughed heartily and said that's what his wife used to tell him.

But Doug Harvey was different from the others. He stood in the center of the library atrium and addressed us for at least ten minutes, pivoting as he spoke so he could make eye contact with every one of us. He talked about the noble profession of umpiring and why he wouldn't trade any of his 32 seasons in the majors. He exuded the dedication and integrity that went into that long career and earned him a place as one of only nine umpires elected to the Hall of Fame. "The players needed us," he said of his fellow arbiters. "We had to take care of them." The umpire's mission is to keep the game flowing, enforce the rules, and make sure the competition is conducted fairly. Nobody knows that better than Doug Harvey, who spent his baseball off-seasons officiating football and basketball. The athletes in those sports needed him, too.

After his moving speech, a dress rehearsal for the speech he'll deliver at his induction next month, I was eager to speak to Harvey. I told him, "I'd like to shake your hand. You're my idol. I spent two years umpiring amateur ball, just enough to appreciate what went into a long career like yours." I meant that; he was my umpiring idol, the best I've ever seen. His reply astonished me. As we shook hands, he looked me in the eyes and said, "You're my idol, too. Anybody who gets out there is my idol." What a thing to say! He meant it, too. For a man who breathes officiating like oxygen, it is natural to feel that anybody who dons an umpire's gear must have that same dedication.

I've been thinking about my brief fling with umpiring and trying to recall moments when I felt like someone who could've been Doug Harvey's idol. I can think of a couple. My experience came in the mid-1980s, when I was living in Las Vegas. Does that statement make you wonder what it was like in the desert heat? Here's what it was like. I umpired an American Legion tournament held on Fourth of July weekend, and I did one late-afternoon game when the temperature was 114. I worked the bases and was glad not to be wearing the home plate umpire's heavier gear. On the other hand, he had his back to the sun, which was right in my eyes. I remember spending most of the game hunched over, hands on my knees, thinking "It's okay if you pass out. Nobody will think less of you if you pass out. You can go ahead and keel over now, people do it all the time out here, just go ahead and get it over with." But I remained upright. The kids in the first-base dugout got a treat that day; between innings, they got to spray water in the umpire's face. We were all in it together, and I got through the game without passing out.

The other challenge to my dedication came on a road trip to Overton, a little town on Lake Mead, about a one-hour drive from Las Vegas. My partner and I had a doubleheader, and I was behind the plate in the first game. Two batters into the first inning, the pitcher threw a fastball that bounced just in front of the plate. The catcher never touched it. The ball smacked off my left wrist, and I thought it was broken. It immediately swelled up about golf-ball size, and hurt like hell. My partner said he'd understand if I left, but we were out there in the middle of nowhere. I wasn't going to leave him on his own to do two games, and I wasn't going to tell the teams to go home because both umpires were leaving. I stayed, icing it between innings. I was happier to be on the bases for the second game because I didn't have to worry about getting hit again. The wrist was throbbing, but the ice helped, and we got through both games.

I was proud of myself for staying out there through that doubleheader. I felt what Doug Harvey must have felt on some of those tough days: it doesn't matter how I feel, those people on the field need me to help them have a good game. Back in Las Vegas, I got the wrist x-rayed and found there was no break, but it ached for a couple of weeks. That was what made me give up umpiring, however. This happened not long before the World Series of Poker, my biggest income opportunity of the year as a poker dealer, and I decided that I couldn't jeopardize that for a $16-a-game sidelight.

But I loved umpiring while I did it, despite the physical demands and the inevitable disputes. I learned more about the game from being on the field than I have in a lifetime of watching it from grandstands and couches. I did have some ugly moments on the field, and times when I wasn't anybody's idol. I was an average ump, nothing special, which is illustrated by the fact that the greatest compliment I received on the field was a left-handed one. At another American Legion tournament, I somehow got the plate assignment between two of the top teams in the region. One was coached by a man who had given me a lot of trouble as a high school junior varsity coach. I wasn't happy to see him there, and I guessed that he wasn't happy to see me either.

His pitcher was the best I ever saw from behind the plate. I can't remember his name, but his fastball was in the high 80s. He also had a much better curveball than I'd ever seen before from close range. It made me concentrate harder, as it would start out headed toward a right-handed batter's shoulder before angling sharply down and toward the plate. Those curves were beautiful to behold as they snapped in mid-flight, but a challenge to judge in terms of where the ball was as it passed across the plate. I thought I did a pretty good job, and didn't hear much jeering.

After the game, the coach who had been so hostile all spring came up to me and shook my hand. "When I saw you come out with the mask on," he told me, "I thought 'oh shit.' But you did a good job." I wonder if Doug Harvey ever heard a remark like that from Whitey Herzog.

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