According to the policies determined by the board of the Milton County Little League baseball program, a coach may protest an umpire’s call as long as he informs the umpire of his intention during the game and submits $100 to the board at the time of his protest, which will be deposited either into the coffers of the Office of Parks and Recreation or back into the coach’s wallet after the meeting, depending on the board’s decision. I have coached Little League for six years, since my oldest son turned seven, and I have protested a call only once.
I love baseball. I never got to play when I was a boy. My dad was too busy with work to throw the ball around with me in the backyard, and my sisters weren’t interested in helping me fulfill my dreams of becoming the next Alex Rodriguez, so when I tried out for my hometown’s park league at the age of eight, I marveled at how fast my self-image shrank when I was on the field with other boys my age. In one afternoon, my Major League ambitions went up in a puff of smoke.
I settled for working as an accountant for a large computer manufacturing company, but I never lost my interest in baseball. And I made sure my two sons were throwing a baseball before they could read. I even coached their Little League baseball teams, every summer at the Milton County baseball fields, four green diamonds nestled under the shadow of grain silos amidst cornfields and cattlelands.
Little League has developed a reputation for attracting a lot of has-been dads and oversensitive single moms whose babies never get a fair shake from the opposing team or the umpires or sometimes from their own team. And don’t get me wrong—it has done a lot to earn that reputation. But I try to teach my players that in the end it doesn’t matter who wins or loses, it’s how you play the game. For the most part, I really stick to this admittedly worn cliché as well as anyone can. But one night I just wanted to win. And I don’t mean “win,” as in having the most runs on the scoreboard. This wasn’t about a game with nine players on each team, gloves that smell of leather and palm oil, and summers so hot your shirt sticks to your back. That night I wanted to win a different game, one played under the surface of chalk lines and pitcher’s mounds, a psychological battle between coach and umpire, and not just any umpire but a surly piece of gristle everyone called Radar.
He didn’t wear wire-rimmed glasses and speak in a thin voice like the kid on MASH. We called him Radar because if you were a coach, you were immediately on his radar. He had broken the county record for most coaches thrown out in a year, averaging a little over one per game, since on some occasions he ejected both teams’ coaches in a single night.
To say Radar was past his prime is being generous. He was so old, he dressed differently from the other umpires. Everyone else wore the modern scaled-down pads that fit underneath a blue button-down short-sleeved shirt, but Radar wielded this enormous mattress in front of him with a strap in the back that fit over his arm, like a Roman shield. He could get his whole decrepit body behind that thing, it was so big. Also, other umpires slid their facemasks over a backwards baseball cap, but Radar wore a helmet, not that anything was hard enough to penetrate that skull of his. The only time I ever got a look at his face was when he pushed his crusty old facemask up to scream obscenities in my face or at one of my players. He had this severe underbite that exposed the bottom row of his teeth, and his eyebrows met over the bowling ball finger holes he used for eyes. I stared into those glaring pits one time when he was yelling about a runner who had run out of the baseline, and, I tell you, there was nothing there. Not a spark of personality, no sign of human compassion at all.
When I learned he’d be calling the game against Running Rock, I prepared for the worst. It wasn’t my first rodeo with Radar, so I knew what to expect, or at least I thought I did. “Just roll with the punches,” I told myself. “Get on his good side, make him think you respect him. You may not get a fair game, but at least it will be civil. And remember, you’re doing this for the kids. It’s how you play the game.”
My sons’ ages lined up so that both played on the same team that year. We had a pretty good lineup. Curt, the rich kid whose dad owned the metal fabrication plant in town, played short stop. Mikey, a diminutive freckle-faced cut-up, was on second. Jeffrey played third and also pitched some. Robby and Pedro covered left and centerfield. My boys, Sam and Phillip, covered right field and first base. A lanky kid with a mullet named Paul was on the mound—he had a pretty good slider. And that leaves Doug, who was behind the plate.
Doug Moore was probably the friendliest kid who had every played for me. He never met a stranger. It didn’t matter if you were twelve or a hundred and two, he’d strike up a conversation with you as if he were your equal. He was easy to talk to, and everyone loved him, but before long, anyone having a conversation with Doug soon realized he was about the dumbest creature they had ever seen wearing pants. He had less intelligence than a sack of left shoes. I know it sounds insensitive, but you have to know so that you will understand how, dumb as he was and twelve years of age, Doug accomplished something no Little League coach has ever been able to do.
He shut Radar up.
Here’s what happened. We were facing Running Rock. Early in the game, Jeffrey, my best hitter and backup pitcher, hit a little grounder to third and tried to run it out. The play was close, and the first baseman was blocking the bag, so Jeffrey had no choice but to run him over, which sent the first baseman rolling like a beach ball down the first base line. Radar didn’t even look at the field umpire. He pushed his facemask up to expose that ugly mug of his, ran a few steps up the first base line, crouched, and pointed at Jeffrey, who was shaking his head from the impact, and screamed, “Out! Out!” while pointing an arthritic finger toward the parking lot. It took me a beat to realize he wasn’t just calling Jeffrey out on first, he was throwing him out of the game.
Jeffrey was upset. When his head cleared up enough for him to realize what was happening, he glared at Radar and started shouting about how the first baseman had blocked his path to the bag. My job is to protect my players, so I ran onto the field and sandwiched myself between Jeffrey and Radar, thinking I could talk some sense into that old codger. It was no use. Before I knew it, he had thrown me out too.
I had only one option. The protest. I looked squarely into Radar’s zombie eyes to be sure was listening and said, “According to the rules, I have the right to appeal your decision. This is me officially informing you that we’re playing the rest of the game under protest.”
I haven’t had many interactions with Radar, but I had dealt with him enough to conclude that he operated on a subhuman level, just well enough to call a ballgame, somewhere just north of the primate line. It never occurred to me that he might possess self-awareness or feel it necessary to defend his honor. So I was a little surprised when he shifted his underbite and replied, “Eat my shorts.” It wasn’t a very original insult, but it brought me a little comfort to learn he had enough humor in him to roast me like that.
Robby’s dad, Big John Hicks, stepped in for me to coach the rest of the game, I pulled little Amos off the bench to cover third, and the boys tried to forget the sideshow they had just witnessed so they could finish the game. It was the bottom of the seventh inning, three to four, Running Rock. They were at bat, but we still had a chance to win.
Paul’s nerves were going crazy. He was just a twelve-year-old kid, after all. He lost control of a fastball and nailed this pudgy kid from Running Rock right between the shoulder blades. No one wants to see a batter get beaned like that, but it’s Little League. The pitchers are young. It happens, right? But the pudgy kid dropped to the ground like he had been shot and started rolling around, crying, “Ow ow ow!” I heard his mamma hollering, “That was intentional! He hit my baby!” Then Radar pushed his facemask up and fixed Paul with those dead eyes of his. He pointed to the parking lot with his crooked finger. “You’re out of here!” he croaked.
Paul threw his glove to the ground and looked over at me sitting in the dugout. I looked at Big John, who stood by the fence on the third base line, gaping like he had just had an encounter with aliens from outer space. I had to get Paul off the field. So even though I had been thrown out of the game, I came out of the dugout and started making my way toward the pitcher’s mound.
Radar lost his mind. “Dugout!” he screamed. The skeletal finger pointed in the air.
“I’m just getting my player off the field. He’s just a kid, you know. It was an accident.”
That made Radar’s blood boil, what was left of it.
“Dugout!” he screamed!
“I’m going, I’m going!” I said, putting my arm around Paul to lead him off the field.
Even though we were obviously complying with his unreasonable demands, Radar continued shouting, separating the word into syllables, as if by distinguishing its constituent parts, he increased his power over us.
“Dug-out! Dug. Out!”
There are moments in life when the universe sings to you, moments when everything unifies to bring about an experience that tells you life is more than power struggles between coaches and umpires, road rage, getting fleeced by the tax man, and finding a hole in your shirt when you get home from the dry cleaner’s. Moments like when a dimwitted, prepubescent catcher named Doug threw off his catcher’s mask, revealing a pained expression of honest incredulity, and said: “Now, Blue, I understand why you threw the pitcher out, but I don’t know anything about this ‘Doug out.’ What’d I do?”
Radar stared at Doug a long time. The crowd grew still. Paul and I stopped dead in our tracks to watch what came next, and the rest of the team braced themselves for another one of Radar’s fits.
No one is going to believe what I’m about to tell you. I probably wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t been there myself. It may have been as rare as a sighting of a Siberian snow leopard, but I know what I heard.
The unibrow relaxed slightly, and the underbite slowly cracked into a Halloween grin. A sound, like a chain-link fence being dragged across the infield crept up from Radar’s chest—a wheezy sound. I couldn’t identify it at first, but when the old man dropped the giant mattress pad and started slapping his bony knee I realized what the sound was.
He was laughing.
Sweet, boneheaded Doug had used his low IQ to slay the beast by making him laugh.
We all laughed.
We lost the game. It’s hard to win when you are playing with eight and both of your pitchers have been thrown out of the game. I didn’t mind because I experienced something more important than winning that day. A young boy with a catcher’s mitt taught us how to play the game.
I don’t know my win/loss ratio for Little League. I have all the score books, but I’ve never taken the time to tabulate my record. I have a feeling that it’s pretty good. But to be honest, I don’t care because a baseball score is just a compilation of runs around a diamond and deadwood on leather. It’s all meaningless without the people who are hitting the balls and rounding the bags. It really doesn’t matter if you win or lose. The games I remember are the ones in which the boys learned about life, joy, agony, growth, and complete bewilderment. Baseball is important because it’s not just a game. It’s a training ground where we learn how to play, which is to say, how to live.