Getting My Kicks
How I learned that the toughest job in sports is umpiring girls’ kickball.
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The next time you go to a ball game, please reserve a moment of silent contemplation for the poor umpire. Think of his inner doubts, his lonely agony, his aging eyes. Consider that even an umpire has a family somewhere that loves him. Think of the abuse he must endure. I ask you these things because this summer I learned firsthand how an umpire feels. I gathered my balls-and-strikes counter and my whisk broom and my courage and went forth onto the playing field before the most unforgiving audience in sports: parents.
My domain was the rookie division of the Northwest Austin Kickball League, for girls ages six through eight. League rules require rookie teams to supply the umpires for their games. The designated home team provides the plate ump; the visitors, the two base umps. The situation is rife with conflict of interest, but surely rookie kickball is so low-key that no one would make a fuss, right? I knew better. Last year I had a daughter in kickball and a son in tee ball (baseball for six- and seven-year-olds, girls as well as boys)—and kickball was regarded far more seriously by players, coaches, and parents.
In tee ball nobody keeps track of the score or the outs. The entire team bats, and then everybody takes the field; there are no bench warmers. No one strikes out; the ball is placed on an adjustable rubber tube, and kids keep swinging until they hit it. Coaches stand beside batters, helping them with their stances, and wander around the field on defense, positioning players and giving advice. If an umpire is needed, the coach nearest to the action calls the play. The atmosphere is so laid-back that no one dreams of questioning a call.
Kickball is a different matter entirely. It has more rules than Robert’s. An official scorekeeper records every play, and coaches and parents alike keep close track of who is winning. All thirteen players on a team get to kick in every inning, but runs scored after three outs have been made do not count. Only ten players can play defense at one time, so three must ride the bench. Kickers can strike out or be called out for infractions like stepping on the chalk line that designates the kicker’s circle. Coaches must stay off the field during play, but they can—and frequently do—leave the dugout to question umpires’ calls.
The most important rule in the kickball handbook (and, I am convinced, the one that explains why kickball and tee ball are played at such different levels of intensity) is Rule 12, Section 1: No male may serve as a player, coach, or assistant coach, or enter the dugout during a game. By unwritten rule, males are even quarantined from approaching the dugout and from conversing with the players during a game. A year ago, when my daughter, Janet, was starting her first season of kickball, parents were told that the purpose of the rule was to keep the game pressure-free. Then the coaches handed out a practice schedule that would have caused the Oakland A’s to go on strike. Later they instructed the team in how to cheer in unison. For my daughter the yell would be “Come on, Janet, you can do it/Put a lot of power to it.” To feminists who believe that the U.S. would never have gone to war with the Iraqis if a woman had been president, I say: Look at the Northwest Austin Kickball League.
In this matriarchal structure, the highest station to which males may aspire is umpire. This wrong-side-of-the-tracks job is exclusively ours; in two years of watching games, I have yet to see a female ump. To qualify, you must read the rule book, attend a clinic on the rules, and take a test. The rules can be so confusing that I thought I had as much chance of passing an exam on the Aeneid as on kickball regulations. A kicker is out, for instance, if she is hit below the waist by a thrown ball, except for certain occasions when she can be hit above the waist. In any case, since the ball is big and the girls are small, how can you be sure where it hits? The test envisions all sorts of strange circumstances. In one question, the pitcher illegally steps across the pitching line while a base runner illegally strays from base too early and the kicker illegally steps over the plate and kicks a home run. What happens?
What happens is that it doesn’t matter—at least not to the officials who give the test. They won’t let a prospective umpire fail. The league is so desperate for umps that any candidate who makes it to the testing stage can expect personal attention during the exam, such as pointing out wrong answers.
And so, halfway through the season, I found myself behind the plate on a muggy spring evening, watching the warmup pitches roll in. Janet was standing beside the pitcher, avoiding eye contact with the umpire. The tallest player on her team, she has short, seldom-brushed hair, wise blue eyes, freckles around her nose, and the unwavering conviction that her father is about to embarrass her at any moment. Our pregame conversation had been brief.
“Don’t say anything to me,” Janet said. “Umpires aren’t supposed to talk.”
Between the plate and the pitcher were two chalk arcs that cut across the diamond. One, close to the plate, marked the minimum distance that a kick had to travel before it was fair. The second, about two-thirds of the way to the pitcher, designated how close the fielders could play. In rookie kickball, the only defensive positions that matter are the pitcher and the two short fielders, who position themselves on that line. Proper strategy dictates allowing the opposing team to load the bases. The hope is that a short fielder or the pitcher can grab the next kick and race to the plate for a force-out. This strategy has two advantages: It avoids the perilous act of throwing the ball, and it also eliminates the need for judgment, which most rookies do not have. A team with three good athletes on the front lines is almost unbeatable. Last year Janet’s team had twelve ordinary players and a little Ozzette Smith as left short. They won every game but one. This year we didn’t have an Ozzette, and we were not unbeatable.
STEEE-rike. The call of the first pitch was hardly out of my mouth when the coach of the opposing team emerged from the dugout. She formed a T with her hands to call time and approached the plate.
“That should have been a ball,” she said. “The pitcher used two hands. She has to pitch one-handed.”
“Not in rookie league,” I said, grateful to have remembered something from the rule book.
“It’s the second half of the season,” she corrected me. “You can only pitch with two hands in the first half.”
The crisis came in the second inning. Our team, sponsored by a flower shop called the Purple Iris, was in the field, trailing by one run. Janet tried to tag a runner heading home from third, and the runner tried to dodge the tag. Frozen, I was out of position; the runner’s body screened me from the tag. I hesitated an instant, just long enough for the base umpire from the other team to usurp my jurisdiction. Safe, he signaled. In the next moment, I realized that the distance between the two players was so scant that Janet had to have touched the runner. But it was too late.
“Let’s see the video replay,” a woman shouted from the stands. Could it have been Janet’s mother?
Every game seemed filled with close plays. Once I was umping at first base—normally an uneventful assignment because most of the action is at the plate—when one of our girls kicked a slow roller between the pitcher and the right short fielder. It was the left short fielder, however, who cut off the ball and ran swiftly toward first. It was a certain out until our runner put on a burst of speed. Bodies collided at first base, but not before I had seen the fielder’s foot touch the bag a nanosecond before the runner’s. Out! From our stands came the bitter comment, “Why do our umpires have to be the fair ones?”
Plays kept occurring that the umpiring test had failed to prepare me for. Once a girl ran home from third base on a pop-up without waiting to see if someone on our team would catch it. Surprisingly, someone did. The runner crossed the plate and headed for her dugout; then, alerted by the screams of her teammates, she tried to go back to third. Of course, the pitcher, who could have run over and stepped on third at any time, remained blissfully oblivious to all this. Out, I signaled at the runner. This brought her coach out of the dugout.
“Why is she out?”
“Because she left the field of play.”
“Where does it say in the rules that she can’t?”
“Where does it say in the rules that she can?”
During another game an opposing kicker reached down to intercept a pitch that had drifted wide of the plate. She stopped the ball and tapped it with her foot back to the catcher. Instantly our coach was on the field. The kicker had interfered with the ball, she said, and therefore should be out. The opposition’s home plate ump wasn’t about to call some mother’s child out for such a minor infraction. He summoned the base umpires to a conference and asked the dreaded question: Did anyone know the rule? We produced the perfect committee decision: The kicker was not out, and the ball was changed to a strike.
Every time I umpired, Janet’s team lost—a parallel that was not lost on the parents and coaches. Once Janet came in to pitch with two runners on base and the Purple Iris trailing 11-7. (The tally is kept by the scorekeeper and passed through the stands by word of mouth.) Janet allowed no runs, making the third out herself by picking up a grounder and running over to tag the runner going to first. Then her team rallied for four runs in their last at bat to tie the game. After the final girl had kicked, I went to perform the required act of signing the score book. It said that we had lost, 12-11.
“I can’t sign this,” I told the woman who had kept score. “This is wrong.”
“You’re just the umpire,” she said. “You don’t have to agree with it.”
I knew what had happened. When Janet was pitching, a runner had crossed the plate on the third out. Because the opposing team had continued to kick, the scorer had counted the run. I looked at the score book for confirmation. Montezuma himself could not have deciphered the glyph marks. I signed.
The Purple Iris ended the season with two wins and eight losses, three of which were by a single run. This bothered the players less than it bothered the parents and the coaches. The only time the defeats seemed to matter was during the postgame hand-slap ritual with the other team. “Good game,” our girls would say, and their opponents would respond with something like, “Yeah, nice try.”
I had time to reflect on this during the last game, our team’s worst of the season. Our players forgot everything they had been taught. The final score was 20-6, and even our head coach—probably the least cutthroat in the league—looked disconsolate. From my station at third base, I had nothing to do but watch an unending procession of opposition runners pass me on their way to score. I felt superfluous, and the feeling applied not just to this game but to the whole season of umpiring. The tee ball league had the right idea: Why burden kids this young with rules and scores and umpires? As I left the field to hang up my whisk broom for good, I worried that Janet would be as crushed by the defeat as I was. She came out of the dugout to meet me. “Daddy,” she asked earnestly, “did we tie?”