Getting My Kicks

How I learned that the toughest job in sports is umpiring girls’ kickball.

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

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