The worst fashion decision I ever made

umpire_2I love the raised eyebrows I get when I tell people I’m a Little League umpire. I wonder how many times in my life I’ve been so motivated by such a reaction.

I’m certainly not compelled because I’m the mom who drops everything for her kid. I don’t have time to fill and I don’t actually like sports. I was the girl in high school PE who flinched when the ball came at her. I haven’t checked since to see if I’ve improved. Until recently, I’m not sure I’d ever worn a mitt.

I hope to save my kids from this fate by constantly exposing them to sports. At the slightest mention of interest, I sign them up. But kids sports require parental involvement, and I can’t afford a stunt double.

At the parent meeting for Colin’s first season in Little League, the coach passed around sign-up sheets. The snack form was full when it got to Mike and me. I signed up to sell raffle tickets. Then coach asked for two umpire volunteers.

The room of ten or so dads and a couple of moms fell absolutely silent. No one made eye contact. The silence went on a beat.

I didn’t know baseball from bouillabaisse, but sheesh, how hard could it be? My hand went up. I volunteered both of us. Mike and I would trade off umpiring.

I could see Mike giving me a look out of the corner of my eye.  I ignored him.

The coach then said something guaranteed to spur irrational behavior on my part.

“Okay,” he said, “we can have moms umpire too.”

Okay … What?

Any cogent female would have taken umbrage as a woman and as a mom. That’s not where I went.

When I was a high school junior, my friend Lisa suggested we volunteer to be managers for the cross-country team. We would travel with them and keep track of stats. We could earn a letter in a sport without all the sweating and running.

By the time I told my parents I was volunteering to be cross country team manager, I’d convinced myself that I was performing an act of altruism on behalf of my school. Dad called me out.

“No child of mine is going to letter in a sport without actually doing the sport,” he said.

I was incensed. What was he inferring? That I was lazy? Did he think I couldn’t run a full five kilometers in the summer heat without passing out?

Such was the level of my indignation that I joined the team once to prove him wrong, and again the next year to prove I hadn’t just done it the first time for such a petty thing as to prove my father wrong.

I was welcomed, but never really part of the close-knit group. There were so few students interested in cross-country we rarely had a full enough roster to split into varsity and junior varsity categories for meets. They couldn’t be picky, but they knew I didn’t love running.

They chomped at the bit for speed work, and became giddy about distance runs. I plotted escape. We’d all stretch and warm up, then take off for the daily regimen: seven miles in the hills, or some such nonsense. As soon as they were too far ahead to see, I’d split off to go window-shopping.

I came in dead last in nearly every single cross country meet for two years. I set a school record for slowest runner in Idaho.

Colin’s coach’s comment took me right back to high school. Suddenly I had a point to prove. He didn’t know me. I could be channeling Jackie-freaking-Robinson right there on his davenport and he dare question my ability as an umpire?

I could do whatever I want, thank you very much. And if that included umpiring, one coach’s surprised reaction and all it implied wasn’t going to stop me.

But there’s other stuff that could have.

Umpire certification takes roughly forty-seven gajillion hours of class time and clinics that will freak out anyone who has never really paid attention to the sport.  These classes assume one knows how to play the game and move on to things like when to call an infield fly, how to handle an appeal, and the difference between obstruction and interference. It’s like listening to a lecture in quantum physics. For the record, I don’t know quantum physics either.

Certified umpires wear a particular uniform – not available in women’s sizes – consisting of a baggy blue polo shirt and grey pants. There’s a bunch of padding that happens to be communal gear, is made for someone much bigger than I am, and has likely been worn by hundreds of big, sweaty guys over the years. This padding is supposed to be worn under all the baggy clothing.

“Nothing says: ‘I’m a rookie umpire, please question my judgment’ than wearing your padding on top of your clothing,” our instructor told us in my first clinic.

Really? Well, nothing says ‘I like dressing like a storm trooper and risking some weird skin disease’ like wearing this stuff next to my skin, thank you. I’ll take “rookie.”

For my first game I was field umpire and didn’t have to wear all the padding. I’d also missed the class where they’d handed out the regulation blue polo shirt, so I may not have looked official.

umpire“Someone tell the mom on the field that we’re about to start the game,” some old guy told our coach, within earshot of my husband. Mike told me later, knowing my reaction would be such that he’d never have to split umpire duties with me.

The old man wasn’t the last to wonder why there was a mom still on the field when the game started. I built up a little confidence that season nevertheless. Whether or not I was any good was less important than the fact that I was willing to do it. NOBODY wanted this job. The following year, the coach implored me to do it again. I took a little more care to wear the ugly blue shirt and baggy grey pants. They looked awful on me, but I was less often considered the mom who had inadvertently wandered out onto the field.

The cool thing about starting out with little kids is the ball is so rarely hit that the only thing the umpire needs to know is the difference between a ball, a foul and a strike.  The boys may also, as it turns out, know less about the sport than I do.

“Are you our vampire?” A seven year-old infielder once asked me.

Perhaps most importantly, except in rare instances where a play is challenged and one has to know which of the dozens of obscure rules may apply, umpiring is more about attitude than knowledge or skill. I never have to throw the ball or swing a bat. I just have to be comfortable getting in people’s faces and acting indignant when someone questions my judgment.

Becoming disproportionately indignant at a perceived slight is kind of how I landed this gig.

This, however, was the year I was going to sit it out. I could maybe bring snacks to two games to make up for taking a powder on the umpiring. I’m really too busy to go through the annually required certification, not to mention the hours I spend looking up obscure rules, searching for YouTube videos on umpire training, and popping antacids before a game.

I was going to sit it out before some unsuspecting doofus drew that line in the sand.

When you sign your kid up for Little League, you’re directed from the table where they check your address and kid’s birth certificate to the volunteer table. You could probably avoid the volunteer table if you’re paying attention to the queuing system. It was early. I was thinking about coffee.

“Have you signed the parent code of honor?” The guy asked, checking the box when I nodded.

“Does …” he looked down at our form “’Colin have a parent willing to volunteer for the team?” He said. He folded his hands and looked at me over his bifocals. “Is his dad willing to be a manager, say, or umpire?”

There it was. The line. I tried to ignore it.

“I can do the snacks or the fundraising.”

“You know, Colin’s been on a double ‘A’ team for two years now,” he said. “You’ll want to have him assessed to see if he should move in to triple ‘A’.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Mom, this is boring,” Colin whispered. “I don’t want to do this.” I shushed him.

“And while they’re deciding that,” the guy said, “you know, if they’re on the bubble, and his dad is willing to umpire, it could push him up to ‘triple A.’”

I bristled. Oh yeah? “What if his mom umpired?”

He blinked. “Well yeah, that would …. Okay, so I’ll mark you down as ‘umpire.’”

So I sat through another round of classes and clinics, the only woman in the room. This year I noticed a couple of dads thumbing through the rulebook, trying to keep up.

And then, for the first time ever, we played a team with a woman umpire. Her name was Jessica. She was elated to see me in my baggy blue shirt. We both gushed over each other for a minute before remembering to play it cool. There’s no gushing in baseball.

Jessica called a good game. I think. I don’t know, but no one challenged any of her calls. Nor did anyone ask why there were moms still hanging out on the field when the game started.

Colin has been less than enthusiastic about baseball this year. He tells me when the season is over he’s going to go out for swim team. That’s awesome. I don’t swim well, but I can sit by the side of a pool like a boss.

And I can bring snacks.

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