Mike Nuckols: Bad Umpire

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Sorry…on with the story:

So last year was Jack’s first year of kid-pitch baseball. First game, first at-bat, first pitch…CLUNK…Jack gets drilled in the thigh. He never really recovered. Every at-bat from then on he was basically cowering. He never even swung. (Mind you, he still walked a lot because first year kid pitch is all walks and stealing. It’s brutal.)

So I said to him: “You get a hit and we all go out for milkshakes.” (Milkshakes are a standard bribe in our household.)

That worked a little and slowly as the season went on, he actually started to take half-hearted swings from time to time. But he was still not very close to getting a hit. It became a pretty big deal for the whole team. Everyone wanted to see Jack get a hit. (Alex most of all, because he wanted a milkshake.)

At the second-to-last game of the year, the coach says that they need a parent to be the field umpire. I, foolishly, volunteered. I’d umped the previous year once before and it was a mess. Probably the most stressful two hours of my life. I blew a bunch of calls. However, I did learn to take a minute, think, and then make the call.

So I’m calling Jack’s game and doing all right. Then in the 5th inning I notice that the opposing team’s new pitcher is throwing meatballs. Practically underhanded. Jack is on deck and about to go to the plate. I jog over, lean down and say:

“Jack, this guy is throwing slow and right down the middle. This is your guy. This is it.”

His eyes got big and he nodded. I scurried back to my post between first and second.

In comes the pitch. Jack swings and corks it right down the third base line. He takes off running, but not very fast because he’s watching the ball. The third baseman grabs the ball, fires it across the diamond. Jack’s foot hits the bag just as the ball hits the first baseman’s glove. It’s a photo finish.

I stand for a moment. Go over what I’d just seen…and then say:

“I’ve got him out.”

I called him out. The result was nothing sort of devastation. I couldn’t look at Jack, but I heard him go back to the dug out, which was right at first base. From there I can hear him sobbing. I hear his coach speaking words of encouragement. I hear Shani come over from the stands and try to comfort him. Jack continues to hide his face under his batting helmet and weep. No milkshake. No big hit. His dad had told him that the big moment had arrived…and then took it right away from him.

We had an awkward walk back to the car and an awkward ride home. I told him that I really did think he was out and I had to call it fairly. He insisted he was safe, but not in an angry way.

The next morning after breakfast, I consulted my to-do list. I had a bunch of things to get done. I lifted the notebook up and there, scrawled in big blocky kid writing is a new item on my to-do list:

“Go back in time and call Jack safe.”

Postscript: Tonight Jack had a game and I sat in the dugout and kept book. Jack’s team was down by 2 in the last inning. Jack was up first. I watched him take practice swings with determination and wide eyes of the potential to get his first hit this year. He struck out on a pitch that WAS CLEARLY A BALL GODDAMIT. Then I watched him back in the dugout as his face crinkled into angry, frustrated tears.

7 thoughts on “Mike Nuckols: Bad Umpire

  1. I was the coach who was consoling Jack in the dugout after that blind ump made a horrible call. He was really sad until we started thinking of funny names to call that ump…I think Nuckolhead was the winner.

  2. Heart breaker, Mike. Very well written, too. I’m sure that is one you and Jack will remember forever. Hopefully it is of some comfort that eventually he will learn the lesson in integrity you were showing by example.

    The beginning of the story sounded awfully familiar. 2 weeks ago at my son’s very first baseball practice, we got there and met the coach for the first time. Coach paired him up with another kid to play catch. Second toss, and he takes a baseball to the nose, gushing blood. Practice over.

    Coach and I can’t get him to keep his eyes open if the ball comes within 3 feet of him now. Auspicious start to the season.

    1. I did not. Actually, part of the deal was that if he didn’t get a hit all season he’d get a milkshake at the end. (He did not end up getting a hit.) Fall ball, however, he got a few. Still nothing this spring season, but he will soon. He’s swinging and making contact — he’s gotten out every time.

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