I entered a tiny office in St. Petersburg, Florida, signed the legal forms, and was escorted to a single-story cottage across the road that fronted the facility. Unlike all but a handful of the 105 students registered for Bill Kinnemon’s Umpire School Class of 1981, I would have my own room, since putting me in the dorm with the guys was obviously out of the question.
I plumped the thin pillow, leaned back on the cot, and scanned the schedule that would direct my life for the next five weeks. Baseball rules classes, on-field clinics, and scrimmages in which students would participate as both umpires and players. My stomach twisted at the thought of anyone seeing me in the field. I’d never played baseball or softball. I could already hear the “she throws like a girl” jeering and wondered if there was any way I could actually avoid having to throw a baseball.
The next morning, we campers lined up in rows. “He’s out!” I called, straightening to my full height, bringing my left arm horizontally across my chest and my right up and bent at the elbow. Both hands were clenched in tight fists. Out calls emanating from scores of wannabe umpires echoed across the dusty field.
“Jee…sus Christ! That was pathetic!” senior instructor Joe Brinkman screamed, grabbing the bill of his cap and slapping it on his leg. “Sound like you mean it!”
Furtively eyeing one-another, we bent over in unison again, hands splayed just above our knees, staring at an imaginary base, pretending the runner and throw were arriving almost simultaneously.
“He’s out!” I joined the others, glad I didn’t have a high voice. I might have been able to blend in, had it not been for the long, auburn ponytail. Cutting my hair short might have been prudent.
Major League Umpire John McSherry, 375 pounds, walked unsteadily through the lines of aspiring umpires, saying nothing, looking decidedly uncomfortable: the result of some especially painful dental work and a night of bubbly self-medication.
“He’s out! He’s out! He’s out!” We screamed over and over, working on our posture and intonation. McSherry wiped a hand across his face: the February Florida heat causing spots of perspiration on his red cheeks. As I bent down in preparation for another out call, he passed by, without even a glance.
It was not until later that night, when my name was announced during dinner, that McSherry sat up and stared. “Anne? Anne? There’s a girl here? You’re kidding,” he said, turning to the Minor League instructor who stood by his side. John Higgins pointed me out. McSherry looked over and waved his hand in the air as if the whole idea was simply too ridiculous to consider.
The days were grueling: long and hot, on the field and in the classroom. I worked hard to be just one of the boys.
One of the tenants of umpire school was that all campers should have an equal opportunity to be treated badly. The logic being that umpires will, by nature, be victims of disdain when working games, and if you can’t handle the abuse in school, you will never survive on the field.
My big moment came one afternoon. Campers were sometimes picked to perform certain special tasks, and, now, it was my turn.
“Butler!” McSherry called out, making sure my fellow fledgling umpires heard. “Bring the balls up to field two for this afternoon’s drills.”
“Yes, sir!” I said, chin up in my best imitation of an Army recruit.
I’d watched him berate campers, throwing his hat, and tramping around the dusty diamond like a bull with hemorrhoids. He’d go nose to nose with these grown men and they would shrivel. In fact, 12 campers would simply grab their gear and quit, walking away rather than endure the punishment.
Fifteen minutes prior to the afternoon drill session, I stood at the door of the equipment shed. Higgins, who everyone called Higgs and who seemed to be McSherry’s Sancho Panza, smiled as he leaned up against the wall, arms folded across his chest.
“I’m here to get the balls for field two,” I said. Higgs was cute with bright blue eyes.
“Don’t worry about it.” He smiled. “They’re already up on the field.”
“Really? But John insisted that I bring them up.”
“Nope. You’re good.”
I was one of the first people at the field, so I waited and watched as the group assembled, the last few stragglers running full speed up the dirt road, because being late was never, ever acceptable.
“OK, we’ll be doing first base drills,” McSherry said. “It’s about listening to the ball hit the glove and seeing the foot on the bag. Listen and look. That’s what you’re going to do. Got it?”
“Yes, sir!” the group called out as one.
Then McSherry paused rather dramatically. “Who’s got the balls?” Silence. “Who’s got the balls?” he yelled louder. “Who was supposed to … Butler! Where are the balls?”
“I … I went to get them and Higgs …”
“Where are the fucking balls?”
I stared at Higgs. He avoided my gaze. “I don’t know,” he said. “I saw them in the shed.”
McSherry squinted at me. “Get ‘em, Butler! And while you’re gone, your friends here will run laps around the field.”
My eyes grew wide.
“Start now, gentlemen! Run! Run!”
I bolted across the field and down the hill faster than I’d ever moved in my life. But I did not get away quickly enough to avoid hearing the curses that were being hurled my way.
When umpire school finally came to an end after five long weeks, it was, strangely, hard to leave. It was as if we all suffered from Stockholm Syndrome, where we had learned to love our captors and wished to emulate them.
Like most of the other campers, I flirted with those professional baseball dreams, even though a job would have meant life in the low minors, shuffling from tiny town to tiny town, little pay, low budget motels, and the built-in cruelties umpires endure daily.
When it came to picking the campers who would be recommended for that life, most of the school staff members decided it would not be a good idea to send a woman up the line. It was 1981, after all. It’s interesting, and came as a bit of a surprise, that I had a friend in John McSherry. I would find out years later that he was the only one who rated me in the top 15. But with most of the other staffers positioning me much lower on the list, my eventual ranking was 32. The top 30 candidates were certified for duty in Minor League instructional camps. I was told that McSherry thought I had good officiating instincts.
Did I deserve a job? Probably not. About ten days into camp, I injured a hamstring, which limited my mobility. And, in all honesty, I have always been a horrible runner, which just about anyone who’s ever officiated with me can attest. Apparently, one day my awkward stride caused McSherry to growl. “Jesus Christ, Higgs! She runs worse than I do!”
How do I know this? Five years after I attended umpire school, I ran into John Higgins. Then, I married him and John McSherry was there with us to celebrate.
Anne Butler Montgomery’s novel, The Scent of Rain, tells the story of two Arizona teenagers whose fates become intertwined. Rose flees into the mountains to escape from her abusive polygamous community where her only future is marriage to a man older than her father. Adan, whose only wish is to be reunited with his mother, is on the run from the cruelties of the foster care system. Are there any adults they can trust? Can they even trust each other? The Scent of Rain is available at https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780996390149 and wherever books are sold.
4 thoughts on “Umpire School: A Twisted Love Story”
Great story, Anne! It’s like the Bull Durham for umpires! Wink.
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3rd row middle?
Great story. Made me think of a couple of sports stories of my own. While attending a basketball camp in the Poconos with Livingstonites Dave Pleskow and Greg Rorke, we had a young Bobby Knight(head coach at Army at the time) as a counselor. He caught a bunch of campers singing Three Dog Night’s “One is the Loneliest Number” in our cabin after “lights out”, and had us “duck walking” laps on the outdoor courts at midnight as punishment. Good times.
Also, in the absence of the assigned little league umpires, my friend (the league president) and I , stepped in and did a game for two teams of ten year olds. The game went smoothly until my partner erroneously called the infield fly rule. It wasn’t as easy as it looked.
Thanks for sharing your experiences
Thank you, Coleman. I like that you stepped in and gave umpiring a try. I believe everyone who plays a game or has a child or grandchild who does, should have to try it once. Seems fair, yes? And do be careful with that infield fly rule. It can be a doozy. 🙂