The first lesson my freshman students are task with is one that horrifies them. Public speaking, which usually ranks right up there with death and pain and failure as something people fear most.
Even though I explain that, like anything else, they will improve with practice, many just shake their heads, finding the thought of speaking before a group terrifying.
“You will get better and be more at ease, if you just keep trying,” I explain.
A hand goes up. “Hey, Ms. M, what are you afraid of?”
I have promised my students that they can ask me anything and that I will always tell them the truth, no matter how awkward the answer. I stare at my shoes for a moment and then face them.
I umpired baseball for about 25 years: mostly youth and adult leagues and high school games. I also worked a few college scrimmages and a New York Mets inter-squad Spring Training match while attending umpire school. I even had the opportunity to work a televised exhibition game between the San Francisco Giants and the AAA Phoenix Firebirds, where I called balls and strikes and accepted a line-up card from skipper Dusty Baker.
And yet, despite all that time on the diamond, I still fear line drives.
When I mentioned this to an old friend, he seemed a bit disappointed in me. He’d been a pitcher in high school, his wild hair and mustache scaring opponents perhaps more than his fastball. I sensed I’d slipped a notch on the tough-girl scale.
Why am I afraid of line drives? The easy answer is … they hurt. A lot. But it’s more than that, because I’ve been hit by foul balls probably hundreds of times, yet they are much less menacing.
Umpires are usually whacked by foul balls and the occasional pitch when working the plate, a time during which one is mostly encased in protective gear. These hits generally cause no lasting damage, though I did periodically long for a chest protector made with a woman in mind. Balls that ricochet off exposed body parts – arms and thighs for example – can leave one severely bruised. Occasionally, boney parts get thumped – an elbow or collar bone – which for a while feels reminiscent of a root canal. And yet, I did not actively fear these hits.
A line drive is different for two reasons. One is that, unlike my pitcher friend, I had no glove with which to defend myself. Even if I did, an umpire in the field is not permitted to touch a live ball. The other issue is that we can see a line drive coming. I know what you’re thinking. Just get out of the way. But that isn’t always as easy as it sounds.
A case in point: I was working a men’s league game one evening on a field that was already poorly lit when a dust storm came in. I had the bases with runners at first and second, so I was positioned in the infield between second and third. As the pitcher came set, I leaned forward and placed my hands on my thighs. He delivered the pitch and the batter smacked a rocket right at me. Did I lose it in the red haze? I don’t know. But the ball thunked off the inside of my right thigh. I was surprised when two players rushed over to assist me, since there is not often much sympathy for us folks in blue. I waved them away, both hurt and embarrassed, and limped through the rest of the game. I wore that bruise for weeks, and watched it morph through a kaleidoscope of colors: black and purple, green and sickly yellow.
Though I suffered only a few line-drive smacks over the years, those hits permanently etch my brain. Other than the bruises themselves, it was the reactions they sometimes elicited from strangers that I remember most.
Once, a woman watched me limping around off the field. “Oh, honey,” she said, placing her hand on my shoulder. “Let’s get the bastard.”
“Oh, no! You see, I’m an umpire. I got hit with a baseball. A line drive.”
“You don’t have to lie.”
“I’m not! I can show you the seams.”
But she just shook her head and walked away.
Sometimes, I miss umpiring baseball. My gear remains, having survived myriad household attempts at downsizing. Yet, if I’m being honest, I have to admit I still fear line drives.
All I can say is … you pick your monsters, I’ll pick mine.
What are you afraid of?
Blank Slate Press/Amphorae Publishing Group
Price: $16.95 Paperback, $9.99 eBook
As a Vietnam veteran and former Special Forces sniper descends into the throes of mental illness, he latches onto a lonely pregnant teenager and a group of Pentecostal zealots – the Children of Light – who have been waiting over thirty years in the Arizona desert for Armageddon. When the Amtrak Sunset Limited, a passenger train en route to Los Angeles, is derailed in their midst in a deadly act of sabotage, their lives are thrown into turmoil. As the search for the saboteurs heats up, the authorities uncover more questions than answers. And then the girl vanishes. As the sniper struggles to maintain his sanity, a child is about to be born in the wilderness.