Forty years ago, I made plans to attend umpire school in St. Petersburg, Florida, a strange journey that had me calling balls and strikes alongside 104 men, a time that would change my life in more ways than I could imagine. I went to camp because I wanted to become a better baseball umpire so that I could improve my knowledge of the game and ultimately convince some forward-thinking news director to hire me as a sportscaster. While that is what happened, something else occurred on those dusty fields. I met the man I would marry, though that event occurred seven years later.
I mention this now because John Higgins—an irreverent, funny, big-hearted man—has succumbed to Covid-19 at the age of 65. Higgs would insist here that I also point out he could be a royal pain in the ass, still he never failed to help others who needed a hand. He was a lover of animals which always had our home filled with stray dogs and cats that became part of the family and a teller of stories that often had people doubling over in laughter.
Higgs and I married in 1988, despite the fact that his baseball supervisor insisted our union was not a good idea. Higgs, who was a minor league umpire for 12 years and still hoped for a shot at the big leagues, laughed when he was told that baseball didn’t like its people involved with the media. I was a sportscaster in Phoenix at that point. I told him we could put off the wedding, but he refused. Shortly after we married, he received a letter in the mail. He’d been fired. Higgs struggled for a time—baseball was his first love—but then launched himself into a career as a chef, since he loved cooking almost as much as baseball.
It was while working in various restaurants that Higgs found young people to take under his wing. One, a teenager from a home awash in drug addiction, had committed an armed robbery. Still, Higgs brought him home and instead of prison the judge agreed to let him live with us. That boy grew into a chef who is now married to a teacher and is the father of three children. When I later became a foster mom, I realized that Higgs might have started me on that journey.
Higgs and I divorced in 2000. He moved to Mexico, then Florida, so I hadn’t seen him in years, though we communicated regularly through e-mails. We remained friends. And, had he arrived on my doorstep, we would have certainly hugged and celebrated the good times.
While I don’t know what happens when we die, perhaps for Higgs there’s a baseball diamond under a blue sky. Maybe, his old friend John McSherry—the formable Major League umpire who died behind home plate in Cincinnati on opening day in 1996—is there with him. And they’re telling stories. Anyone who had the pleasure of being around the two of them when they were on a roll can attest that they could have been a stand-up comedy team.
Two years ago, I wrote a story about how Higgs and I met. I am posting it again here.
Farewell, my friend.
UMPIRE SCHOOL: A TWISTED LOVE STORY
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 Kinnamon’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 from scores of wannabe umpires echoed across the dusty field.
“Jee…sus Christ! That was pathetic!” Senior instructor Joe Brinkman grabbed the bill of his cap and slapped it against his leg. “Sound like you mean it!”
Furtively eyeing one another, we campers bent over again, hands splayed just above our knees. We stared at imaginary bases, 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, we would learn, 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 me?” He turned 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. 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. With this in mind, campers were sometimes picked to perform certain special tasks. My big moment came one beautiful sunny day.
“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, 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 arrived at the door where the equipment was stored. 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 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.
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 didn’t get away quickly enough to avoid hearing the curses that were being hurled my way by my fellow campers.
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 at our wedding to celebrate.