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Vernon News

THOMPSON: Calling balls and strikes on both sides of the US-Canada border

April 15, 2024 - 12:00 PM



“Play!” That’s what we say to start a baseball game. By we, I mean umpires. We never say, “Play ball!”…what you hear in movies about the game. A fine distinction, perhaps, but we don’t observe other myths either, like “the tie goes to the runner”.

Being an umpire - for that matter any sports official - isn’t for those with thin skin. Most of the folks watching - spectators - don’t really know the rules or the mechanics (your positioning for specific plays). Umpires are often called “Blue” - the traditional colour of umpire shirts - but I ask coaches and players to call me by my first name, Don.

Often players in Florida - more Southern than many people might believe - add “Mister” to my first name…Mister Don…a quaint and respectful custom of which I never tire. I, in turn, address the team as “Gentlemen”…which is my expectation. Those with whom I have most contact - usually pitchers and catchers - I learn and call them by their first names.

In high school, the spectators are mostly parents, grandparents and schoolmates and are generally well-behaved. But, call a close strike or call them out on a close play at home…you might hear a chorus of cat calls, boos and, on occasion, an epithet or insult. I’m comfortable knowing that 50 percent of the crowd believe I got it wrong. Usually the players have more respect for you than the spectators.

The coaches - for the most part - are more knowledgeable about baseball rules than players or spectators. But you’ll even hear some of them say things that make you scratch your head. In a recent game, on a ball bouncing down third base line touched in foul territory by the third baseman, a coach yelled out, “Blue, his feet were in fair territory!”

Feet in fair territory are a thing in football…it’s where the ball is in baseball…an umpire’s judgment call.

I umpire games in Florida and British Columbia…calling about 35 games in the Sunshine State…and about 45 in B.C. The rules are slightly different…but I won’t get into the weeds on that because it would eat up more of this column than necessary. Suffice it to say, I have to keep two sets of rules in mind…and know what country I’m in at any given time…kinda like walking and chewing gum.

I umpired my first baseball game in 1969…but when I was at the University of Florida after a four-year stint in the U.S. Air Force…I called lots of high school, Babe Ruth and American Legion games.

I even attended a baseball umpires school in St. Petersburg, FL in 1974. In 1976, I was offered an umpire post through Major League Baseball in the old American Association in Indianapolis, IA….a Triple-A minor league. The umpire pay back then was about half what I could earn as a reporter for a top newspaper…so umpiring became an avocation rather than vocation or career.

Umpire equipment - like all sporting goods - has skyrocketed in price over the years. I get the best gear I can find. Protecting yourself behind the plate isn’t something I want to go cheap on…ever.

So, this year…I spent $275 US on a magnesium mask that weighs less than a loaf of bread and disperses the impact of a 90 M.P.H. foul ball so well…you barely feel it. My shinguards and chest protector - are made with Kevlar and so low-profile they easily fit beneath shirt and trousers…cost $475 US.

I also have umpire caps for the plate and infield, two colours of shirts - light blue and black - all embroidered with state or provincial umpire association logos, two types of tailored trousers (one to accommodate shinguards), a ball bag, ball and strike indicator, plate brush, two belts and wrist guards. The infield and steel-toed plate shoes are another $260 US.

When my wife, Bonnie, sees me all decked out, she often asks with a smile, “Are you calling the Bluejays game in Toronto?” My philosophy…know the rules, use your experience and judgment…and look professional. You really can’t be in the umpire game for the money…it simply doesn’t pay…especially in Canada…which pays half what Florida offers.

Still, I love the game…especially calling balls and strikes behind the plate. I was a catcher my entire youth…so it’s home…no pun intended. I’ve given credit to my B.C. friend and fellow umpire, Pat Balfour, for getting me back in the game last year. I told him I’d consider it the year if I lost 30 pounds and got in shape. I lost 40…so he knew he had me.

I cannot repay my friend the debt I owe him for coaxing me back. I enjoy my fellow umpires in Florida and Vernon…a great group of guys in both places. Generally, the players and coaches are good folks, too.

The Canadian fans seem more respectful…rarely do I hear a harassing comment…and certainly no foul language. Canada just doesn’t allow unsportsmanlike behaviour…and gives umpires the teeth to back up any bark.

The first week in May, I’ll be back in Vernon…and there will be baseball. I look forward to seeing my fellow umpires there, as well as the players and coaches I came to know last year. This is one of the things that keeps me young.

I can still crouch low enough to call a low outside ball…and run fast enough from home to third to make a call on a slide when my partner umpire is going out on a deep “trouble” ball to right field.

I can hardly wait to get in the slot behind home plate on one of Vernon’s fields…motion toward the pitcher…and announce, “Play”.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.

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