Dropped Call

The pintsized batter took an awkward swing with his aluminum bat, barely striking the ball with a faint clinking sound. His slow roller left the batter’s box, hopped twice and curled foul of the third-base line by three feet. The young umpire yelled “foul ball!” But then something strange happened. “Run!” yelled the third-base coach, motioning frantically as the boy stared, puzzled. “Run!” I and my fellow spectators were puzzled, too. Couldn’t the coach see that the ball was foul? Well, actually, no. The ball was still moving—trickling toward third base and back toward the foul line.

By the time it came to rest, six feet from home plate and exactly on the chalked line, the young hitter stood perched at first base. A moment of chaos ensued. The rule, in fact, holds that any ball hit foul and still in motion is not a foul ball until it passes third base. Before that, if it rolls back into fair territory, it remains in play. Furthermore, a ball that comes to rest directly on the chalk line is a fair ball. So the third-base coach was right; the umpire had called the play dead too soon. But what to do now? Because of the call, no one had attempted to throw the runner out.

As the reader might imagine, opinions in the dugouts and the bleachers varied strongly—and loudly. The thirteen-year-old umpire in his new grey slacks and blue shirt stood frozen. A cacophony of advice from people three, four, five, and even six times his age, people rooting strenuously for the blue team or the red team, raged all around him. But not from me. I was not there to root for the blue team or the red team. I was the father of the ump. And I was terrified and helpless.

This was the second inning of the very first game my son had ever umpired. He had been through a single day’s training and would be paid ten dollars and a hot-dog lunch for his work. Actually, because the cost of the umpire’s uniform would be deducted from his pay over time, he might not see any actual income until halfway through the season. But no one else in the stands knew this. Nor would they likely have cared. In baseball, nobody roots for the umpire. He is at best a necessary evil and, at worst, the enemy: a fallible human being charged with making split-second decisions that can determine the course of the game’s fate. Even if he performs flawlessly, his calls can never satisfy everyone—always there will be someone who goes away believing an injustice has been done.

As my son stood amid the storm of controversy, I needed all my self-control to sit still and let him do his work. Whatever suffering there was to be done, he would have to bear it. This is the price paid by anyone who makes tough calls under difficult circumstances. And without a team behind him, my son truly had to stand alone. He handled it well, and after a good bit of chatter the game went on, with his initial, mistaken, call intact. There were other close plays, but overall it was a good first outing.

Afterward we talked through what had happened, and I used the opportunity explain the Christian ideal of “confident humility” to him in a new way. His position as umpire, I told him, required that he make the best call possible and remain steadfast in his decision, even as he knew that he might be wrong. And the possibility that he might be wrong—that inevitably at times, he would be wrong—highlighted the challenge of accepting the consequences of our decisions on other people. The work of making judgments is tougher than the work of being a player or a fan, and the stakes will always be of great importance to someone. People will be wounded by our decisions, and only a loving and indeed pastoral sensibility, coupled with some grace, will allow us to do difficult work with the right intentions. I think he got it. I hope he did.

In my family, we have always appreciated the lessons sports can offer. But the lessons my son learned behind the plate this year may be the most important ones of all. When that first game ended, someone in the stands asked me what the final score was. “I have no idea,” I said; “I was rooting for the umpire.”

Published in the 2011-11-04 issue: 

Christopher M. Duncan is dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of political science at Saint Louis University.

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