The first time I ever umpired a Little League game, I was scared out of my wits. I hadn’t really had a chance to review, much less memorize, the hundred-some-page rule book that the league had given me. I knew that one of the constant truths of baseball is that “every game, you see something you’ve never seen before,” and usually, in those situations, there’s an umpire right at the center, the focus of all the attention. That was what I figured was going to happen. I would be the focus of all the attention. Every pitch I called, every close play, every muffed fly ball or fair-foul call or slide-tag sequence, I had to be there, and everyone would be looking at me for the ENORMOUS, GAME-DECIDING, LIFE-CHANGING DECISION. Young lives would be shaped and perhaps even scarred by what I did on that field. What was I going to do? Why had I taken on this duty?
In a nervous fit, I emailed my friend Shawn, a coach in the league, and the person who brought me on to umpire. “I don’t know if I can do it,” I said. “I’ve barely had a chance to look at the rule book.”
Look, he said in so many words. Lighten up.
What you’re going to be doing mainly, he continued, is calling balls and strikes. No, actually, to clarify that, what you’re going to be doing mainly is calling BALLS. “These are 8, 9, 10 year old kids out there on the mound. They really don’t do a great job finding the strike zone. Get used to calling ‘BALL ONE, BALL TWO, BALL THREE, BALL FOUR, TAKE YOUR BASE!'”
But… but… what about those plays that they always write about in books like “Knotty Problems Of Baseball”… you know: “With two runners on base and one out, batter pops up. The runners advance and when the second baseman drops the ball, the runner retreats to first, where the batter is standing. The umpire did not call the infield fly rule. How should this be scored?”
Look, he said again…
Just stick a copy of the rule book in your back pocket. If something comes up that you don’t know the answer to, call TIME. You’re the umpire. You can do that. Look up the answer. If you don’t know it, ask one or both of the coaches for clarification. If you didn’t see a play, ask someone to help you with the call.
“If nobody cries or dies,” Shawn concluded, “you’re fine. Lighten up.”
Of course, once I got to the games themselves, and put on the mask and the chest protector and crouched behind the plate as the batter stepped in, I forgot about all my misgivings. The ball came into the plate from the pitcher, the batter followed it in, I watched it go through the imaginary three-dimensional “frame” my eyes had projected above the plate between the batter’s knees and shoulders, and as the ball SMACKED into the catcher’s glove, I made my ball-strike calls without thinking. Sometimes they were perfect. Sometimes, on borderline pitches, I blew it and I knew it… and the batter and the catcher and the pitcher and all seven fielders and everyone on both benches and all the parents, friends and relatives watching, as well as every player who’d ever taken the field dating back to 1845 in Cooperstown, all knew it.
And I’d feel a collective sigh or hear a “Come on!” from some unseen fan, coach or player.
But the catcher would toss the ball back to the pitcher and the game would go on.
The only time I ever got stuck was in a game where a ball bounced, from my perspective, from foul territory into fair, and I got a brain cramp and couldn’t remember how far the runners could advance, if at all… and when I made the wrong call, one of the coaches corrected me, and everyone went back to their respective bases. As the ten-year-old runner who’d advanced to third walked back to second, he looked at me and said “Boy, this game is sure confusing.”
“You said it,” I replied. And the game continued.
Sometimes I forget, when I’m standing in front of a class, about to impart wisdom and knowledge that will Shape And Mold Their Very Future And Being, that, really, it’s not that serious, this teaching business. We make it a little more serious than it needs to be. The grades and tests and assessments we come up with give it all an air of seriousness and weight, and we fear that if we make one misstep, we will harm and scar our students’ futures. We will be the one teacher they had whom they WON’T thank, someday down the road, when they look back on their educations.
We sort of forget that, at its core, learning is most of all fun and exciting… in many ways, a game. People always complain about the “terrible two” stage of child development, but most moms I know say the same thing that my friend Lindsey said about teaching that age child: “It’s amazing to watch how much knowledge they’re soaking up every day, and how excited they are about learning.”
This excitement and fun can get lost with older students, just as the pure fun of baseball may get lost by the time a player becomes a collegiate or professional athlete, and considerations like wins and losses, statistics, salaries, and egos overtake the sheer joy of going out onto the green grass and playing a game.
It is up to us to keep the play and the fun in learning… to remember, and remind our students, that, yes, while the game can sure be confusing at times, it’s not life or death.
If nobody cries or dies, you’re fine. Lighten up.