The other day I was umping a Little League game I shouldn’t have been umping — one involving my own son — when things went a little haywire.
I had made a few borderline ball and strike calls that a pitcher on one team didn’t like. He was getting a little steamed and started rushing a bit. He then threw a few pitches that arrived before the hitter or the catcher had settled in at the plate. So, getting irritated myself, I barked at him in front of everyone to slow the heck down.
He responded exactly how I would have when I was 12 and pitching in a pressure-cooker while being bossed around by a semi-competent volunteer ump — he got madder. It went downhill from there, partly because the supposed adult on the field had escalated a needless confrontation.
The reason I’m telling about this is because after the game I wrote to the team’s coach to say I was sorry I hadn’t handled the situation with the pitcher better.
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A few days later an email popped into my inbox. It was from the kid’s dad.
Uh oh. I had heard this fellow arguing some of my calls during the game. I had already started a fight of sorts with the kid; now was I getting into one with the dad?
Here’s what the note said:
“I heard you felt bad about the way the game went down … PLEASE don’t!,” it began. “You and the other dads volunteer to do what is probably the most difficult job on the field. I don’t know that I could do it. We are all thankful that you get behind the plate and make those calls, so that all our kids can go out there and have fun and grow up.”
Wow. Is this guy Father of the Year, or what? Nobody had more right to be angry or disappointed, yet out of the blue he’s thanking me. Not for succeeding, which I definitely hadn’t. For just being part of some intangible tribe involved in his son growing up.
Years ago I read a story by Seattle writer Sherman Alexie that sought to describe this same odd tribe, centered on sports, and the peculiar ways that many men, fathers and sons, emote to one another through it. As he put it: “It’s the most common way in which a particular kind of male expresses love for himself, for other men, and for the world.”
For Alexie and his dad, it was basketball. Looking back at his relationship with his father, “Every plot point, every surprise, and every tender and/or painful moment has something to do with basketball,” Alexie wrote.
When Alexie’s dad had only three days to live, he started obsessing about basketball. He talked at length how he loathed Lakers star Kobe Bryant, a view that Alexie famously shares.
Alexie realized later this was the only way his dad knew how to say: “I love you, son.”
By coincidence, Alexie is a coach in this same Seattle Central Little League where my son plays baseball. He manages a team that includes his own son. When I watch them together — the dad tossing out encouragement or sometimes barbs from the dugout, the kid appearing to not hear a word of it — I think of that story.
And my son? There was another moment in that game, the one I shouldn’t have been umpiring, when a runner came racing in from third, and my son, the catcher, was set to apply the tag. It sure looked like the runner was going to be out, but at the last instant he pirouetted around my son’s glove to plant his left foot on the corner of the plate. At least that’s how I saw it. Baseball’s the game of failure, so I could be wrong.
“Safe!” I shouted. The crowd behind us booed. My son looked up at me like I was out of my bleepin’ mind.
“He got around the tag,” I said. My son turned away and yanked on his mask to get ready for the next pitch.
Some day maybe he’ll know what I really meant.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org