A lot of you are about to head out to your kids' first Little League games of the season. As you sit in the stands hoping your son or daughter gets a hit or makes a great catch and dreams of college scholarships dance in your heads, you probably never think twice about the man in blue. The game manager, crowd controller and rule enforcer. The guy no one notices until he screws up.
It's quite possibly the toughest job in Little League. Harder than manager. Harder than team mom.
Most umpires get their start by being pulled out of the stands and being volunteered by their coaches because there wouldn't be a game without them. That's kind of how Tony MacKay first ended-up behind the plate. He put on the mask once he stopped coaching his daughter. Now, he's the umpire in chief for Mill Creek Little League.
Making the calls isn't the toughest part. Being in the right spot isn't the toughest spot. It's learning to deal with the moms and the dads and the coaches that seem to forget you're a volunteer.
"I don't think about the abuse people send my way," said MacKay. "I figure it's just what they think is part of being a fan or part of being a manager. Many fans like to dispute every call you have."
MacKay remembers one game in particular where a mom was riding him on every pitch.
"I went back through the screen and asked her if the seat beside her was empty, available," he said. "She looked at me a little bit confused, and she said 'Yes it is.' Of course, my response at that point was, 'Good. I'll be over there to sit beside you because it sounds like you have a great view of the strike zone from there.'"
Even though MacKay knows he probably shouldn't have confronted her, the mom shut up.
One of my big concerns as a first time majors coach is how to avoid being ejected for getting a little too emotional during games. MacKay made it pretty clear. Swearing will get me tossed. So will any phrase that starts with the word "you" and ends with an insult.
"You are the worst ever," said MacKay. "You are blind. You are an idiot. Those are all quick ways to get ejected."
Now, he will give most managers a final chance. He usually asks managers if they really want to get ejected, though one time it backfired.
"The coach said 'Yes it's my wife's birthday, and I'd like to get home,'" he said. MacKay said he wasn't ready for that answer, but "I let him go," he joked.
Until I took a four hour umpire's clinic this week, I had no idea what they did, besides call balls and strikes and interpret more convoluted rules than our current tax code. They move a lot. They have to make sure they're in the right spot and avoid the players. They are doing their best. They want to be right. They're not out to screw us or our teams.
"A good player is unsuccessful seven times out of ten," MacKay said. "A good coach will be happy if he calls a steal that is successful 60 percent of the time. With an umpire, if we make two errors in our 100 to 150 judgement decisions within a game, that's a bad game."
But before you give these volunteers too much sympathy they do have the best seat in the house. When they do blow a call, the entire crowd isn't yelling at them. Half of the crowd is happy.