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Thursday 17th July, 2003

Movings and Shakings, All-Star Action 16:15 CDT by ike

Last night Madison hosted the Northwoods League All-Star Game, but before I elaborate on the festivities, first I need to make mention of an important development: last week, my partner Ryan got 'the call' -- that is, he earned his promotion to Minor League baseball! So Sunday afternoon he worked his last NWL game, then flew Monday afternoon down to Florida to begin work in the Gulf Coast League (Rookie ball)(his partner is Vic, one of my friends from Umpire School). I spoke to Ryan after he worked his first game behind the plate, and he said everything went great. Nicely done...

While Ryan's promotion was certainly exciting, it also meant I received a new partner for the remainder of the season. So I collected Mike Weinstein, another Umpire School classmate of mine, at the airport yesterday afternoon, and we'll work our first game tomorrow night. Good times.

But amidst these comings and goings, the three-day All-Star break ranks as the highlight of the past week: all the umpires redezvous'd in Madison Tuesday, and since then we've spent the time hanging out and trading 'war stories.' These few days mark the first time we've seen any of the other crews since the start of the year, except for one coincidental meeting in the parking lot in Waterloo, so everyone's excited to relate all the gory details of various plays, ejections, etc.

The All-Star festivities included a catered luncheon, a combine for the players in front of pro scouts, a homerun derby and the game itself. In an effort to get all the umpires some action during the game, we worked a six-man crew, with different people rotating in at the various positions throughout the night. I was actually selected to work the plate, though, so I did the whole game, which ended 8-7 in favor of the North Division All-Stars in 10 innings. For more details, including info on the dude hitting 97mph on the radar gun, see the Northwoods League website. Also, here are a couple photos...

Saturday 5th July, 2003

Birthdays, First Half, WQ, Pix 16:00 CDT by ike

Before getting into the meat of the report, I have some birthday updates to take care. First, while bemoaning my own less-than-ideal birthday experience, I carelessly neglected to send birthday greetings to several other Flag Day babies. So, quite belatedly: Lippe, Saret, and Laurel's dad, 'Happy Birthday.' More June birthdays included Giz and Jash, and recent July birthdays featured Spinner, DKIA, Abby B. and DMerl. I hope you all enjoyed great days...

Now, to the umpiring: yesterday marked not only the July 4th holiday (spent in Wausau, WI), but also the end of the first half of the Northwoods League season. The St. Cloud Riverbats and Madison Mallards clinched their respective first-half division titles, and therefore earned playoff births come August. They will face the second-half winners from their divisions (if it's not them again), or whichever team posts the next best overall record (if they do also win the second-half title).

Despite the glaring lack of off days (one since 6/1, excluding two games that got rained out) and the overall grind involved with consistently travelling every other day to a new place where I don't know anyone, my attitude/emotional outlook seems to have improved somewhat recently. Not only have I faced fewer arguments (maybe managers are getting tired, too?), but I've actually worked some fairly solid games. The St. Cloud/Mankato Moondog matchup of a week or so ago stands out most prominently among those games: I worked the plate as the starters for each club pitched matching 9-inning shutouts (surrendering about 6 hits combined), then Mankato's kid came out and pitched a scoreless 10th, and finally a reliever for St. Cloud allowed a run in the bottom half for a 1-0 final.

Unfortunately, there haven't been many unusual plays that would provide juicy Weeky Quiz material. About the best I can muster is:

The batter walks to lead off the third inning. Before a pitch to the next hitter, the defensive manager emerges from the dugout and produces his lineup card, claiming, 'Number 10 (the guy that just walked) isn't listed -- he should be out.' Upon checking your own copy of the lineup, you find that the player in question is listed as wearing number 20. In other words, his name is correct, but his number is wrong. How should you rule?

Finally, here are some photos my dad took in La Crosse, home of the Loggers...

Wednesday 25th June, 2003

Staying Dry, WQs, Pix 13:00 CDT by ike

The Midwest is known for many things, and severe stroms must rank among them. Ryan and I finally got our first thunderstorm action as we headed northwest from St. Cloud up to Alexandria -- the rain was so severe we had to pull to the side of the highway and wait it out. Then when we arrived in Alex, we discovered that much of downtown, including the field, was underwater (see photo, and notice both the basketball hooops, as an indicator of the water level, and the cars floating around). Needless to say, Monday's game was a no-go.

To compensate for the rainout, yesterday became a scheduled double-header. Unfortunately, only an inning and a half into the game the storms returned, and further play became impossible. On the bright side, Ryan and I have enjoyed the light work schedule the last couple days after three weeks of games every day, and the situation provided fodder for a Weekly Quiz:

As the leadoff man in the bottom of the second digs in, torrential rain arrives and the umpires halt play. Assuming the weather prevents any more action, what happens to the game a) in the Major Leagues, and b) in a league such as ours (and many Minor Leagues, or National Association leagues) that employs the 'Optional Suspended Game Rule'?

I realize I've been slacking the WQ department, so to get back on track, I've got another one that comes from an earlier game:

With two outs and a runner at third, the batter faces a 2-2 count. On the pitch, the runner breaks for the plate in an attempt to steal home [Ed. note: second straight-steal of home we've seen this year!]. As the catcher moves to receive the pitch and apply the tag, he tips the batter's bat mid-swing with his glove. In the end, the batter only succeeds in fouling off the pitch. What's the ruling?

And to conclude the subject of Weekly Quizzes, I'd like to finally announce a winner to the first WQ Competition........Eric Etu! Ken B, Giz, Kirk, Brian and others put forth strong efforts, but Etu surged ahead in the end. (Etu, your prize is shipping to CA this very minute -- I will award it to you when I return.) Already in the second Competition, Haw and Ken B. are off to quick starts -- send in those answers!

Lastly, some more photos of the my various environs...

Duluth, MN, with Lake Superior in the foreground.

La Crosse, WI, as seen from lookout point.

The Mighty Mississippi.

Finally, local folk, fishin' fo' catfish.

Friday 20th June, 2003

Ups and Downs 17:00 CDT by ike

Long time since I last posted -- I've had a tough go this past week, with managers having some unkind things to say about my performance, and I just didn't feel like writing. Among the comments were:

'That's on you, Ike!' (When a runner ended up scoring after walking on a close 3-2 pitch)

Manager: 'Where'd that pitch miss?' Me: 'Up.' Manager: 'Wrong answer!'

And my favorite: 'That was a terrible display of umpiring.'

Of couse, taking some heat is certainly part of my job, and I'm sure I'll get used to it over time. But for now these types of comments don't exactly lift my spirits.

(In retrospect, it's sort of ironic that the one guy I ejected didn't say a single word to me.)

Then on top of it all, I lost my cell phone (on my birthday, no less -- very sincere thanks to all those that attempted to call me), which made my funk that much worse (incredible how much I rely on my phone, having only owned it for six or eight months).

But, I worked a pretty strong game last night in St. Cloud, so things are looking up. In fact, there have been a number of high points so far. Among them:

Working the plate for a dude hitting 94 on the radar gun.

Witnessing an amazing, over-the-shoulder, bare-handed catch by the second baseman on a short flyball to center.

Pinch-hitter: 'I gotta bat 'cause the dude that's supposed to be up is taking a shit.'

That same pinch-hitter, now catching, after his pitcher goes to 2-0 on a hitter and someone in the crowds yells, 'Watch your release point!': 'Thanks, pitching coach.'

And finally:

Manager: 'You called a good game, Ike -- best I've seen so far.'

Thursday 12th June, 2003

Nitty Gritty 17:00 CDT by ike

In retrospect, I realized my last post glossed over many of the details about the 'Minor League-esque' baseball lifestyle, so I want to more thoroughly describe my experience.

The teams in the league tend to play two games at a time against one another, so Ryan and I generally travel every other day: drive to a new city and work a game on day one, stay over and work another game on day two, stay over and then travel day three, etc. When we arrive in a new town, our first stop is either the ballpark or the club's offices, where we meet with the General Manager and discuss the specifics for the upcoming series, such as where we're staying, eating [eg, the Happy Chef, right] and fueling, game times, special promotions, weather forecasts, and where to dress (locations that range from a separate umpires' locker room to the storage closet for the concession stand -- these various compartments are sometimes also occupied by the team's mascot). If necessary, we also check in with the grounds crew and make sure the field's in playable condition.

From there, we chill for a few hours, then return to the park an hour before game-time to begin the pre-game preparations, which by and large consists of a) getting dressed, and b) rubbing up the (three dozen) base balls. To perform (b), we use the 'special mud' that comes from the banks of some river (Deleware?) that only a few people know about. You may think I'm joking, but I'm not -- the location of the source of this stuff is as well guarded as the recipe for Coke. (Incidentally, the desire to keep the recipe for Coke a secret accounts for why Coke isn't patented -- if they put a patent on it, they have to explain how they make it...)

Ten minutes prior to game-time, Ryan and I emerge from our quarters and take the field, heading to home plate to meet with the managers, exchange lineups and discuss the ground rules. All that's left from there is to call the game (nine innings, except a scheduled double-header, which is two seven-innng games).

Keep in mind, though, that the clubs feel the need to get creative in order to attract fan interest (and they make deals with local business to generate revenue), so between innings there are often promotions, such as, but not limited to:

:: Kids' base-race (two kids put on huge jerseys and super big shoes, then race to the plate)
:: Dizzy bat spin (put your head on the bat and turn around 10 times, then race to third)
:: Golf chip (hit a golf ball from the plate to a hoop in the outfield for a prize)
:: Balloon launch (hit the proper ad on the outfield fence with a water balloon for a prize), and
:: Cream pie (stand there while your friend walks up and slams you in the face with a cream pie from a local bakery)

(The catcher and I had a good laugh about that last one -- who volunteers for that?)

Plus, you've also the beer batter (someone on the opposing team, and if he strikes out, beer goes to half price) and the homerun hitter (after the first home-team homerun, they give away a watermelon), not to mention the occasional celebrity first-pitch-thrower (Bob Feller, for one) and frequent post-game fireworks shows.

Good stuff...

Tuesday 10th June, 2003

First Experiences 16:30 CDT by ike

It's been a while since I've had the chance to post, and a lot has gone down in that time:

First, Ryan and I worked the league opener a week ago Monday, as Mankato hosted St. Cloud. The butterflies were hard at work in my stomach, with over 1,000 people on hand (including the rest of the league umpires, the umpire supervisors, and the league president), not to mention it being my first experience with college ball. But after a few plays things settled down, and the game went smoothly, with St. Cloud earning a well-played 3-2 win. (St. Cloud's starter is apparently capable of throwing in the mid-90's, but he wasn't bringing that much heat that night -- first game of the year and a chilly one at that.)

Next, two nights later, I worked my first game behind the plate. It took a while to get really locked in, and the new mechanics I used felt a little uncomfortable, but overall the outing was a success.

From Makato, Ryan and I headed up to Alexandria where the Beetles hosted the Duluth Huskies, and two nights later I had another first: my first ejection. Working the plate, I called a Duluth player out on strikes (outside fastball), and he didn't exactly agree with my call, so he took his bat a 'drew a line' on me (marked a spot about four inches outside where HE felt the pitch was). From there, it was pretty automatic to eject him, and he just turned and walked away.

That game also included an unusual play, which will serve as the first of the 10 Northwoods Weekly Quizzes (WQ Competition #2). Here it is:

With one out and runners at first and third, the batter smokes a sinking liner at the third baseman, who dives and smothers the ball (no catch). He recovers and records the force at second, but there's no chance for the double play. However, the batter-runner, having touched first, is now walking away from the bag toward his dugout, some 15-20 feet in front of the base in foul ground. The second-baseman notices the wandering runner and relays the ball to first, where the fielder tags him. Is the runner out, or he protected after over-running first base?

(In other WQ-related news, I will tabulate the responses from Competition #1 and announce a winner ASAP.)

Finally, I traveled to Hanover this past weekend for Abby B.'s graudation, which went extremely well. Congratulations to all the graduates!

I need to sign off in a second, but I want to first thank everyone for the kind wishes these past couple weeks. It's certainly exciting to travel to a new part of the country and experience some Minor League-esque baseball, but I miss the Bay Area badly, so it's a comfort to get some reassurance from you all. Again, thanks...

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