THE 'GREAT ESCAPE'
By Allen Brougham
One evening in the spring of 2006, shortly after moving to the Fairhaven Retirement Community in Sykesville, I overheard our National Anthem being played just up the hill. Quickly, with my dog in tow, I ventured forth and found youth league baseball games just underway in the fields known as Fairhaven Park.
Intently I watched. I especially kept a keen eye on the performance of the two young umpires working one of the games. I was singularly impressed with the demeanor and control they maintained throughout the game.
I have long been fascinated by umpiring. So let me flash back to the early 1950's as a kid watching baseball games at old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore:
The umpires, smartly dressed in blue suits, seemed so pomp and dignified. I would watch the umps almost as much as I would watch the game itself. I even memorized their names, which were printed in the score book, and I was pleased to learn that two of the American League umps (Eddie Rommel and Charlie Berry) actually lived in Baltimore. I envisioned the day, too, that I might even become an umpire myself. Umping would be kind of neat, I reasoned.
I got my chance several years later while stationed in the Navy at a base near Virginia Beach. My first try at umping, a noon-hour softball game on the base, was a disaster (don't even ask)! But I persevered, and later I got another chance. This time it was with a Little League in Virginia Beach.
I stayed with that league, and another one that used the same field on alternate days, and at the end of my four-year enlistment, when I left the area, they gave me a trophy. They spelled my name wrong (whoops!), but it was the thought that counted. Still, I treasure it. It is the only trophy I have ever won in my entire life!
I did continue to ump for several seasons after I left the Navy. Then, living in Baltimore County, I was with a youth league, but I had to give it up when my schedule became erratic.
Some 40 years passed, and I had concluded that I would never get to umpire another baseball game.
Or would I?
So now let me fast forward once again back to Fairhaven and that evening spent with my dog watching the game up on the hill.
I quickly made inquiry, and in the due course of time I found myself signing up to be an umpire for the 2007 Sykesville Baseball program.
First I had to take a seven-week course in the art of umping. The classes would take place at the Sykesville Middle School on successive Sundays, beginning in February 2007.
By this time I already knew that umpires in the Sykesville Baseball program could begin as young as the age of 12. I knew, too, that as an entry-level umpire myself, I would be grouped with applicants considerably younger than I. But the printed material did say that there was no upper age limit, so surely at least some of the umps would be of adult age...
Or would they?
Wow! I really felt noticeably conspicuous as we assembled in the middle school cafeteria that first day of class. Here I was, the tallest, and by far the oldest, umpire applicant. The only other adults in the room were the instructors, and officials from Sykesville Baseball. Oh, couldn't at least somebody of adult age be amongst the class, so I wouldn't feel so out of place? But this was not to be. Kid after kid kept filing into the room. I would say the average age of the students (excluding myself) was about 14 - and this included some of the umps from previous seasons who were there for a refresher course. First-year umpires were mostly 12-year-olds.
Just as that initial training session was about to begin, one of the league officials motioned me forward for a quiet chat. I don't remember just how he broached the subject, but he was evidently curious as to whether I knew what I was about to get into. In the course of the discussion, I told him that I lived at the Fairhaven Retirement Community...
Without batting an eyelash, he asked me, "Do they know you're here?"
I pondered the question until we had a break, and then I asked him more specifically what he meant by asking if they (Fairhaven) knew that I was there. Evidently, he thought all of our residents were somehow 'sequestered.' If I was not his stereotypical vision of a first-year umpire, I apparently did not fit the stereotypical vision he had of a Fairhaven resident either.
Later I told this to a number of Fairhaven folks - both residents and staff alike - and the encounter soon became laughingly known as my 'Great Escape.'
In due time I completed the seven-week umpiring course, and I got a 90 percent on my test. I was proud of this, although in fairness a number of the other students did get a higher grade than I. Anyway, I got my uniform and its associated paraphernalia, and I was all set to go...
The magical day arrived. It was the evening of April 9, 2007, and I was assigned to ump a game of nine- and 10-year-olds behind the plate on Fairhaven field 12. It was only a 'scrimmage' game (a preseason exhibition with modified rules), but it was an especially important one to me. For this would be my very first umpiring experience in 40 years.
I arrived in plenty of time for the game, and I was assigned to work with Nick, a 12-year-old who would cover the bases - his very first-ever game as an umpire.
If I had any trepidation over working a game following such a long absence along with a novice 12-year-old ump, my fears were quickly allayed by Nick's professionalism, a talent no doubt cultured by his having been a player for several years, and an attentive student in ump class. Indeed, it was he who kept me straight during the game, not the other way around. I gave myself a C-plus for my performance; for Nick, I discreetly gave him an A-minus. Yes, I gave him a better grade than I gave myself, but I think the grading was fair.
I had a hoarse voice for a couple of days (from calling strikes) and a pair of stiff legs (from stooping down behind the plate), but otherwise I survived the encounter somewhat intact.
My first 'official' game came 10 days later, also behind the plate. Again, it was played by nine- and 10-year-olds, and the teams were the Orioles and the Royals. And there they were, the players, smartly dressed in brand new uniforms of their namesake teams, cute as a button, as they lined up for the playing of our National Anthem.
I umpired many more games that 2007 season, including the championship game. I guess I've proved my worth as an umpire, although I never did achieve that elusive A-minus I was striving for. In the meantime, I have learned that, at 66, I was the oldest umpire ever to serve in the Sykesville Baseball program. What an honor!
Come to think of it, my sojourn as an umpire in Sykesville Baseball really IS a 'Great Escape.' For in a few fleeting moments each week, I am doing the work of a 12-year-old. It's great to 'escape' and be a kid once again! And just to think - if I stick it out and rejoin the program in 2008, by then I will be the ripe old age of 13...
It doesn't get much better than that!
THE UMPIRE CALLED IT THE WAY HE SAW IT
By Allen Brougham
In the spring of 2010, I began my fourth season of umpiring in the Sykesville Baseball program. This has been a tremendously rewarding experience for me, the fruition of a dream since childhood to serve on the officiating 'team in blue.' I've loved every minute of it.
I was quite an anomaly in joining this program in the first place; most of the Sykesville umpires begin their tenure at the tender age of 12. Indeed, I hold the record for being the oldest umpire they have ever had; each year I break the very record I had set the year before. ('Umping forever' is my slogan.)
Entry-level umpires officiate in the lower division for teams whose players are nine and 10 years of age, staffed by two or more umpires per game. As experience is gained each year, the umpires typically advance to the next older division, grouped for players age 11 and 12, then 13 and 14, and, finally, 15 through 18. I, too, advanced through these same ranks, and I have now officiated at games in all four divisions.
But this year I was given sort of a 'promotion.' In addition to occasionally umpiring, I was asked to observe the youngest umpires as they progressed through their beginning season. They had already undergone a seven-week training course designed to familiarize them with the rules of the game and the mechanics of field positioning, and required to pass an examination. Still, entry-level umpires often need guidance as they strive to be more proficient, and the league asked me to lend them a hand.
Frank, our gentle-mannered supervisor of officials, nominally explained my duties to 'observe' and 'counsel' the umpires, and to send him reports on how they performed in each game. As games would be played upon several fields at the same time, I would usually divide my time more or less equally among the games as they progressed. I always wore my own umpire's uniform, the same as the umps I was observing, but I would not actually officiate in their games unless a vacancy would occur. The umpires knew what I was doing, but they would never know when I might appear upon the sidelines or how long I might stay. Counseling sessions, if needed, would be conducted one-on-one between innings or after the game. I was always certain to offer praise for meritorious performance along with any advice on things needing improvement.
One of the rituals required prior to each game is known as a 'pregame conference.' This allows the home plate umpire to discuss the ground rules and instructions with the manager from each of the two competing teams. Protocol requires that the plate umpire alone speaks for the officiating team; other umpires may speak only if the plate umpire asks them to. Such as it was one evening when I decided to 'stand in' during a pregame conference. The young home plate umpire began his conference by introducing himself and his partners, of whom I was temporarily one, and sharing their specific title:
"I'm David, our home plate umpire," he began.
"And this is Riley, our base umpire," he continued...
Just then I sensed a development I had not counted upon. I would next be introduced. But while my duties were well known, I had never been given an official 'title.' And even if I had been given one, or had coined a title on my own, it was now too late to tell David just what it was. David, then, had acquired by default the responsibility of giving me my title, and surely I would have no choice but to accept it.
Perhaps it would be 'mentor,' or 'advisor', or 'counselor,' or 'observer,' or 'associate,' or 'examiner,' or even 'supervisor.' Whatever he said I was, though, I would be stuck with it. Then came the moment of truth:
"And this is Allen; he's our snoop!"