The Umpire

“Nash had broken the cardinal rule of umpiring — keep your eyes on the game.”

Closeup of a baseball.

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Nash had broken the cardinal rule of umpiring — keep your eyes on the game. He saw the baserunner driving toward home, his cleats making tiny puffs of dirt as he went. He heard the heavy thump of the ball hitting the catcher’s mitt and the cheers of parents in the stands. But at the pivotal moment when arms and legs tangled, his attention was elsewhere. It had drifted like an unmoored boat to the center fielder, who was watching the play with such eager, childlike wonder that Nash’s focus wavered to marvel at it.

When he looked back down at home plate, the catcher was holding the ball, and Nash had no idea what the call was. With every eye on him, rather than deferring to his partner, he punched the air with an exaggerated flourish and yelled, “You’re out!

He knew immediately he’d gotten it wrong. The catcher’s surprise was obvious even behind his mask. The runner sprang up, bright red. His helmet came off in the collision, and his hair stuck out in frizzy lumps, nearly the same color as his face.

“I was safe!” he shouted. “By a mile. What are you looking at?”

The aggrieved coach stormed out of the dugout, cursing and yelling. Nash didn’t know him well, only that his name was Gary, and he had a reputation for taking the games a mite too seriously.

Nash told him to watch his language. Gary wasn’t tall, but he was stout and strong, built like a tree stump. His bald head made him seem tough. He got right up in Nash’s face, still yelling. His breath was sour, and flecks of spittle sprayed Nash’s face. Nash warned him again to sit down. Gary snorted.

“They always get the worst bush-league morons to ump these games.”

This angered Nash much more than the profanity. Gary was wrong. Nash was a great ump. Despite no children of his own, he took time to learn the kids’ names, and gave them words of encouragement if they struck out or dropped an easy fly ball. He treated the games seriously, while keeping in mind it was Little League, not the World Series. Contrary to the stereotype of the fanatic sports dad, he rarely encountered parents like Gary.

After informing Nash that he would be filing a formal protest with the league, Gary finally headed back to the dugout. But on his way there, he turned, clucked condescendingly, and shook his head.

“Wasn’t even close, Ump. Wasn’t even close.”

Something about the way he said it got under Nash’s skin. Nash threw him out. Gary laughed, made a big show of collecting his things, and went to wait in his car until the game was over.

Afterward, when the players and parents had left, Nash gathered the bases with his partner Chase, a lanky college kid who played shortstop for his school’s Division III team.

“I really blew that call, huh?”

“You had a better view than I did.”

“Don’t bullshit me, Chase.”

Chase grinned. “Okay. You blew it, big time.”

“I got distracted for some reason.”

“Don’t beat yourself up. Happens to everybody.”

It didn’t happen to Nash. He missed calls from time to time, of course, but never because he wasn’t paying attention. Mistakes irritated him, like a burr in his shoe. He was thinking about it as he bid goodbye to Chase, he was thinking about it as he loaded the equipment into his trunk, and he was thinking about it as Gary emerged suddenly from a behind a car.

Most people would have cooled off during the time out; Gary had gotten even more riled up. He screamed and cursed at Nash, crowding him against the side of his car. What had been comical in front of a field full of players and parents became less funny in a deserted parking lot. Nash put his hands up and said, “Please calm down.”

“Admit you got it wrong. Admit it.”

Nash was about to, just to get this maniac away. The words were on his tongue when some prideful flame sparked inside him.

Instead of admitting his mistake, he told Gary to go to hell.

Nash didn’t see the punch, just a white flash followed by a wash of colors. His body clanged against the door of the car and his feet nearly gave out from under him. He put a hand over his injured eye, gasping. Then Chase was there, shoving Gary backward, screaming that he was calling the police.

Gary’s nostrils flared, and he started toward Chase. A car door flung open, and one of the players got out and ran over to them. The boy was sobbing, and he tugged Gary’s shirt.

“Dad, stop! Please, Dad, stop!”

The boy was still wearing his cap, and his white pants were stained with dirt and grass. His cheeks were ruddy and streaked with tears.

Gary looked down at his son as if waking from a trance. He sniffed, took the boy roughly by the arm, and led him away without another word.

Nash spent the next few minutes assuring Chase he was fine, that he didn’t need to go to the hospital, and he didn’t want to involve the police.

“Kid has it bad enough, raised by a guy like that. He doesn’t need his dad sent away to prison.”

“He’d probably be better off.”

“Thanks for your help.”

“Anytime, partner. We umps have each other’s back. That guy’s banned for life. Pathetic, trying to relive his youth through his kid.”

Nash nodded. Not being a father, it was hard for him to imagine what could lead to such an outburst.

“Get some ice on that eye,” Chase advised. “Otherwise it’s gonna swell up like an eggplant.”

It took him longer than usual to get home. He drove slowly, his vision blurred. Nash worked during the day as a mail carrier. He woke at four every morning to make his rounds. Already he was imagining what people on his route would say when they saw him. Eunice, the old lady who waited on the porch with her begonias. David Lee at the dry cleaners on Second. The pretty bank teller who always smiled when he came in. Quite a shiner you’ve got there. I’d hate to see the other guy. The thought of it embarrassed him.

By the time he arrived, the blurriness was almost gone. Nash and his wife had recently refurbished the outside of their house. Contractors installed bright new siding, ornate ceramic shutters, a long bay window above the garden. Sometimes he nearly drove past it, thinking it was the wrong house.

Ladybird met him at the door, as usual, tail beating against his thighs, but Nash wasn’t in the mood to be slobbered on. His wife, Laura, was in the den, reading a book. He called hello and went to the kitchen, hoping he could sneak upstairs before she saw his face. But she heard him rummaging around the freezer for something to put on his eye and came over to investigate.

Laura was small, Spanish by origin, olive skin, dark curly hair. She saw his face and raised her eyebrows, looking more curious than empathetic.

“Angry coach?”

He turned away, unable to hide his expression. She watched him for a moment, confused. Then she put a hand over her mouth.

“Oh Nash, I’m so sorry. I was joking. I really thought you got hit by a foul ball or something. What happened?”

“Just a disagreement”, he said, holding a bag of frozen cauliflower against his eye. He paused, then added: “You think this looks bad, you should see the other guy.”

The lie surprised him. He wasn’t prone to embellishment or exaggeration. It was more than a black eye. His entire worth as an umpire had been impugned. His careful dedication, his calm impartiality. All blotted out by one right hook.

“These parents today, they’re crazy. I can’t believe the league lets this happen. You put in so much time and effort for these kids. What’s going to happen to the asshole who hit you?”

“Don’t worry, it’s taken care of.”

He liked the sound of that, taken care of. Like he was a made man, with shooters to avenge him.

Laura bit her lip, watching him with big brown eyes. Tenderly, she peeled away the bag from his skin and kissed the ridge of his eyebrow.

“My brave man. Let me get you some Advil.”

Laura had been adamant before she married him that they would never have kids. Nash was okay with it, at the time. He loved her. If she had asked him to raise a gorilla instead of a child, he would have. It made their lives easier, having no children to spend for. They didn’t worry about bills, could travel when they pleased.

She’d only ever hinted as to why. Her mother had miscarried three times. Her father was a drifter. Her childhood sounded lonely and miserable. Nash thought maybe she didn’t want to pass that trauma on. They’d been married 10 years, and rarely discussed it.

Laura came back with the pills and Nash gulped them down, even though the pain was already mostly gone. He examined his reflection in the chrome refrigerator. It didn’t look too bad.

“I’m sorry I made fun. You poor thing. Come upstairs to bed.”

“In a bit. I’m just going to unwind for a few minutes.”

She nodded. He heard her go up the stairs, light footsteps on the heavy wood.

Wearily, he tossed Ladybird a Milk-Bone and went into the study. He sat and faced the enormous antique cabinet that had been in Laura’s family for centuries. It had taken four strong men to lift it inside. There were trophies on top of the cabinet. Trophies from his days playing college ball; trophies from Laura’s time as a gymnast. Tiny metal batsmen and dancers spray painted gold.

Nash was proud of his baseball awards, but they didn’t really matter to him. He had always known he wasn’t good enough to be a ballplayer. But he was good enough to be an ump.

They didn’t give trophies for umpiring. A good umpire was ignored by everyone, forgotten in the flow of the game. Nash had never craved recognition. He only wanted to do his tasks, however simple, as best he could. As a mailman, as an ump, and as a husband.

In this low moment, Nash thought back to a better one. A few years ago, a friend called him out of the blue. One of the umps for the local Double-A team had broken his leg. It was the playoffs, and they needed a last-minute replacement. The game was starting soon. Nash drove an hour, speeding the whole way, afraid he would be too late. But he made it. There was a crisp black uniform waiting for him in the locker room. He put it on and shook hands with the other umpires and then he was running out onto the field, the smell of fresh cut grass and a warm spring breeze on his face. Under the lights, the night sky glowing. He listened to the crack of the bat and the thump of ball in glove as the players finished their warm-ups. Nash took his spot at third base and hunched forward alertly with his hands on his knees. The pitcher stretched on the mound. The sold-out crowd roared. A moment from a dream. Even now it gave him goosebumps.

He was tense, standing there on third. He’d been waiting for this his entire life. On the first pitch, the batter smashed a would-be triple down the line. The right fielder made an incredible throw. Nash saw it all in slow motion; the glove coming down fractions ahead of the runner. He yelled, “Out!” and punched the air. The runner got up, dusted himself off, and nodded. That’s what Nash remembered clearest about that day — the runner’s respectful little nod. His nerves disappeared. He called a flawless game, and when it was over, the white-haired home plate umpire clapped him on the shoulder and said, “Great job, kid.”

After that night, Nash considered umping professionally. The same friend who called him about the game told him about a program in Florida. A five-week training course for aspiring umpires. From there, the best were chosen for another round, then another, then, if you were lucky, a stint in the minors. He’d talked it over with Laura. She told him he should go, but he could tell she didn’t want him to. The program wasn’t cheap. It would be five weeks of lost wages, when they weren’t doing nearly as well as they were now. Even if he made it to the minors, he would be riding buses around the country for barely any money. He and Laura would be apart. And the hard truth was, there were fewer spots for major league umpires than for players. Reaching the top was all but impossible. So he stayed home.

But now, staring at trophies he’d won nearly half his life ago, he wondered. He wondered if his child would be proud to have a mailman for a father. Or would they be prouder if he was an umpire?

Nash turned off the study lights and headed for bed. On his way up the stairs, he thought of the center fielder who had distracted him, the boy’s saucer eyes and gaping mouth. There was something pure about that face. Something that returned Nash to his own childhood, when a play at the plate meant everything in the world. Why had it taken him so long to realize what seemed obvious now? How could he tell her he did want kids, after all?

Through the cracked bedroom door he saw Laura curled on the comforter, snoring. He felt neither resentment nor anger, but instead a stark sense of inevitability. The comfortable life they’d made, the 10 years of — mostly — happy marriage, it had all been built on unstable fault lines. It was a rift he did not know how to mend. Nash lingered in the hallway, listening to the soft noises Laura made as she slept. Everything would change once he crossed the threshold. He wanted to stay in this small moment, where the two of them had not yet come apart. He wanted to wait here a little while longer.

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