Many of the names and some of the descriptions in this blog have been changed to protect the guilty.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Woody Allen, the Umpire

Those big old black-framed glasses: quite a look for a little league umpire. Yes, I know this kind of specs are “in” today, but picture them on an ump in YOUR game, calling YOUR balls and strikes in 1974. This guy wasn’t trying to be nerd chic. He was nerd GEEK. And with his erratic behavior behind the plate, he was nerd FREAK. All season long the poor guy was cruising for a bruising—and then, one game, he finally got one.

The Red Sox had a hell of a baseball team in 1974. Yes, I know the BOSTON Red Sox didn’t qualify for the postseason after an epic late-summer dive, but I’m not referring to THEM. I’m writing about the SIXTEEN ACRES Red Sox, who did make the playoffs that unforgettable year.

In our 10-12 age division we were easily the best little league team in the city. Those who played for the East Springfield and Blunt Park teams would probably dispute this, since we split our season series with them, winning one and losing one to each team. Yes, those teams were great, but I assert to this day that WE were better.

Despite our glorious achievements in the batter’s box and in the field, however, the one image by far stands out more than any other that year: the neurotic umpire who looked like Woody Allen. Memory is a funny thing: it’s quite selective. Did he have thinning red hair like the famous director? He might have. Yes, I believe he did. But I’m not sure. What I do remember was those huge, thick, black-framed glasses. What else do I recall about him? Well, he was at the epicenter of several truly bizarre incidents in which tempers flared—once to the point of violence.

Our first experience with Woody was a game rife with controversy. We faced an unruly, undisciplined team named Springfield Realtor at our home field behind Brunton Elementary School, and I soon discovered that the ump’s reputation preceded him. He was known as being “a little off,” as they say, and the jokes about his ability to see accurately began as soon as we saw his glasses, and they progressed with his questionable calls on balls and strikes.

At one point Woody barked “Strike two!” when our pitcher had undeniably struck a batter out. “That’s THREE strikes!” we started screaming. The batter, who had stepped toward his bench, stopped and just stood there, obviously confused.

“Two swinging and one looking!” I yelled from first base. “That’s three!”

Woody looked at his ball-and-strike counter in his right hand, then looked at our coach, moved his head back and forth defiantly, and said, “Well, I got TWO!”

“Oh my God!!” we yelled. “Holy shit!” The exclamations kept coming. “Unbelievable! What the hell? Bullshit! Can’t you count?”

Our coach had to tell us to shut the hell up so the game could proceed. I can’t remember what the batter did with his little gift from the umpire. Regardless of the outcome of the at-bat, from then on we rode Woody unmercifully.

Then, a Springfield Realtor player was thrown out at second base trying to stretch a single into a double. The tag and his foot’s contact with the bag were pretty much simultaneous, and, of course, a tie in this case goes to the runner, according to the rulebook. But this was little league, and such a good fielding play was often rewarded with an “out,” call, which is what we got.

The runner went ballistic. His players restrained him. His coaches pulled him away. Woody tossed him from the game. But his fit didn’t end there: he kept it up, and he had to be dragged to the front of the school. Did he ever calm down? Did someone give him the Vulcan nerve pinch? It was a strange overreaction. After all, it was a close play that could have gone either way. Then again, there was voodoo in the air: anything and everything was possible with Woody behind the plate.

To wit: how many times in my little league career had an ump lost count of strikes? Once, on that strange day in 1974.

On that late afternoon/early evening the game wound its way toward infamy when, after the bottom of the sixth inning, we were leading by a run and we took the field for the last inning. “Balls in!” yelled our coach. The infield and outfield warm-ups ended as the balls were rolled toward the bench and we got ready defend our slim lead.

Woody took off his mask and began walking down the third-base line. He strolled between our third baseman and Springfield Realtor’s third-base coach and kept walking.

“Where are you going?” asked the third-base coach.

The Wood-ster turned around and addressed everyone. “Game called of darkness!” he bellowed, and then resumed his unhurried stride.

“What?” the Springfield Realtor coaches asked.

“You can’t just—for Chrissake—darkness? But…but. My God!” the third base coach babbled.

It was early evening, but we had enough sunlight left to get through a few more innings if Springfield Realtor had tied it up. The possibility of the game being called of darkness occurred to no one—except the Wood-man.

Woody walked much more quickly when an entire team pursued him all the way to the parking lot.

“Why didn’t you say something about the light conditions earlier?” screamed their head coach. “I could have put in pinch-hitters in the sixth inning you fucking bastard! Darkness! It’s light as hell out! Look at it! We’re protesting this game!”

“I’m gonna break every goddamn window in your goddamn car!” announced the third-base coach.

We never knew if the guy made good on his threat, because we were too busy laughing our asses off, and our coach made us stay at the field until everything settled down in the parking lot. Parents murmured in disbelief. No one had seen anything like it. If I can recall correctly, it was a Friday night, and after we went home, we watched The Brady Bunch until 8:30, looked out the window, and pointed out that it was STILL pretty light out!

Woody the Fashion Police

Our next encounter with Woody was nowhere near as eventful. It was a game against Indian Orchard, and we were giving the Orchard a good pounding, to the tune of 35 to 2, but I do remember stepping in the batter’s box and Woody called a time-out and told me to tuck in my uniform. The left front part of my jersey WAS hanging out, and the guy was probably right: I was dangling a piece of clothing that could have been hit by a pitch, giving me an unfair advantage.

The thing was, I wasn’t looking to get on base in such a weasely way. I wanted to whale on the ball as I had been doing all afternoon, because the pitcher was throwing meatballs. I just took Woody’s demand as another example of his freakiness, so I smirked as I took my time tucking in my shirt.

“Any more lip out of you and you’re out of the game!” blared Woody, even though I had said nothing.

Wow, I thought. Could I really be ejected without saying a word? I bit the bullet and kept a straight face. I don’t remember how I fared at the plate appearance. It didn’t matter. We were leading by 33 runs, and Woody was providing me with even more comic relief.

The next time I saw the Wood-meister, though, the result would be anything but humorous.

The Beating

The scene of the crime was one of the baseball fields at Kiley Junior High School. My father coached my brother’s little league team, and I was helping him out at practice, shagging fly balls to the outfielders. At one point, I heard a lot of yelling in the distance, I turned around and saw literally a dust-up at a nearby field where there was a real league game going on. It was hard to tell, but there seemed to be a real ruckus erupting, with a bit of a scrum around the umpire amid a cloud of dust in the infield. And then things appeared to calm down, so I thought nothing of it—an argument with the umpire? Probably.

When it came time for batting practice, my father didn’t need me, so I told him I was going to check out the other game. Again, my memory fails me. I’d love to make my recollection rich with details, but I even forget who the fuck was playing. Let’s just say, to set the scene with as much unnecessary crap as possible, that it was the Porter Lakers vs. the Van Horn Acorns. Who the fuck knows? What am I supposed to do? Provide all these explicit descriptions (weather, etc.)—all the shit good writers are supposed to do? Well, forget it! How hot was it on that summer night? Who knows? Hot enough for me to thank God it was time to quit shagging fly balls and check out the other motherfucking game, okay?

I guess if I filled my writing with adjectives and descriptions instead of expletives, I’d be a regular Saul Fucking Bellow, but I’m not. So deal with it!

Well, I start walking across the fields, and whom do I see behind the plate? The Woood-monster, of course! Ah! Now I knew who was at the source of this hullabaloo. So, what the hell happened? I asked a couple of kids watching the game.

“A player got in a fight with the ump,” said some dude on the sideline, casually sitting on his bike.

“Really?” I asked. “What happened?

“The other coach pulled the kid off and threw him down kinda hard, so the coaches went at it,” he said.

No way, I thought. This couldn’t possibly have happened. Or did it? I had seen quite a donnybrook from the distance. I looked at the coaches. There was indeed some dirt on them, as if they had been rolling around on the field.

No. I refused to believe it. There was no kid-umpire fight. There was no coach fight. Impossible. Yet, one of the coaches had what seemed to be dried blood around his armpit.

“What’s that blood stain on that coach?” I asked. “Did the other coach bite him or what?”

“No, the bystander on the bike answered. “The other coach got a bloody nose, so he got the blood on his shirt when he got him in a headlock.”

“No fucking way,” I answered.

“Yep,” the kid laughed. “It happened. But the coaches shook hands at the end of the fight.”

Oh my fucking God! This was too funny. Like professional wrestling. But it was time to go. The controversial game was coming to an end, and I could see my father wrapping up my brother’s practice.

We were putting equipment in my father’s car, and I was trying to tell anyone who would listen about the fireworks in the other game, but they didn’t seem to believe me…until the ump got jumped. Yes, the ump got jumped.

There I was, looking downhill at the Woody Allen umpire as he was walking toward the parking lot, when I saw a guy, around 18 or 19, jogging up to him from behind. When the guy tackled him, it still didn’t register with me. They must be friends, horsing around, right? Then the dude started throwing punches. Woody’s glasses took flight. The guy was pounding the crap out of him.

“Hey, that ump is getting his ass kicked,” I announced. FINALLY, somebody was listening to me! My dad and the assistant coach, Mr. Maczanski, ran down from the parking lot to break it up. Wow, I thought, even the Woody Allen ump didn’t deserve THIS. The beating was quickly stopped, and the Wood-dog, although a bit ruffled, was able to get up, scoop up his glasses, and walk away on his own power.

It’s kind of strange, with today’s awareness of sports rage—the violence in youth hockey, including the fatal beating of a hockey parent 14 years ago in Reading, MA—you’d think that the attack on the umpire we saw in 1974 would have made headlines. Maybe today, but, amazingly, not back then. A kid fought the umpire, and the two coaches brawled, and then, after the game, the kid’s older brother Pearl Harbored the ump—and there was not a whisper about it in the newspaper the next day.

The incident looked something like the photos above and below. In 1940, enraged Brooklyn Dodgers fan Frank Germano attacked umpire George Magerkarth after a game at Ebbets Field. Is it my imagination, or are the security guards taking their sweet time breaking up this brouhaha?

I placed a picture of the attack on Magerkarth right where the 1974 umpire beating took place at Kiley Junior High (below). This was my view from the parking lot. I took my five-year-old son there to shoot this photo, under the premise of showing him “where Daddy played baseball.” I’m afraid he’s a little too young to comprehend the umpire beating, so I kept the story to myself.

I was shocked to see Woody at our next game against Our Lady of the Sacred Heart—I figured he had quit the game. But I should have known better. Ever since the infamous “game called because of lightness,” it was obvious that Woody stuck to his guns—even when he made outrageously bad calls. Even when his stubbornness led to threats and assault. He was as hapless and persistent as Broadway Danny Rose.

This game was marked by a truly memorable event: our lefty pitcher, John Thompson, pulled a home run over the right field fence at Brunton School. This was a five-foot-high fence that wasn’t really part of the field—it simply separated the school property from a couple of back yards, and no one even remotely thought about clearing the fucker. No one except for John, who cranked quite a few homers that summer, but nothing like that atomic blast. Off the bat it went, over the fence, and into a backyard.

Thompson’s shot heard ’round the Acres, in retrospect, was only around 220 feet, but that’s not bad for a 12-year-old.

Thompson’s tape-measure home run was unbelievably challenged by the OLSH coach. Because the league called for ground-rule doubles if the ball went into the woods in center field and left field at Brunton, the douchebag argued that that the same rule should have applied in right field—that a ball that ended up beyond the fence in right field was just like a ball landing in the woods elsewhere. And he had a point…I guess. And the Woody Allen ump seemed to even consider his protest—for a second. But then he ruled it a home run. I mean Jesus, the guy just plain knocked it out of the park, man. How could you take a home run away? I think Woody realized that he couldn’t really afford another bizarre incident, especially after the beating. If he revoked the home run, he would have faced a scene unlike the George Brett pine tar incident (below).

The season marched on, and our victims piled up. We smacked down the saints (St. Paul and St. Catherine) we humiliated the holys (Holy Cross and Holy Name), and we whomped on Wilshire. With PARKER SHELL, the name of a gas station, proudly emblazoned on our backs, we were a powerhouse, incredibly disciplined and masters of the fundamentals after practicing for hours in the hot sun and through rain showers.

I know it’s a bit anticlimactic for this blog entry, but we didn’t really have any more controversial incidents with the Woody Allen ump. There was, however, the memorable game against Blunt Park in which a bizarre base-running incident occurred when Woody was behind the plate. We had a runner on first, and when one of our players cranked a double, the idiot had ridiculous ideas of stretching it to a triple—despite the lead base-runner firmly planted on third when the cutoff throw came in. The dumb-ass hitter was caught in a run-down between second base and third, and the runner on third kept taking a lead during this fiasco and threatened to sprint toward home during the run-down, until the third-base coach—his father—grabbed him by the armpits, hoisted him up in the air, and deposited him on third base, and ordered him to stay there. Then the hitter actually managed to make it back to second without being thrown out.

The Blunt Park coach, of course, tried to make the case for interference, but the play thoroughly lacked any precedent. When, in the history of Springfield sandlot baseball—or ANY league for that matter—has a coach physically picked up a player and placed him on a base? Woody was confused. He scratched his thinning red hair. Then he let the play stand, and Blunt Park went fucking crazy. But no one bum-rushed the Woody Allen ump. No one threw him into one of the perpetually flooded dugouts at Greenleaf Park. After the game, he made it to his car unharmed, and we headed to Friendly’s to celebrate another victory.

We rolled over the rest of our competition that summer, and then lost in the first round of the playoffs. I’ll be damned if I remember who we lost to. As I wrote, memory is a funny thing. The most I remember from that 1974 season was the Woody Allen umpire and John Thompson’s home run. Strangely enough, I kept our sandlot league trophy from that year, shown with, of course, my name cropped from the bottom in the photo:

I am extremely nostalgic of little league years, and I am not alone. In fact, my friend, Craig Stewart, had a reproduction made of the old Sixteen Acres little league hat, complete with the 1970s California Angels colors. This was the mid-1960s version, cloned from a photo of his brother—the “A” had softer corners back then.

Not to be outdone, about 10 years ago I had my own version sewn on a black baseball cap (a black and orange hat was unavailable) at a custom embroidery cart in the Copley Square Mall in Boston. I got the “A” right, but the “16” is too damn small. Someday, I know I’ll find an old authentic “Sixteen Acres” hat at a tag sale, and I’ll buy it and proudly wear it—even if the thing is ill-fitting and covered with decades of grime.

Years ago I was shocked to learn that there was no more Sixteen Acres little league baseball team—neither the Sixteen Acres Athletic Association nor the Sixteen Acres Lions sponsored any youth sports squads. Of course, when I snapped my phone photo of the scene of the crime at Kiley, there were no outlines of baseball diamonds at the athletic complex there—just soccer field markings and soccer goals. I guess I just have to come to terms with the fact that soccer has largely replaced baseball as the sport of choice for organized children’s youth leagues. And I guess I understand this evolution. Soccer forces kids to run around, instead of standing around picking their noses, as they tend to do in little league baseball.

Nonetheless, I think today’s Sixteen Acres youth are missing something with the absence of little league, such as: the astonishing amount of walks (bases loaded, walk, another run, walk, another run, walk, another run...), the awful kid on every team who was afraid of fast pitching and “put his foot in the bucket” or simply bailed out of the batter’s box on every pitch; and the inability of most catchers to throw out stealing baserunners at second (or at third base for that matter).

And then there’s the ultimate loss when your neighborhood is bereft of a little league team: the chance to blame your defeat on some poor umpire.

Where Are They Now?

I didn’t return to the Sixteen Acres Red Sox in 1975. That year, a kid in my class played who played for the St. George Olympians told me his team desperately needed some talent, and when I took part in a practice, it was evident that they truly sucked. So I was faced with a predicament: continuing to be an average player with a very good Sixteen Acres team, or to enjoy superstar status on a shitty St. George team. I was just a cog in the wheel of the well-oiled machine that was the Sixteen Acres Red Sox, but I was Ted Williams on the Olympians. So I made the choice of being a big fish in a little pond— I was the only non-Greek player on St. George, but I got to feel like John Thompson for a year.

Despite every 11-year-old’s desire to play professional baseball for a living, no one from my the Sixteen Acres Red Sox team made it to the major leagues, although I was convinced that John Thompson could have done it. He was THAT good. It turned out, however, that football was his favorite sport, and as a star quarterback for Classical High School, he was recruited by such schools as Boston College, Penn State, Mississippi, and Colgate. Then, one night in 1979 he was sitting on the hood of someone’s car, talking to friends, and the driver hit the accelerator as a joke, sending Thompson flying into the street and into a coma for two-and-a-half months. He eventually recovered enough to walk with a limp, but his football dreams were over.

When Thompson revisits his glorious athletic past, he undoubtedly relives his high school football games. But I wonder if he ever thinks about that shot over the fence at Brunton Elementary. I sure do. That was a fucking blast—the highlight of the summer, if you don't count the clashes involving a certain guy with black-framed glasses.

As for the Woody Allen umpire, he got into a bit of trouble years later when, like his Hollyweird counterpart, he took nude photographs of his Asian stepdaughter and then eventually married her. Just kidding. I don’t know what ever happened to the Woodpecker.

When I told Craig Stewart that I was writing the blog entry about the Woody Allen umpire, he wondered aloud if I was experiencing a cathartic venting of all my frustrations with officials who ripped off my favorite teams with crummy calls, especially the 1976 roughing-the-passer whistle against the Patriots’ Sugar Bear Hamilton, and the 1979 too-many-men-on-the-ice “infraction” by the Bruins. Was I in some way getting even by describing this umpire beating?

“No,” I said on the phone as I pushed pins into my Ben Dreith and John D’Amico referee voodoo dolls. “Of course not.”