Morals From the Mound 

You can learn a lot from a blind umpire

You can learn a lot from a blind umpire

Over postgame debriefings at McCabe Pub, Doc Williams, the semi-retired, unofficial Kingfish of Nashville softball, used to tell a Jerry Clower-sounding whopper about a vision-challenged umpire named Treetop Hill. In the final inning of a late-afternoon tournament game, Doc’s team was clinging precariously to a lead. Darkness was descending on the field, making it difficult for everyone—to say nothing of Hill, who was behind the plate—to see.

As a key batter approached the plate, Doc, the catcher, concocted a strategem with his pitcher: They played shadowball. The pitcher went through his delivery but never released the ball. Doc, for his part, popped his glove with his fist, shouted “Good one!” and feigned a throw back to the mound.

“Strike one!” shouted Treetop Hill as the astonished batter turned to protest.

Doc and the pitcher repeated their routine, and Hill called, “Strike two.” By that time, though, the batter had devised a counterplan. After the pitcher went through the motions again, the hitter yelped “Ow” and grabbed for his right arm.

“Take your base, son,” Hill told the batter. Doc and the pitcher could only shrug.

The moral of Doc Williams’ Treetop Hill fable (cheaters never profit) has served me well in life. And I invoke Treetop now as a roundabout rebuttal witness to pooh-poohers who seem to contend that summer softball is a meritless and lowbrow pastime. I say (and 9 out of 10 high school coaches/history teachers agree), “You can learn a heck of a lot from this game.”

Here is a few things I have learnt from playing softball:

Know your opponent well. A lesson with valuable applications for business, political and military life, wouldn’t you say? I learned it in second grade, thanks to softball and thanks to my teacher, Mrs. Judd. A scowling grandmother with raven hair, Mrs. Judd always organized the boys into a softball game at recess, leaving the girls to play by themselves, unsupervised.

Serving both as stern coach and severe umpire, Mrs. Judd let no bonehead play go unlectured. I felt her wrath once when, after reaching first safely, I made for second when the first baseman dropped the ball. He quickly retrieved it and threw to second, but the feckless second baseman also dropped the ball, so I was safe again.

“Time out!” roared Mrs. Judd, and she strode out past the pitcher’s mound, demanding to know why I had taken the extra base when, by all rights, I should have been thrown out easily. “I knew that Travis Mack [not his full name] would drop the ball,” I replied with the brutal honesty of a second-grader.

Mrs. Judd glowered momentarily at Travis Mack, who hung his head. Then, knowing that I had judged correctly, she harumphed and skulked back to home plate without another word.

Run first, ask questions later. In the business world, this loosely translates into the often invoked axiom, “It’s better to ask forgiveness than permission.” I first appreciated its usefulness, I think, during a college intramural softball game. The umpire that day was a football player, Greg Hawthorne, who went on to a semi-memorable career with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In college, Hawthorne was a great runner and receiver. Great at diction he was not. While we were in the field, a batter rapped a ball straight down the right field line. We weren’t sure at first whether it was fair or foul.

“Fawhr!” called Hawthorne from behind the plate. We all squinted and furrowed our brows, still not sure. “What?”

“Fawhr ball!” he called again. The runner, who had been on his way to second, stopped and started to return to the bench. “No!” yelled the ump. “It’s fawhr! Fawhr ball! Keep running!”

By this time, it was too late to run. The right fielder had flipped the ball to the first baseman, who easily tagged the irked and redfaced batter. I made a mental note: In softball, as in war, fawhr is fair.

Swing hard, in case you hit something. This was Joe Garagiola’s philosophy of hitting, and it is a sound one. Its eminently applicable corollary is: Anything can happen—a point driven home to me by my diminutive wife’s coup at the plate during a coed-optional league game one summer.

When Grace came to bat with the bases loaded, our all-male and very full-of-themselves (or full-of-something-else) opponents snorted and guffawed and brought the infield in halfway to home plate. The pitcher tauntingly wondered whether she could even hit the ball as far as the mound.

As I manfully debated whether to defend her honor by introducing this lout’s head to my aluminum bat, Grace reared back and slugged a hard ground ball right between the pitcher’s legs for a base hit. He had condescendingly moved so close to the plate that he didn’t have time to react. Had the ball hopped a few inches higher on the way through, it would have snagged him squarely in the groin. As it was, he had to endure a great deal of verbal haranguing from his teammates, not to mention Grace’s nyah-nyahing from first base.

Don’t slide. There’s no real life lesson here, except maybe, “Don’t get carried away by the moment.” In softball, only fanatics, masochists or idiots slide more than once in their lives. I have slid exactly four times, and they’ve all added up to exactly zero. You wind up with an enormous, painful, oozing strawberry that is uglier than Ned Ray eating tacos. Trust me.

Stay away from lawyers, doctors and divinity students. If that’s not practical advice for living, I don’t know what is. Maybe it’s just happenstance, but there seems to be a loose consensus that the most prickly, contentious and underhanded opponents on the softball field are teams collected from these three occupational groups. The doctors think they know everything, the lawyers argue and whine about everything, and the divinity students, by their own admission, play dirty.

Softball is not about exercise. The lesson is “Don’t kid thyself.” After years of denial, I finally admitted to myself that, on most nights, the only time summer softball is draining is when it comes to the inevitable postgame beers.

I can remember only one night when someone on my team didn’t suggest reliving the game over a cold one or two—or six. We had entered a single-day, double-elimination tournament. After we made the mistake of losing our first game, we lacked the sense to lose again quickly when we had the chance.

Instead, we slogged our way through the loser’s bracket, all the way to the finals. We played eight games that day, beginning at 8 a.m. and finishing well after dark, after the crickets had come out. Before the start of the last game, 15 minutes after the semifinal, we all lay on the outfield grass, exhausted, staring up at the lights.

In those moments, somehow, I felt a strange euphoria, a feeling that had nothing to do with beer; I was experiencing a transcendent sense of camaraderie. I could barely walk the next morning. But lying on that grass, after winning six games in 10 hours, was one of the best feelings I ever got from playing any sport.

Choosing sides

Each year, more than 11,000 players take part in one of the 86 softball leagues sponsored by Metro Parks and Recreation Department. The leagues are arranged into 13 different divisions—including Men’s Open, Women’s, Coed, Men’s Fast Pitch and Men’s Church. Most of the divisions are further divided according to ability.

It’s too late to join one of the summer leagues for this year. Their seasons run from mid-April through mid-July. But seven-week fall leagues start in early September; sign-ups will be held Saturday, Aug. 3, 9-11 a.m. For more information, call Metro Parks at 862-8424.

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