I've probably mentioned this before, but every place I've ever worked, right up until I was hired at my current place of employment, has gone out of business -- and every time I've managed to jump ship just before said ship sank to the bottom of the ocean. A few posts back I told you about one of the first jobs I had -- the one that involved cleaning rotten vegetation out of some guy's back yard -- but that wasn't my only pre-paycheck job. As far as regular "paycheck jobs" go, I've delivered newspapers, stocked shelves at a small supermarket, worked as a delivery boy for a local pharmacy (where I learned how to drive a stick on a POS Volkswagen beetle with no heat or air conditioning), worked as a pump jockey at a gas station, a sales clerk at a record store, a sales clerk at a tobacco store, and even worked at a music warehouse one summer putting stickers on LPs. Every single one of these places went tits up. After college, I put three more companies out of business. So, yeah. My kung fu is strong.
Since I've been at my current job for more than a decade, I think it's safe to say that either the curse has been lifted, or the company is so big it's like a redwood tree and I'm a lowly powder-post beetle. There was one other pre-paycheck job, and I'm going to tell you about it. I had almost forgotten about the whole thing because I only had it for about 30 minutes, and really, in the grand scheme of things, it probably shouldn't be considered a job since I never officially got paid for it.
When I was a kid, I played baseball. If you're a regular reader here, you probably already know I'm not really into sports, so this news may come as a shock to you. Even as a fair to middling player at best, I eventually worked my way up from standing around avoiding bees in center field to actively playing first base on a winning team. I was a lefty, so it worked out well -- I could snap the ball to second and third without turning my body first, and those precious seconds resulted in many an out. This position also resulted in my left foot being punctured by a fat-ass, cleat-wearing catcher who decided I was a little too high up on the bag. I think that bloody hole in my foot signaled the beginning of the end for any interest in baseball I may have had.
One benefit they bestowed upon us older players was that we could act as umpires at the intermediate kids' games for extra money. These were usually very boring affairs because nobody had invented Tee-ball yet, so most of the time the game consisted of 8-year-old kids getting walked around the bases, one bad pitch at a time. A few of my friends had done the umping thing, and they'd received nine bucks a game. That wasn't chump change, and it was totally worth it, even though the games were slow as death and got called half the time because of darkness. They should have been called because of suckness, but unfortunately, that never happened.
Every parent thought that their kid should play no matter how bad he was, and generally the team coaches tried to do a little of that. If one team had a giant lead, they'd start playing their shitty kids until the other team started to catch up, and then the first string went back in. This wasn't a league rule of course, so you had the occasional asshole who would run up the score just to make some sort of statement. Usually, these particular coaches were called "Dad" by a couple of kids on the team, and almost without fail their kids were little assholes too.
So I got a gig as an umpire. I was pretty excited, and a little scared. Unfortunately, there was one thing I hadn't foreseen, and that one thing was that I would be incredibly bad at it, and would never do it again as long as I lived.
It was a hot Sunday afternoon and I rode my bike to the park. It was a big park, and there were about four or five baseball diamonds, all with different games going on. I had forgotten the slip of paper that told me which game I was supposed to be officiating, so I had to ride around to each field until I found the two teams waiting impatiently for their ump. I introduced myself to the coaches, and they handed me a big pile of equipment. I had never umped before, and this stuff was a little daunting. I looked at the mask, the chest protector, the neck protector, the big, apple-shaped chest pad (which was different from the protector) and the shin pads -- and had no idea where to start.
I randomly began strapping stuff on, starting with mask and chest pad. At first I thought I had stepped in dog shit on my way to the field but almost immediately realized that it was the mask I was smelling. I pulled it off my face and looked at it. The backside was padded leather and apparently, I wasn't the first ump to use it that day. It was dank with some other person's face sweat. I could see the salty white marks near the edges where it was beginning to dry. I put the mask down temporarily and tried to put on the chest pad. The buckles were messed up on that one, and the last guy who had worn it must have been twice my size. The game was already starting late because I hadn't been able to find the right playing field, and now everyone was watching and waiting impatiently for me to dress myself in all this happy horse shit. I was getting more nervous by the second. I could hear a few muttered comments, a couple of exasperated sighs, and a few snickers from some of the kids. By the time I strapped on the neck protector, the shin guards and replaced the stinky mask, I felt like a blind, smelly turtle. I could barely move. I couldn't see much through the bars on the mask, and the shin guards were so long I couldn't really squat down without my legs feeling like they were going to separate at the knees.
Finally, I was ready. Or at least as ready as I'd ever be -- nervous, blind, sweating, and clueless. Right before they officially started the game, I got some bad news. Due to unforeseen circumstances, I would be the only umpire. Normally, there would be an infield ump too, for the runners on base, but I was informed I was going to have to do double duty and call those as well. No pressure.
The thing about having no infield ump was that I was clearly in no position to see what was going on out there. Additionally, each team not only had a regular coach, but also a first base coach and a third base coach, each of whom had some skin in the game because their kids were clearly legends in their own minds, and this shit was as serious as a heart attack.
They knew All The Rules, too. And if there was one thing you didn't want to get involved with, it was a fight between two douchebag dads who each thought they were Alexander Cartwright reincarnated. You'd hear them saying shit like, "No! A pitch is a ball delivered to the batter by the pitcher. It doesn't matter how it gets to the batter! No, Goddammit, he can try to hit it if he wants to. The batter can hit any pitch thrown! It doesn't matter if it bounced! Oh, yeah? Get a life, you stupid asshole!" (Note to all parents or prospective parents: Don't live your life vicariously through your children, OK? It makes everyone around you think you are an insufferable tool, and is completely embarrassing to your kids. It's just a game. Really, take it from me -- nobody will think less of you if your little Stevie doesn't get to pitch the last inning because the coach took pity on the other team and put in that slow kid who couldn't hit home plate with a conversion van.)
Anyway, this essentially meant that I was screwed from inning one. Oh, and have I mentioned that I had only the most rudimentary grasp on the rules of baseball? No? OK, stick that in there, too. I didn't really know a balk from a bunt when it came down to it.
Things started out OK. The first team had a good pitcher. And by good, I mean he really had no business being on the plate. This was good for me because (a) he never came remotely close to the strike zone, so I was pretty confident. It's easy to yell "Ball!" when you saw the baseball kick up a puff of dust five feet before the plate, and (b) the coach had basically told all the kids on his team to never swing unless they were three balls or two strikes down. Every single one of them walked. This umping stuff is easy money, I thought. After the pitcher walked three guys and the bases were loaded, the coach decided to change him out and things immediately went downhill. Not for them, but for me.
I had grown complacent. I got used to looking for the puff of dust, or seeing the ball sail over the catcher's head and yelling "Ball one! Ball two! Ball three!" over and over. Unfortunately an eight-year-old has a strike zone the size of a frigging postage stamp, and I hadn't been counting on this new guy and his ability to actually pitch.
The bases were loaded, and the pitches were coming in without the tell-tale dust cloud. I began to think that some of them were close to being actual strikes, so I called them as such. I was having a hard time of it, though. I started hearing things like "C'mon Ump! That was a horrible call!" and "Jesus, that almost hit him! Strike my ass!" and "Hey Ump, did you forget your glasses?" (Yes, I sucked, but also yes, these were grown men taunting a 14 year old trying to make nine dollars. My only solace is that most of them will be dead soon, and the ones that aren't will probably be eating jello cups in a nursing home and cursing their asshole kids who never visit. I'm not bitter.)
Anyway, all this taunting was really starting to get to me. I was badly flustered. I could barely remember to yell out what it was I thought I saw, let alone yell it out with any authority or accuracy. At one point, I watched a pitch come in and I didn't say anything. I suddenly realized that they were all waiting on me, so I yelled "BALL THREE!" and someone yelled back "The count was already three and one!" I immediately corrected myself. "I MEAN BALL FOUR!" I yelled. "BALL FOUR! Take your base, runner." So sue me. I had lost track. After we sorted out the confusion and a run walked in, at least one team was happy about the job I was doing. The next batter up was a big, hefty kid who looked like he would be stepping on first basemen in a couple of years.
The first pitch was right down the middle. The kid just stood there like he was waiting for a bus. "STRIKE ONE!" I yelled confidently. The pitcher wound up and threw the next pitch. According to my practiced eye, this one was just on the inside corner of the strike zone, so I called it. "STRIKE TWO!" I got a few groans on that call, mostly because the hefty kid had backed up trying to make it look like the pitch was closer to him than it really had been. Even so, I was reasonably confident about it. If this kid threw strikes, I had nothing to worry about until people started actually hitting the ball and making people run directly at me. That caused me to worry even more. Calling people safe or out at the plate? That sounded like a nightmare.
My worrying caused my mind to wander a bit from the task at hand. I still wasn't any better at envisioning the tiny little strike zone between the tiny elbows to the tiny knees. At least this big-boned son-of-a-bitch was making my job a little easier. The next pitch came in really high, so in my best ump voice, I confidently yelled, "BALL ONE!"
This was immediately greeted by a chorus of dissent. "OH, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD!" "WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU, UMP?" "COME ON! ARE YOU BLIND?" I heard all these and worse.
Then the chanting started.
"UMP GO HOME! UMP GO HOME! UMP GO HOME!" Kids, parents, coaches -- it seemed like the whole world wanted my head on a stick. A few of the wives were telling their husbands to shut up and leave me alone, but it didn't seem to be working.
I took off my mask and threw it to the ground and yelled "IT WAS UP AROUND HIS EYES!" I was pretty much hysterical, and tears were about ready to start streaming from my eyes. "WHAT WAS WRONG WITH THAT CALL? WHAT WAS WRONG WITH IT?" I kicked at some dirt, and stood there defiantly, trying to maintain some semblance of dignity.
The chanting died down and everyone was staring at me.
One of the coaches said, "Uh, kid...he actually swung at that pitch."
I didn't say anything, but I could feel my face turning beet red. He had swung at the pitch. He had swung at the pitch, and somehow I had missed it. Fighting tears, I slowly took off all the smelly umpire equipment and stacked it into a neat pile next to home plate. Without another word, I got on my bike and rode home, thus ending my short-lived career as an umpire.
I don't think I even told my parents this story, so there you go. As you probably figured out, I wasn't asked to umpire any future games.
At least now when people ask me why I hate baseball, I can just point them to this post.
Suck it, baseball.