I dug in with my right foot. I dig in 6 times with my right and then place my left in position once. I tapped the front, outside corner of the dish with the end of my bat absently as I try to ponder what pitch I will be confronted with. From behind me came Matt’s voice muffled by his mask.
Six years earlier Matt and I were on the same high school baseball team slugging our way through the state playoffs; notching wins like it was our job. I played right field and pitched every 3 or 4 games and Matt was my battery mate behind the plate, solid as they come. His bat was electric and he could do whatever he wanted to with it whenever he wanted to. His batting average in this, his senior season was a gaudy .650 at least. Our team was stacked with talent and we walked with the confident swagger of a team destined to win. Why not? We had only been beaten a few times all season and the teams we had lost to earlier in the season had all been avenged in the second half. We were hot.
We were also one win away from the state final and it was my turn on the hill. I felt great. My arm was pretty well rested, but the thrill of pitching in a huge game on such a large stage would have been enough regardless.
Since it was the state playoffs, we played the game on a neutral field in a neutral town. A coin flip dictated the fact that we were to be the home team; an important advantage in such a game. I took the mound with blazing intensity and a fastball to match. I was a bloodthirsty killer, ravenous for a win. Matt and I devised a brutal attack strategy and I plowed my way through the first three innings without giving up a hit. My excitement grew as did my intensity. On the bench between innings, nobody spoke to me. There is an unwritten rule in baseball where the pitcher who is throwing a perfect game is left alone in the dugout with his thoughts. My teammates not only knew this, but they knew the type of raving lunatic I become while in the competitive zone. I was a maniac, not only ready but willing to rip the head off anyone who dared venture near me.
Further working me up was the fact that the umpire behind the plate was really squeezing me; which is to say that I wasn’t getting any calls on the corners, a necessary thing for successful pitching. I would have been fine with this, but the opposing pitcher was getting a lot of generous calls to say the least. Nothing infuriates a pitcher or a manager quite as much as an umpire not calling both ways.
This was how I lost my bid for a perfect game in the fourth inning. I felt I had thrown quite a few strikes which were not called as such by Blue and I started to lose my cool. Pitching from the stretch was always a problem for me. I can never seem to get the same velocity on my fastballs or as much break on my off-speed pitches. The runner on first was rather quick so I was using my slidestep which is even worse for me. By the time the inning was over I had managed to keep the other team off the scoreboard, but had given up 2 hits.
Our offense came alive in the bottom half of the inning and by the time I took the mound in the 5th we had a 6 run lead, and I had a chance to cool off. It didn’t last long. After my second walk of the inning I said something to the umpire about him blowing the game for me. He didn’t like it and immediately ripped his mask off.
“Hey! I don’t want to hear it. Throw a strike and I will call it! You don’t like that I’ll sit your **** on the bench so quick your head will be spinning!”
Knowing better than to get into a verbal sparring match with the guy, I did the next best thing. When Matt tossed the ball back to me, I took a huge swipe and snapped the ball out of the air with my glove. I have no idea why, but this action always seems to irritate umpires to no end, and I drew a second glare from behind the plate, one that said “don’t try me”.
We put up a few more insurance runs in the bottom of the 5th and basically had the game on ice. I could smell the win and cranked it up a few notches on the rubber. I was throwing way inside to hitters I thought were crowding the plate, and I threw even further inside to those who seemed too afraid to. In my crazed state of mind, I had to throw dead center on the plate to get a call and these pitches were starting to get hit. Hard. I had a shutout going and I didn’t want to lose it over some douchebag making horrendous calls behind the plate. So my evil plan was hatched.
Between innings I pulled Matt aside and told him that I had enough and he agreed with me that something should be done, but what?
“If I take my hat off between pitches that is your signal. Instead of your usual signs for curveball, just give me thumbs up and it will be on.”
With one out in the 7th and final inning, I was getting gassed. I knew with a left-handed hitter up next I was probably facing my last batter and would be pulled for our left-handed closer. My first two offerings were clearly strikes and I was pissed. I took my cap off, setting the events into motion. From the windup I nodded when I saw Matt give me the thumbs up sign and I started my motion. The batter was right-handed and Matt set up on the outside part of the plate. This exposes the umpire as he likes to sit directly behind the plate. The deal was for Matt to get “crossed up” and be expecting a curveball while I fired a fastball over his shoulder.
As soon as I let it go, all of my fury and anger turned to regret and disgust. I envisioned a guy who umpires as a part-time job to not only earn some extra cash, but to give a little back to the game he loves. I saw a guy out there just doing his best like the rest of us. As soon as I released the ball, I wished I could grab it and take it back. I didn’t even have time to yell a warning.
True to our agreement, Matt backed off even more as I threw my pitch. It was a high heater and it landed squarely on the umpires mask; flinging it from his face as his head jerked back in surprise. I’m sure he was unconscious because his legs folded up like a card table and he crumpled to the ground motionless.
The second base umpire immediately ejected the two of us from the game as he could clearly see the thumbs up sign. I thought he was going to kick my ****. My coach was bright red with anger and shoved me into the corner of the dugout and told me I was through being on his team. I thought he was going to kick my ****. My family was at the game, no doubt embarrassed to be related to such a horrible person such as myself. I’m sure my dad wanted to kick my ****. What kind of brutish thug would throw a baseball 60’-6” as hard as he can at another person’s face?
One who would go into a self-imposed exile from the game he loves to earn his remittance.