T.R. Healy was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. His stories have appeared in such publications as The Foliate Oak, Limestone, The Red Cedar Review, and Sequoia.
Kerwin Criles got back in his crouch, peering through the bars of his mask at the gangly fireballer on the mound. It was only the third inning of the Triple A game and already his dark blue shirt was soaked with sweat from the tight-fitting chest protector and the suffocating humidity. If he removed his jacket, it would appear as if he had been calling the game during a torrential downpour. He was not worried he would have any problems, though. Whenever he was scheduled to work behind the plate, he made sure he drank at least one sixteen ounce bottle of water before the game started because the last thing he wanted to happen was to collapse from heat exhaustion. That would give the hyenas in the stands one more thing to holler at him about, damn them.
"Stee-rahhk!" he called firmly as the curve ball darted over the black portion of the plate.
The batter, frowning, didn't agree and stepped out of the box, indignantly knocking some dirt from his cleats.
It was a borderline pitch all right, Criles knew, but he was confident he made the right call and told the batter to get back in the box.
"You call'em as you see'em," he remembered an old crew chief telling him his first year in Double A, "and there ain't a game until you do. Out here you're the Lord Almighty. What you say, goes."
Between innings Criles moseyed over to the visitors' dugout and took a sip of water from their drinking fountain. He then rested against it, almost wished he could take a seat on the bench but he knew the other members of his crew might become concerned and wonder if he was not feeling well. Actually, he was just very tired. Dennis, his nineteen year old son, called around three in the morning, asking to borrow some money that he had no intention of repaying. And as usual, when his son called, he was so distraught he could not go back to sleep.
"What do you want the money for?" he asked, knowing the answer he received would not be true.
"This car I'm driving needs some work on it."
"And what about you, son?"
"What about me?" he answered defensively. Criles didn't reply because he knew his son would only tell him another lie.
"You think I want it so I can go out and party, don't you?"
"I don't know, Dennis. You tell me."
"Well, I don't, Pa. Honest."
A hot dog wrapper fluttered across the plate and Criles grabbed it and stuffed it into his back pocket beside his whisk broom.
"What's the count, ump?" the batter growled out of the corner of his mouth. Quickly he checked his ball and strike indicator. "Three balls and a strike."
He had never used another indicator but this one, which was presented to him when he graduated from umpire school. Often he wished a lot of other things could be answered as definitively as a pitch count.
"Don't get stuck on stupid!" someone screamed, objecting to a foul tip call.
"Get your head in the game, ump, and out of your rear end," another chimed in from behind the third base line
After sweeping off home plate, Criles again found himself watching the visiting team's shortstop field ground balls thrown by the hulking first baseman. The lanky kid was fingersnap quick and as slick at the position as anyone he had seen this season. He almost seemed to sweep the ball into his glove as if he had a broom in his throwing hand. Some day, he suspected, the kid would make it to the Show.
Shortstop was the position he had played, starting in Little League and continuing through Legion ball. He was always considered to be pretty good with a glove, even picked up the nickname "Shield" one summer because so few balls got past him. He was not surprised, not after all the hours he had spent taking grounders from his father in the alley behind their house. Sometimes his aching fingers would take days to heal. Still, he kept at it because some day he wanted to get to the Show. And by the time he was playing on a Legion team he was convinced he could play shortstop in the Major Leagues, everyone who saw him thought so, too, except his manager Spike Ferrell.
"You can catch a ball, Kerwin," he told him one day after practice. "Hell, you're a damn wizard with a glove but you can't hit for shit."
He disagreed. "I'm right around two seventy-five, skipper."
"Sure, you can hit a fastball but everyone who gets a paycheck in baseball can do that."
"Not everyone hits almost three hundred," he protested.
Spike spit out a stream of tobacco juice. "I don't know if you can hit much above a hundred once pitchers find out you have trouble handling a ball with some break in it."
"I'll be able to do it. I know I will."
"Maybe so, kid, but if you ever want to earn some money in this game, you might consider putting on the blues."
Insulted, he gasped, "You're kidding, right?"
"You can make some real decent dough, depending on how far up the ladder you go," Spike claimed. "And I believe you've got the ... awareness to be an umpire, and I sure as hell know you've got the passion for the game."
"I'm a player, not an umpire," he insisted.
"Give it some thought, though. It just might be the ticket that keeps you in this game after all your buddies have left it."
"I guess you don't have to have a gun to shoot yourself in the foot," some hyena whined after he called out a batter for interfering with the catcher.
The first apartment Criles and his wife resided in was right across the street from a small wedge of a park, and as soon as Dennis got old enough to put on a glove, he took him over there and hit ground balls to him with a fungo bat. Maybe, he thought, the boy would become the ballplayer he had dreamed of becoming, but early on it was clear his son had little interest in baseball. He preferred to listen to music and play video games. Even so, Criles continued to invite him to go with him to the park and, reluctantly, the boy went along, but he didn't want to become an ogre like the father in Fear Strikes Out so eventually he stopped asking him and put his son's glove in a drawer.
The smooth shortstop snared a sharp grounder deep in the hole and fired it to first base, denying the startled batter a sure hit. Definitely the kid would get to the Show before he did, if he ever did, Criles thought to himself, getting back into his crouch. He got into umpiring late, after nearly five years in the mortgage business, but still he thought he would have got the call up by now. A dozen years in the minors was a long time.
"You can do better, Kerwin," the starting pitcher of the home team muttered to him as he shuffled past home plate after being relieved in the fifth inning with runners on the corners and only one out.
Criles started to snap back at the veteran hurler, as was his custom when challenged by a player, but he held his tongue. The guy was right. He had called his last pitch a ball when it was likely a strike. He was having a hard time concentrating today, probably should have been working the bases instead of calling balls and strikes. He kept thinking about Dennis, wondering why he had called so late last night, wondering if he was in trouble with the police again. Three times in the past two months he had bailed him out of jail for vagrancy and public drunkenness. And long ago he quit counting all the money he had spent on recovery programs which his son revolved through as if on a carousel. Nowadays whenever he thought about his son he worried, wishing he had the certitude to know what to do for him that he had on a baseball diamond.
"Die, ump! You're killing us."
The splitter was right over the corner of the plate and the batter, apparently expecting a fastball, left the bat on his shoulder. It was strike three and immediately Criles called him out, whirling around and emphatically jabbing his right fist through the air. One thing he was adept at was calling a third strike, he believed, doing it with authority without showing up the batter. Some umpires were tentative, some so timid not even the batter knew he had been called out, but when he made his call everyone on the field knew it. For many hours, in front of a wall-length mirror, he had practiced his call so that his body movement was as forceful as his voice.
Dennis was eleven when Criles and his wife divorced, and though he visited him on weekends, he began to notice a distance developing between them. Sometimes he almost felt as if he had to introduce himself to his son and lamely shook his hand. Certainly he didn't blame his former wife for the ugly turn the boy's life took soon after he entered high school, assumed that was a result of the tough crowd he associated with, but somehow he believed if he had been with him more often he could have prevented him from starting to drink at such an early age. His son was in a very dark place then, so far in that when he first began to reach out for help he could not find anyone around.
During the seventh inning stretch, while the fans stood and warbled "Take Me Out To the Ball Game," Criles took another long sip of water at the visitors' drinking fountain. It tasted as metallic as ever but it was cold so it went down as smoothly as the longneck bottles he would be drinking later in the locker room. He took a handkerchief out of his pocket and soaked it in the fountain, wiped his face and neck, then soaked it some more and knotted it around his throat. He wanted to be sure he was alert for the rest of the game, which was tied at two runs apiece.
"Ball," he snorted as the slider fluttered outside the place.
The batter stayed in the box, menacingly aiming his bat at the pitcher. The next pitch was also wide but, desperately, he swung at it and missed.
Now he asked for time and stepped out of the box, straightened his hitting gloves then stepped back in, again pointing the head of his bat at the pitcher. A runner was on second base, slowly edging off the bag, and the pitcher gave him a long look then reared back and threw a fastball over the outside edge of the plate. The batter swung and drove the ball in the gap between center and left, but not very deep, so Criles was sure there would be a play at the plate.
"Don't cut the throw off!" the catcher screamed at the shortstop.
It was the bottom of the eighth, the game remained tied, so a score here might well decide the outcome. He knew he could not let his mind wander, not now, he had to bear down and stay focused. At once, he peeled off his mask and stepped behind the right side of the plate and got down in a crouch. His heart pounding through the chest protector, he watched the runner round third base and head home. The center fielder had a strong arm and showed it, throwing the ball on the fly into the catcher's mitt. The runner slid, hooking his right leg toward the left side of the plate just as the catcher swiped his mitt across the runner's ankle.
He got him, Criles was positive, but he waited a moment, making sure the catcher didn't drop the ball. Then he called the runner out, jerking his right thumb past his cap.
The manager immediately sprang out of the dugout and charged toward him, insisting the catcher failed to make the tag in time, but Criles was confident he had made the right call. He had watched the play closely, from just the right angle, and did not have a doubt in his mind. He only wished he could be as confident about some of the decisions he had made off the diamond.