I teach at a boys’ boarding school. Here, I am a student at a “school” for 120 “boys” who live not in a dorm but in a beachside hotel. Woodberry is all about bonding with classmates and making friends, yet those friends are ever competitors for spots on varsity sports teams, in the plays, for valedictorian… here, though the student umpires are friendly and supportive to each other, we all know we’re competing for maybe 20 positions in the professional ranks. In other words, my sabbatical has turned into role reversal. Talk about gaining perspective…
So as the professional teacher thrust into the student role, I’ve continued to observe the instructors, what they do, how I and my classmates react. I’ve already posted some thoughts on our major league instructors. They’ve been uniformly awesome. The instructors who are minor league umpires, though, have been a mixed bag. A couple have been wonderful. Most have been acceptable, though not special. At least one is horrendous. Though they all know their stuff, what separates the great from the just-okay is their attitude toward the students. Too many of the minor leaguers are easily frustrated, occasionally obnoxious, or overeager to snap at reasonable questions.
My colleague Dan suggested, perhaps perceptively, that some minor leaguers might be teaching here for the cash and the politics rather than for a true love of teaching their craft; whereas, the major leaguers are already set financially and professionally, and so choose to come here for the right reasons. While that’s an excellent point, I’ve chalked up much of the poor teaching to inexperience more than motivation. I know that my own major deficiency in my first years of teaching was that I showed frustration too easily.
Thursday’s class included an hour-long review of the mechanics of the 2-person system that we’ve been learning all along. The two highest ranking minor league umpires took the stage to run the review. Boy, did they destroy the day’s morale… the timbre of their voice and their body language figuratively screamed, “My God, we’ve told you this already, why are you all too stupid to do it right?!?” I do see where they’re coming from, ‘cause we do keep screwing up some of the basics on the field. The review was necessary. But an occasional smile, some sort of token admission that “you’re doing it all for the first time so you really aren’t dumb just inexperienced,” would have been appreciated.
Now, I’m not complaining about a bit of intensity, or even about them yelling at us. We were warned from day one: the instructors will yell, not to embarrass us, but so that *everyone* can hear and thus everyone can learn from one person’s mistake. Heck, that’s my philosophy in physics class. Ask any of my students – I get loud and intense. I tell you when you screwed up. I try to do so with a smile on my face, but nevertheless, I yell. Of course, I temper that yelling with encouragement, with whatever is necessary for the class to know that I love them even when they tell me that an object moving at constant speed must have a force acting on it. Whether my students know it or not, I think deeply every day about whether I’ve shown enough love to temper my intensity. Here at Umpire School, I have no problem being yelled at when I deserve it.
I’m concerned about instructors who assume that a student who messes up must not have been paying attention, or has a bad work ethic. The students have heard at least seven lectures about how success at
individual effort beyond merely performing in drills. Practice, study, attention while in line for
drills, attention in class… all of these things are not really optional if we
want to do well. Well, the vast majority
of the class seems to have taken this message to heart. Many of us stay an extra hour or more at the
fields to practice each day. Others can
be heard practicing on the beach. My
study group has been well attended, and I know that many other study groups can
be found around the hotel. Those in line
for drills are often seen going through their mechanics. I never see students talking in class or
distracting their neighbors. Everyone
that I’ve seen has the right attitude. Umpire
Yet, I repeatedly observe instructors becoming angry or extremely frustrated with student(s), even though those students had shown considerable diligence. In one case, at the huddle after a long drill, my field was reminded again that we should be paying attention while waiting our turn. “I’ve gotta tell you,” one instructor said with nods from his colleagues, “it gets really frustrating for us when we tell you the same thing again and again. If you weren’t *$&#ing around in line, you wouldn’t make the same mistake that the guy in front of you made. Don’t *$&# around in line, and then maybe we wouldn’t have to go over this same stuff so many times. If you’re paying attention, you won’t screw up.”
This instructor’s statement contained two major fallacies. For one, I am capable of explaining exactly what I am supposed to do in any given drill. But that does not mean that, when it comes time to make my body go through the actual motions, I won’t forget something. For example, the first time I did the “pivot” drill I forgot to watch the ball in the outfield. All the way until my next turn, I practiced in my mind, reminding myself, “watch the ball, watch the ball, ball, ball…” When it came back to my turn, I started out watching the ball just fine; but then, after I properly glanced at first base to watch the runner touch, I forgot to turn my eyes back to watch the ball. Now, I knew I’d get this eventually. It’s not nuclear physics. But at that point, my mistake was simply born of inexperience rather than lack of dedication. I paid attention; I still screwed up.
The second fallacy made me want to ask a smart-arse question. I wanted to say, “Mr. Instructor, did you see anyone, anyone at all, *$&#ing around in line?” I was smart enough to hold my tongue.
One instructor in particular,
, has three times hollered at
me as if I were a serf. On Thursday, one
of the fields needed some volunteers to bat – I didn’t need to be asked twice,
especially because I had been sitting bored on the bench. I grounded into a force play to
put runners on first and second with one out.
Now, when we are running the bases, we’re told to take two bases where
possible in order to give the umpires something to call. The next batter singled on a line drive to
very, very shallow centerfield. I
properly held up, then ran when it was apparent the ball would not be
caught. As I approached second base, the
ball was thrown toward the infield. I
was aware of the “go two bases” guideline, but the guy holding the ball probably
would have been able to tag me out himself had I run to third. So I stayed there. After the third out, Jordan screamed
across the field, “Greg Jacobs, how many times have we told you to go two bases
on a base hit? What’s your
problem?” I tried to defuse the
situation… my intent was to say humbly, “I know, but the ball was in the
infield while I was standing on second base… I thought running to third would
be unrealistic.” As soon as three or four words were out of my
snapped, “I don’t want to hear excuses, I want you to do what you’re told!” Jordan
Well, I’ll be danged… I avoided that argument by walking off the field, figuring that while I won’t get into a shouting match, I also won’t volunteer to take that kind of abuse.
But sure enough, on Friday
was in charge of our field
during drills. I ran out a ground ball
to first base. The first baseman booted
the ball, and it trickled behind him. I
figured that I had a slight shot at making it to second base. In a game, I would not likely have made the
attempt; however, under the dictum of “make plays for the umpires,” and
especially considering my verbal lashing the day before, I didn’t hesitate – I
ran to second, beating the tag by half a step.
looked at me, shook his head angrily, and said to all, “That would never
happen. What’s wrong with you,
Greg? You’re supposed to run like you
know what you’re doing!” Jordan
Nothing I can do here short of getting into a screaming match, and there’s nothing to be gained with that. I explained my conundrum privately to one of the better instructors, and I quietly go to the back of the running line when
is on our field. Jordan
Okay, so there’s my huge beef about the worst instructor here. On a positive note, it’s time for a heartwarming story about Rob, a minor leaguer who earned our respect and made my day on Monday. In one moment he showed more teaching talent than the rest of his compadres combined.
First of all, you must understand the nature of CJ the Crazy Braves Fan. This 19 year old has had a difficult time of it at
. To start with, he’s a bit of a natural social
outcast. His slight speech impediment
makes him sound dumber than he actually is.
He has limited athletic ability – when he runs, he waves his arms, and
he looks like he’s going to fall with every step. CJ knows baseball, but he’s probably overly
enthusiastic about the Braves and Bobby Cox. No one loves to play the game more than CJ,
who puts himself first in line to bat (even though he can barely make contact),
and who jumps at every chance to play the field (even though he can’t really
throw or catch). He shows that same
enthusiasm for umpiring. Everywhere you
look around the fields, CJ can be seen practicing his “strike three!” or his
ejection mechanic. He keeps a list in
his breast pocket of every instructor whom he has “thrown out” of our
drills. Unfortunately, CJ often has
trouble getting his umpiring exactly right on the field. At first a lot of students were a bit cruel
to CJ, but by now the class has rallied around him… he’s almost a class
mascot. Most folks now treat him as a
pleasant and amusing character. Umpire
CJ’s stated goal is to become a major league umpire, but he’s recently realizing that his talent might not be enough to carry him that far. It was my group’s turn with the pitching machine, CJ was the umpire, and I was the pretend batter. Poor CJ just couldn’t get anything right this time. He failed to see a swing; his mechanics were all over the place; Rob the instructor had to correct his stance two or three times. For probably the first time at school, CJ hung his head. He knew he had stunk it up, and it was hurting him. His last two pitches were disasters, where CJ barely made any call at all. He looked like he might cry at any moment.
Rather than giving CJ the typical formal evaluation that usually follows cage work, Rob brought CJ over to him and looked him in the eye. “CJ, you can not hang your head,” Rob said. “We think too much of you to allow you to give up on yourself like that. Who here works harder than you? Who here is more enthusiastic? When everyone else is sitting on the bench trying to avoid helping, you’re the first one to volunteer to play, to bat, or to run. We see that. I see that. The instructors appreciate your efforts, we know how much you care, we want you to be the best umpire you can be. So we will NOT let you hang your head and give up on yourself just because you had a bad turn in the cage. Think about how much you’ve improved in three weeks…” and so on, encouraging CJ firmly but supportively for about two minutes, obviously in earshot of a whole bunch of people.
I kept a poker face, but inside I was rooting Rob on. The staff might talk all the time about how much they want us all to succeed, but here was one instructor showing with his *actions* how much he cared about a student on the margins. Me, I didn’t do so well in my drills on Monday. Yet, Rob made my day. I came off the fields feeling just that much better about my classmates and
 The “boys” range from 18 to 55 years of age, and our class includes a 39 year old “girl”
 For now the thirteenth time
 And I’ve done some nuclear physics.
 Making my batting stats on the season 7-14 with a double.
 What I WANTED to say was, “You idiot, what kind of baseball player takes third in that situation? You lecture about umpires developing instincts, and then you expect us to make dumb plays like that? What’s YOUR problem?”
 I can tell that it hurts him that seemingly every story about situations in the major leagues ends with “And then we had to throw Bobby out of the game.”
 The pitching machine is where we practice behind-the-plate mechanics. The pretend batter holds a whiffle bat, and is occasionally instructed to execute a check swing, giving the plate umpire an opportunity to say “yes he did” or “no he didn’t”.