A couple days ago I received a text message asking if I’d be interested in officiating some youth basketball games this season. Having officiated in some capacity for 30-plus consecutive years now, I said sure, and was thankful for the invitation.
I guess when you’ve been doing something for so long it just seems like you should continue, even if it gets a little harder to get up and down the court each year. Often, when someone asks me why I keep officiating, my typical answer is: It’s fun (well, at least most of the time), I get some exercise, pick up some spare change, and maybe along the way I can help a kid or two.
That answer is completely accurate. But there’s more to it than that. If I really think about it, probably the main reason I officiate these days is because it gives me a chance to still be involved in athletics at an age when I can no longer compete.
These days my officiating revolves around kids. And while I’d still like to give some varsity or even small college games a try, the young kids are the ones I prefer to be around. Yes, there always seem to be a person or two who make the day a little less pleasant than it could otherwise be. But the older I get, the easier they are to laugh off, and if someone gets too far out of hand, there’s always plenty of help around.
But it was not always that way.
My officiating career began on adult slo-pitch softball fields. That’s a whole different situation. As a slo-pitch softball umpire I usually worked alone. The players were mostly past their prime rather than just starting out on life’s journey. And if one of them got a little out of control, I was often left to my own devices, other than for a few players I could always count on to cover my back.
It can get more than a little crazy. Trust me.
I had many wild experiences as a softball umpire, but probably the one that sticks out the most is the night I was choked, sucker punched, and then got a call from the local police department.
This particular night was fairly early in my umpiring years and women’s games were on the schedule. Things started out well, but about the second game a male coaching one of the teams started taking issues with lots of my calls. So much, in fact, that I eventually tossed him out of the game.
But there was a problem. His team had a doubleheader that night and park rules said that if a team had a doubleheader, the second game was to be treated like a new week, so the coach got to come back and coach the second game.
I knew things were not going to go well in between games. I had been arguing with the coach about a particular rule when I threw him out. After the game I went and grabbed a rule book. I turned it to the page I was looking for, then went to show one of the players on the coach’s team that I was correct in my ruling. I told her she could keep the rule book and turned to walk away. About two steps later the rule book smacked me in the back of my head.
Things were bad in the second game from the start. So bad, in fact, that someone called the cops. They stuck around for a while, but left before the game was over, and it was not a good feeling when I turned around during a lull in the action and saw their tail lights.
When the game ended, a couple people whisked me off the field as quick as they could and into the concession stand – the only place of refuge at the park. A friend and I stayed in there while the ballpark emptied out, but before long the angry coach showed up at the ordering window. He was holding a ball bat in each hand and said he wasn’t leaving until my friend and I came out of the concession stand.
That didn’t sound like a wise choice to me, but my buddy said we should go, so I said, “Fine. As long as you go first.” So he did, with me very close behind.
I had not taken two steps out of the concession stand before the coach grabbed me around the throat and we went stumbling back into the concession stand. The coach was kind of choking me, and when my buddy saw that I was in distress, he socked the coach in the eye. The coach was off of me in like nothing flat, but now he was really mad, and the three of us were stuck in the concession stand waiting area that was about 3 feet wide and 12 to 15 feet long.
The coach started yelling about my buddy hitting him, then unleashed a wild man’s attack on my buddy. My buddy just held the coach at bay (he later said that the first punch felt so good he was afraid to hit the guy again) and before long my buddy’s shirt was thorn to shreds.
I stepped outside to look for help about the same time a bunch of women from the coach’s team were entering the concession stand. One of them was waving a bat. For a few seconds there must have been about 10 women and the three of us men in that little concession space, and the situation did not look good. About that time, though, a man with the coach’s team stepped in, kind of separated and cooled everyone down a bit, and we all headed outside.
But we had been outside no more than a few seconds when the coach suddenly appeared again. He was jumping around all crazy like, then sucker punched me in the mouth. Then he snuck up behind my buddy, reached around him, and smacked him in the face.
Some kind souls finally got the coach away from us and things settled down. So me and my buddy turned out the ballpark lights and headed home.
Not long after I got home my telephone rang. It was the police department. They said they heard there had been an incident at the ballpark, that the coach had filed charges against my buddy, and wanted to know my side of the story. Of course, the police had been at the ballpark earlier in the night and were somewhat apprised of the situation. So they asked me what I wanted to do.
I told them to tell the coach that if he was going to press charges against my buddy, I was pressing charges against him. The charges against my buddy disappeared.
Here’s the thing, though. This story is far from over. But it’s already too long for this space. So if you want to hear the rest of the story, check back here next week.
Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522 or on Twitter @13gillilandj.
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