I still can’t tell you why

Jeff Gilliland

Jeff Gilliland

For some reason I decided a little more than three decades ago to try my hand at umpiring adult slo-pitch softball games. Before I knew it 18 years and somewhere around a couple thousand softball games had passed.

I had suffered a serious knee injury (playing softball, of course) and wasn’t going to be playing for a long time. I also knew I could pick up some spare change. But other than that, and the fact that I was helping manage the adult softball leagues, I really have no idea why I decided to give it a go. But after a lot of coaxing from the late Bill Jenkins and the late Ray Morgan – two of the best people and most experienced softball umpires I could have learned from – I decided to give it whirl.

When you umpire as many softball games as I did, you see and experience some really strange things.

My first lesson came sometime in my first year when Bill and Ray decided I should help them umpire a national qualifying tournament in Washington C.H. I wasn’t sure I was ready, and soon learned I was correct.

Sometime in my first or second game I was unsure of what to do in a certain situation. I do not remember the situation, but I knew that one of them was sitting in the stands behind me so I turned and asked for help. A little later they took me to lunch and told me to never, ever ask for help. If you’re unsure about something, they said, make your best educated guess, act like you know what you’re doing, and hope no one knows the difference.

So, I returned to the ball park determined to never ask for help. You should know, by the way, that slo-pitch softball umpires almost always work alone, so there is no partner to help them out.

Anyway, a game or two later I was in the later innings of a very close and hard-fought game. One team was up to bat with a runner on third, another runner on first, and less than two outs, needing only a fly ball to tie the game. And, sacrifice fly balls are pretty easy to come by for most decent softball players.

So as I’m standing behind home plate and the batter hit a fly ball, only it wasn’t deep enough to score the runner from third. I started jogging out from behind home plate, watching the flight of the ball, when something smacked me in the corner of my eye – really hard. I was seeing stars and dropped to a knee. When the stars cleared the batter was rounding third base, everyone on both teams was jumping up and down and yelling at me, and I had absolutely no idea what had happened.

Turns out the batter had tossed his bat about 20 feet in the air and on its way down the barrel end hit squarely on the left side of left eye socket. But, I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was that something really unusual had happened and while everyone else seemed to know what was going on, I had no clue.

My first inclination was to ask for help. Then I remembered I wasn’t supposed to do that, ever.

To this day I don’t remember how I resolved the situation, but somehow I bluffed my way through it and nobody argued much.

The weirdest thing I ever saw came years later when a guy hit a sharp ground ball to third base. The third baseman broke on the ball, reached for it, then started turning circles. He was looking everywhere, but couldn’t find it. I had no idea where it went, and neither did anyone else on the field. After a few seconds the fielder reached down the neck of his shirt and pulled the ball out.

It had apparently rolled up his arm, into and through a short shirt sleeve, then lodged itself somewhere around his belly.

The worst thing I ever saw came when an outfielder was chasing a deep fly ball on a dead run. He was watching the ball, didn’t see the fence, and hit it hard enough to flip completely over it. Only thing was his glove somehow got caught in the chain-link fence as he was flipping over it. He ended up on the ground outside the fence, only the arm attached to the glove was still on the inside, twisted in a way arms are not meant to bend.

The funniest thing I ever saw was when a guy mooned me. Yep, for real.

This guy was not in the starting lineup, and he was not happy about it. When he finally got in the game he strode to the plate, obviously angry and determined to show everyone why he should have been playing. With two strikes on him he took a mighty swing, hit nothing but air and struck out, which is fairly hard to do in softball.

I believe he may have been a bit intoxicated, and he had been jawing with some girls in the stands behind the plate when he strutted up to bat. When he took that fateful swing the girls he’d been jawing with broke out in uncontrollable laughter and banter resumed. At first I thought he was going to take his medicine and walk quietly back to the dugout. And he took a couple steps that way. But the banter must have been more than he could tolerate because suddenly he stopped, turned his back to the stands and took a few steps toward the backstop, then exposed his backside to the girls.

By then everyone was falling over laughing, including myself. Still, that’s not an excusable transgression, so in between laughs I tossed him out of the game. “Oh yeah,” he said, “well then here’s one for you, too.” And I got the same the treatment the people in the stands had just experienced.

I don’t ever remember laughing and tossing someone out of a game at the same time.

As you know, umpires don’t always make the correct call, and made my share of bad ones. One of the best ways to avoid missed calls is to never assume anything. Just when you think you know what will happen, something weird happens and you’re between a rock and a hard place.

One time late in my umpiring career a team was up to bat with runners on first and second and nobody out. In all my hundreds of games I had never witnessed an around-the-horn triple play in slo-pitch softball. The bases are just too close. But on this night the third baseman was playing right next to third base when he cleanly fielded a sharply hit grounder. He stepped on third, threw to second, then that guy threw to first. I called out, out and safe. I knew as soon as safe came out of my mouth that I was wrong. I didn’t think they could pull it off and anticipated the third call being safe. The guy was out, but I had anticipated, and safe came out of my mouth before my brain could translate what really happened.

When the inning was over a couple of the fielders involved in the triple came toward me and said, “You know, you missed that one?”

“Yep, I sure did. Sorry,” I responded.

They gave me some good-natured ribbing, but shrugged it off, even though I knew they really wanted to be able say they turned a triple play.

I still don’t know why I decided to start umpiring. I don’t know why I stuck with it so. But it led me right into being a basketball referee, and that’s another story for another time.

Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522 or on Twitter @13gillilandj.

Jeff Gilliland
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