From the cheap seats, spring evenings at the Pawcatuck Little League complex off Pequot Trail generally were characterized by chilly temps, lively parental chatter and, at least on one occasion, which I observed, a coach barreling out of a team dugout, while play was underway. He charged across the field to chase an agitating parent on the opposite side, and collapsed along the way.
Much of the time when my kids were playing I escaped the bleachers by volunteering as an umpire. I knew I hadn’t the temperament to coach, and thought calling balls and strikes or plays on the bases would not only be a challenge but useful and, fool that I was, even fun.
In those days, the Pawcatuck Little League played out on a 13-acre stretch of former farmland that had been transformed into four fields, five leagues, 34 teams and some 450 players.
This season, there are 28 teams involving some 300 players, according to league President Corey Fyke, who, in his day job, was recently named editor of The Westerly Sun. Despite the drop in numbers, I suspect that the decorum and standards of respect extended toward those plucky volunteers in the dugout and on the field remain substantially unchanged.
A couple of tender reminiscences before recalling the fateful adult tantrum.
For the girls’ softball league, in which my daughter played, the standard was for the “plate” umpire to stand behind the pitcher. On one memorable evening, the pitcher for one team, who would go on to great success as a high school athlete, had trouble finding the plate. In fact, virtually every underhanded pitch she lobbed landed nowhere near home plate. I was duty-bound to deem it a ball, not a strike. What ensued was a torrent of tears from the pitcher.
Another pitch, another obvious ball, another cascade of tears. This went on for several minutes, until both the young pitcher’s coach as well as her father ventured out to the pitcher’s mound and the waters were calmed, or, at least, corked.
On a different night, over at the boys’ Major League Field, I was behind the plate and breezing along calling pitches as I saw them, ignoring, but not deaf to, the catcalls from the stands about my eyes and ancestry, until all went asunder following a close play at home. As often happened when umpiring, one of the teams included one of my children. I did my best to remain neutral.
It was either a one-run game or tied. My son’s team was on the field. There was a runner on third and the batter slapped a sharp grounder to the shortstop. The runner broke for home, the shortstop deftly fielded and threw to the catcher, the slide and tag intensely close, but to my reckoning, the throw was in time and the runner was out.
But then the catcher, young and earnest, looked up at me and confessed that he had dropped the ball. I mulled his honesty, consulted the dictates of fair play and changed my call. “Safe,” I said. The manager of my son’s team, generally a placid and good-natured fellow, ran out and approached home plate, saying, with naked dejection and exasperation, “You’re killing me!”
The play stood as amended.
But all this was amateur-night applesauce compared to the signature event that occurred during what I recall as a Little League playoff game. Again, I was on the field, as a base umpire, positioned between first and second base. Play was idling along when all of a sudden, out of the dugout along the first base line, one of the coaches, not the team manager, bolted from behind the screened entryway and ran hell-bent across the field, zeroing in on the father of one of the other team’s players who was standing alongside the opposing team’s dugout.
I and everyone else who witnessed this model of adult behavior then watched as the coach either collapsed or tripped or simply fell, just short of reaching his target. Here, the recollections vary. I remember that play was stopped until an ambulance arrived and EMTs attended to the coach, who survived his tantrum with little apparent physical consequence. Others, including the manager of the coach’s team, a stalwart presence for years in Pawcatuck Little League play and concession-stand operations, remembers only that the coach went down on a knee. He has no memory of an ambulance.
The manager said the turmoil had nothing to do with a particular call, just persistent agitation by the parent directed toward the other team’s dugout. The manager did say the coach recently had received a pacemaker and kept massaging his chest as he grew more incensed by the parent.
Eventually play resumed, the league went on and the incident passed into legend.
You can’t, alas, look it up, but all those there that afternoon, adult and Little Leaguer alike, knew it was one for the books.
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist for The Day in New London. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.