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In the Zone
By Jay Elliott


What I'm going to tell you never should have happened. But it did. Baseball Digest says they never heard of it. My friend Johnny, they call him Double-Deuce, the old red-head, he was there. And he says that if you scrunch down and really peer between the teeny lines in the rule book—section 3, topic II, rule 6, subhead 13, I think he said—you can see that there's a wee little space in amongst all those "ifs" and "whens" and "whereas's." Yup, if you stare for a couple of minutes, he said, why, you can almost see it happen. The rules will let it happen. The papers didn't know what to do with it; the local beat scribes were scratching their noggins to beat all. Pioneer Regional wins the Western State High School Scholastic Varsity Baseball Championship and gets the number one seed in the state tournament play by hitting into a triple play! Impossible? That's what Baseball Digest said.

I almost didn't get to call that game, you know. Stan, he's the commissioner of umps for the Western State, he called Johnny right before and asked if I had enough experience to do it, such an important game and all. But Johnny, he stood right behind me. "Oh yeah," he says to Stan. "I think he's ready." Didn't know that, though, until after the game. Good thing, too. My confidence was shaky enough; I still have a lot to learn about this trade, even if it's just my hobby.

See, this wasn't supposed to be a real big game when Stan did the assignments at the beginning of the season. Pioneer was heavy favorites to take it all, and Smith Academy was nowhere on anybody's radar. I think the local papers had them picked for next to last or something. Pioneer had a returning crew that most of 'em had went to the State semis the year before, and a big kid, a senior, Matt, who could bring it with the best. If there's anyone I've seen this year who'll go pro, it's Matt. But he's gotta decide between baseball and a football scholarship, because he led Pioneer to the Division III Super Bowl in the fall. Recruiters camped out on his doorstep, the way I hear it. But Smith put together a season like you've never seen—all teamwork, small ball, steals, bunts, scratch runs, made 'em stand up with sneaky pitching and defense. Warmed your heart, those boys did, and they were the darlings of all the local scribes by the time they hit the championship. "Hoosiers II," one of the headlines said, mixing up the sports a bit. They were the underdogs, you bet, and poor nervous Stan suddenly realizes he's got the plate assigned to one of his newer guys and has to call Johnny to calm that Cuisinart in his gut. But Stan told me after that I did good, and I'll probably do mostly varsity next year instead of mostly JV. After all, I've paid my dues.

I called Johnny too, the night before. I couldn't hardly believe that the game was so big and that Stan had kept me on it, behind the plate, no less, but he simmered me right down. "You're really improving out there," he told me. "You look more relaxed, and you've got your timing down. Just stay within the play, don't anticipate, go with your instincts, and watch the ball at all times!" I figured he'd bail me out if I got into big trouble—he's the one got me into umpiring in the first place, and he's always giving me little tips. Always teaching, Johnny is, been doing kids' baseball and basketball for years, taking pitchers aside after the game and giving them instruction. See, he was in the New York Giants organization for a few years back before they moved west, but he didn't ever have the heater to make the show. Crazy guy to watch working, too. Got these ways of calling pitches like I've never seen; he sort of leans out from behind the plate to the side like he's uncurling, his right arm slowly comes up until it's straight out and then, "Strike!" Calls a combined count, too. "Eleven," he yells for one and one. "Twenty-one" for two and one. "Full house" for a full count. And of course "double deuce" for two and two. That's how he got his nickname, though I don't know how many say it to him face-to-face. They all respect him too much.

At the Pioneer field he drove up just as I was starting to put on my gear. Sometimes, when I work with him, Johnny gives me about five or six boxes of crackers and such with the dates expired. He's some kind of high-up regional manager for a local bakery company, so when I work with him, I'm always heading home with something for the cupboard. Does it for all the guys he works with, I hear. Me, I'm just a working stiff—UPS delivery. But I like that he pushed me to get into umpiring. Gives me a chance to do something, make decisions that mean something. Otherwise the only decisions I make is stepping on the brake or pushing the gas pedal. "Ho, ho, Mr. E," he says—always calls me that, I don't know why—"fine day for the great American pastime, yes?"

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Summer 2003 issue.



JAY ELLIOTT has been a full-time member of the English department at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, since 1971. Three years ago he joined the Massachusetts Baseball Umpires Association and since then has been doing high school, American Legion, and Babe Ruth games. After spending the "Impossible Dream" summer of 1967 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he came down with a permanent case of Red Sox fever, an affliction he has passed on to his fifteen-year-old son.

© 2003 Jay Elliott


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