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VERY FIRST PERSON

The Day the Earth Stood Still

Bottom of the Ninth, Two Outs, Two Strikes, the Final Pitch. . . . Did We Forget to Mention the 8-Year-old Batter is the Umpire's Son?

July 12, 1998|ALAN EISENSTOCK | Alan Eisenstock is a screenwriter and co-author of the teleplay "Angels in the Endzone."

It was a baseball kind of day, a Saturday in midsummer, a scorcher, the air wrapped around you thick as a coat.

The Yankees were playing the Blue Jays in a playoff game. It was the Yanks' last time up at bat. There were two on, two out. The game, the playoffs, the season, were on the line. The Yankees' final hope, a rail-thin left fielder, stepped into the batter's box. He squinted at the pitcher from beneath a batting helmet that hung down over his forehead like a bowl.

Yes, this was Little League and the batter was my son, Jonah, 8. I had the best view on the field.

I was the umpire.

It had been an interesting season. After the second practice, Jonah had confided that he preferred playing the outfield. He was nervous about hot shots coming to him in the infield and annoyed by teammates shouting instructions once he gloved the ball. The infield wasn't for him. Too much pressure. Too much responsibility. In the outfield he could relax, daydream, chew his glove, not get into much trouble.

He liked batting and loved the mental aspect of the game. He had calculated before his first at-bat of the season that a walk was as good as a hit, especially against these 9-year-old fireballers, many of whom had control problems. So, pretty much without lifting the bat off his shoulders, he led the team in on-base percentage and runs scored.

With Coach Todd's encouragement, I had taken Jonah to a batting cage and almost immediately he had taken a few good rips, making solid contact. The next game, the fourth of the season, he had swung, connected, singled. A big moment.

Meanwhile, my reputation as an umpire had grown. I was told before the sixth game by the rival coach that I was the best umpire in the league. It wasn't that I had a particularly keen eye for the strike zone or that I seemed to make the right call on close plays. It was that I was consistent, fair, decisive and, most of all, loud.

The season consisted of 12 games. The Yankees won five of the first six but their big hitter had begun to chase balls in the dirt and was mired in a miserable slump. He was also the team's best pitcher, but his poor hitting affected his pitching. As a result, the team had limped into the playoffs, losing four of the last six regular games.

Despite the Yanks' collapse, Jonah had remained optimistic and involved in every game. Coach Todd, recognizing his knowledge of baseball, often would plop a batting helmet onto Jonah's head and trot him out to the third base coach's box. From my position behind the pitcher's mound, I would see Jonah, his right arm whirling like a windmill, sending a runner home, shouting encouragement, a budding Tommy Lasorda.

After each game, Coach Todd would give the game ball to the team's most deserving player--not necessarily the player who played the best game, but the one who gave the most effort. As Todd presented the ball, Jonah's face would light up in anticipation, then drop in disappointment as, so far, the prize had eluded him. This, potentially the Yankees' last game, was his last chance.

So . . . two on, two out. Bottom of the last inning. The Yankees trailed the Blue Jays, 3-2. Jonah stepped to the plate, the Little League year on the line.

First, let it be said that he had played the game of his life. In the first inning, he had walked and eventually scored the team's first run. In his next at-bat, he had singled sharply to left and knocked in the team's second run. In the field, though, he had made history:

A runner was on second. The batter laced one to left. Jonah backed up as the liner sank in front of him. The ball caromed on one hop into Jonah's glove. He swept it into his throwing hand and gunned it to the third baseman, who spun and threw it home. The runner at second had taken off the moment the bat hit the ball, and as I raced toward home to cover the play, I saw nothing but astonishment on both the baserunner's and the catcher's faces. The ball landed in the catcher's mitt a moment before the baserunner slid into the bag. Wham! The catcher and runner exploded in a cloud of dust. I jerked my thumb into the air. OUT! Jonah lifted both arms in triumph and jogged in from left. Tears mixed with dirt streaked down the baserunner's face. I patted him on the back sympathetically. Around me I saw parents and coaches nodding. It was close. But he was out.

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