Most umpires love to tell war stories…of the calls they got right! Forty years after the fact, my favorite to tell (now) is a story about a play I blew in the Class AA Southern League…ironically, against a former teammate.
What was it Franklin Roosevelt once said? A day that will live in infamy?
We all have days those days, days we remember…the date on which you got married, the date your kids were born, the date on which Mom or Dad died. Maybe not infamous, but days you never forget, regardless of how long you live.
Among others, the birthdays and the anniversaries, May 8th is my date because just about all old officials and referees love to tell stories, “war” stories, and I’m going to tell you one here. Except, most of us dwell on the our best calls and best games. I’m going to tell you about my worst.
On May 8th, 1978, 34 years ago this coming week, I was umpiring in the Double AA Southern League with partner Mike Benda, from Gary, Indiana. Assigned to Chattanooga, Tenneesee on that night, we were working the second game of a two-game series between the hometown Lookouts, a Cleveland Indians farm team, and the visiting Charlotte Orioles, the Double-A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles.
In professional baseball at any level there’s always a team that becomes, to use Roosevelt’s term, infamous around the league for its relationship with umpires. And such was the case with the Chattanooga team in 1978. It was our first time seeing the Lookouts, who were struggling to win games and were in last place of the Southern League’s East Division. Umpires talk, and we’d heard the news that the Lookouts were, in the words of more than one Southern League colleague, a bunch of “renegades”.
Ironically, it was a team with talent, including Chris Bando, brother of Sal, and later the catcher for several years with the Indians in the American League.
Even more ironic…Terry Tyson, from West Milton, Ohio, and a former teammate of mine on Frosty Brown’s 1970 Troy Post 43 American Legion baseball team, was the Lookouts’ starting shortstop.
“Unbelievable,” he said when we met on the field before the first game of the Chattanooga-Charlotte series. “Who’d have guessed we’d both be here?” For we had not seen each other since that summer in 1970…Terry having played college baseball at the University of Toledo and I at Ohio State. It had been eight years.
Nonetheless, we renewed acquaintances on the night of May 8th in a manner not-so-warm. I was umpiring the bases that night, and was in the middle of the infield with a runner on first base, when Tyson came to bat in the fourth inning. Terry Tyson was a tall, skinny kid back then, a great player in multiple sports during his time at Milton Union High School, and probably the best player on our ’70 Legion team. He had had an outstanding collegiate career at Toledo.
But as a professional, while a slick-fielding shortstop, he had struggled to hit. When he came to the plate that night he was hovering around the .200 mark for the first month of the season. And for that reason, all three of the Charlotte outfielders were playing him very shallow in the massive outfield confines of old Engel Stadium, a landmark among ballparks in the minor leagues.
By 1978 Engel Stadium had become a professional baseball relic. Famous for its history, and for the fact that Babe Ruth had once struck out there in an exhibition game against a female pitcher signed as a vaudevillian attraction, it had everything you wanted a minor ballpark to be…except good lights. The outfield dimensions were cozy, yet massive…302 feet to the right field foul pole, 318 to left, and yet something like 457 feet to dead center where there was a terrace straightaway with the words LOOKOUTS spelled out in five-feet high limestone letters.
The game was uneventful until that fourth inning, when Charlotte hit a two-run home run to take a 2-0 lead. In their half of the inning, Chattanooga’s leadoff man was retired routinely, and with one out the next hitter singled to get on base. That brought Tyson to the plate, along with the fate of my night and probably the rest of my season.
On a 3-2 pitch and the runner going at first, Tyson hit the hardest ball of his life…to dead center field. Charlotte’s centerfielder, a wisp of an outfielder named Dallas Williams (who played center like another Oriole legend, Paul Blair) turned and raced for the terrace.
With a runner on base, and working with just two umpires as was the system in low minor league baseball, I was stationed in back of and to the right field side of the pitcher’s mound. When the ball was hit my first instinct was to get to the dirt part of the infield and try to get an angle where I could see daylight between Williams and the baseball, 300 feet away.
I had two problems. One, Dallas Williams kept twisting and turning, changing his direction in order to find the baseball, and he ultimately got directly between me and the baseball. Two, the outfield lights were so bad that from that distance it was hard to see Williams, let alone the baseball!
That last thing I actually did see was him reach above his head with both hands to catch the ball. In the next instant he was whirling and throwing it back to the infield. Pausing for a split second to assess what I had seen, to find the position of the runner on base, and to position myself for a possible throw back to first to double the runner, I finally threw up my right hand to signal that Williams had caught the line drive for an out.
Literally, all hell broke loose.
The Chattanooga manager was a man named John Orsino, the old major league catcher with the Orioles and Senators who could shave on the hour and still have a five o’clock shadow.
We used to laugh about the hair on his arms being so thick it looked like velcro. Later in life he reportedly became Godly, but right about then he was about as far away from God as you could get.
He came tearing out of the third base coach’s box yelling and screaming, and threw his hat in my direction while he was still 30 feet away. Of course, I immediately ejected him for that, but there was more to come.
In Seinfeld terms, Orsino was a “close talker”, and I remember thinking at the time…thank God he wasn’t a tobacco chewer. He demanded I get help on the call from my partner, but Benda’s responsibility was to watch the runner from first to see if he touched the bases properly while running.
“Didn’t see it,” he shrugged. “I can’t help you.”
I was on my own.
By now Orsino was frothing at the mouth, three players and the Lookouts’ pitching coach trying to keep him away from me. In the meantime, Tommy McGraw, the old White Sox outfielder who served as their hitting coach was chirping at me with a high-pitched voice.
“You blew the call,” he screamed. “You’re gonna’ f—ing rot in Double A baseball.”
I let him have his encore, but when he started over the part about rotting in Double A for the third time I sent him to the showers with Orsino, who by now was being dragged off the field, his shirt torn and his eyes blood red.
The Lookouts’ idea of field security in 1978 amounted to an old man who sat at the edge of their dugout with his legs crossed and rationed out baseballs to the home plate umpire. There were no police in the park, just this old man that looked like Asa, the bank guard, who worked in the Mayberry bank on the Andy Griffith Show.
Unbeknownst to me, my partner had ejected three other players and I got two more before we finally got everyone off the field and back in the dugouts. In all, a total of seven had been tossed.
This whole mess took more than 20 minutes to sort out, and at one point I looked at first base and saw Terry Tyson, whom I had already called out, still standing on the bag, looking at me and shaking his head. He never said a word. He just stood there shaking his head in disbelief.
I informed the remaining Chattanoooga players that they would have to spend the rest of the game in the clubhouse, and the batboy would call substitutions out to the field as they were needed. This was the policy for handling situations of multiple ejections where you suspected that there would be more to come if you let players occupy the dugout.
Through all of this, Terry Tyson still had yet to utter a word. In the top of the fifth, he went quietly out to his position to play shortstop.
The game ended up with Charlotte winning in a blowout, and the play in center field probably had no bearing on the outcome. But afterwards, Benda and I wasted no time in leaving the park and getting back to our hotel room because we had about three hours of paperwork to do with filing game reports on the seven ejections.
Sitting in the room, writing, the television was turned on to the local late news. The sports came on with this headline…“And wait ’til you see what happened at the Lookouts’ game tonight. Highlights to come.”
The highlights were little more than a lowlight for me. From the camera angle on top of the grandstand you could clearly see on the replay that the ball had hit the “K” in Lookouts on the center field terrace and ricocheted directly back into Dallas Williams’ chest. But from where I would have been standing in the infield it looked like the perfect over-the-shoulder catch.
It was four AM before we got to bed, and now knowing that I had missed the worst call of my career, complicated by a season’s worth of ejections, it was a miserable night. I remember lying in bed wondering why I was umpiring minor league baseball. And, shouldn’t I have gone back to school to get my masters degree in something…anything? Worse, the third game of the series was just hours away, an afternoon game on travel day for both teams.
I was working the plate that afternoon and expected more fireworks…at least something to be said when the lineup cards were exchanged with the managers. But Orsino didn’t come out. He sent someone else, and probably just as well. Nothing was said. It’s how professional baseball is played the day after the night before. You have to move on. The game went by uneventfully, another Orioles win.
But when Terry Tyson came up to bat for the first time, the catcher went to the mound to say something to his pitcher, leaving the two of us standing alone at home plate. He looked at me with a shy grin, the same look I’d seen so many times while we were teammates on the Post 43 legion team.
“Why me?” he asked quietly. “That’s the longest ball I’ve ever hit in my life. And I’ll never hit another one that far.”
“Terry,” I said, “…I guess I remembered Legion ball, and I didn’t think you could hit it that far.” Moments later I rang him up on a called third strike.
I never saw Terry again after that season, and I left baseball myself four years later. It’s been 34 years this week, and thinking about writing this story I recently tracked him down…contacted him by phone in Toledo, where he works as a sales representative for Johnson and Johnson. After opening pleasantries, I had to ask. Did he remember that night in Chattanooga?
“Vaguely, I guess,” he said. “It’s been a long time.” That’s all he said about it. Terry never had much to say about anything…in Legion ball, or that night 34 years ago in Chattanooga when I’m sure the play was very clear in his mind.
“I have to admit to you,” I said. “I’ve thought about that play for a long time. You know umpires love to tell war stories, but that one’s a hard one to tell, even today.”
There was a pause on the other end of the line.
“Tell me what you’re doing now,” said Tyson, changing topics. “Tell me about your family. You have kids?” Etc., etc. Not another word about the play, John Orsino, baseball, or anything to do with the Chattanooga Lookouts.
We visited by phone for another 10 minutes before we bid each other goodbye.
“It was nice to talk with you,” he said before hanging up.
“Likewise,” I answered. “Hope to see you again sometime.”
That was all that was said.
Like the day after that night in Chattanooga so long ago. It was time to move on.