Best Wishes, Richie Garcia

(via mark6mauno)

“Steee-rike!”

“Okay, what did you do?” Richie stepped forward. “You took your eye off the baseball. Never take your eye off the ball, that’s rule number one.”

When Richie Garcia spoke, we listened. He was a god among us. The man had been on the field for two perfect games. He’d worked World Series and All-Star Games. He’d even made Jeffrey Maier a household name. We were nobodies—filing clerks, police sergeants, small-town lawyers, retired truck drivers—just a bunch of people who, for a few hours a week every summer, couldn’t help but cling to a game that had left us behind. To us, Richie was our dream that maybe, with enough of the right breaks, we could pretend we could be there, too.

“I know you’re thinking, ‘But that’s the way CB Bucknor does it.’ Everybody here wants to be the next Tom Hallion. And you know what? You make it to the show, you can do whatever you want when you call that strike three.”

“But one, they’re in a union. When you’ve got that kind of job security, you can do what you want. Anyone here a union ump? Show of hands. No? Then you care about fundamentals.”

“And two, they’re in the majors. Once that ball is safely in the catcher’s mitt, there’s not a whole lot that can go wrong. And if it does, you’ve got three of the best in the business backing you up. You guys are calling American Legion, Babe Ruth, maybe a few of you college games. I guarantee, no matter how much you think you know about the game, something is going to happen on that field when you least expect it that you never even thought was possible. And when it does, you’ve got to be ready, not staring down your arm seeing how pissed the coach is at his kid for looking at strike three.”

Richie was going Bull Durham on us. We’d just wrapped up another long day of drills when he gathered us up, saying he wanted to do one last one thing that wasn’t on the schedule. Said he wanted to see our strike-three calls, to have some fun with it. And then here he was making the whole thing into a learning experience just when we least expected it.

“And another thing. That’s a strike-one call, a strike-two call. Strike three, you can’t draw it out like that, cause you’ve got a mouthful coming. ‘HUIKE three, batter’s out!’ They got to know that batter’s out. You can’t assume just because someone is at this game, they’re paying attention.”

“HUIKE three! Batter’s out!”

“There you go! That’s better! All right, next!”

From then on, we were rolling. One after another we took our turn ringing them up. And we were getting into it. We were yelling at the top of lungs, uppercutting like Mike Tyson, patting each other on the back, passing the face mask around. People were punching themselves in the chest doing some Ed Hickox kind of thing. And every one of us kept our eye on the ball.

***

Becker cracked the pull-tab on his beer and sat back down on the lid of the cooler. “How ’bout ol’ Richie, huh? He’s something else.”

We all muttered our agreement. The five of us had just finished loading the last of the equipment back into the shed behind the concession stand, save for the bucket of baseballs I was using as a chair.

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“Man, how did you even get him to come out here?” I asked.

Becker smiled. “I made some connections down in St. Pete.”

St. Petersburg is where the Minor League Umpire Academy is, the one where they scout out professional hopefuls and whittle them down to the handful of new hires each year. Out of all of us, Becker was the only one who was really serious enough to go that far.

“Anyway,” he continued. “You guys all know Garver, right?”

“Who’s this?” Beth straightened up from where she’d been leaning against the shed.

Angel lifted his eyes. “Oh, you don’t know Doug? Oh man. Doug is…he’s a piece of work. He’s been calling youth games around here forever.”

“Well, he doesn’t really do games up by the lake. But I bet most people over there still know about him. Let’s just say his reputation precedes him.”

“Oh, is this the guy who points at the bag and says, ‘Tie goes to the runner!’ instead of calling, ‘Safe!’ on close plays at first?”

“That’s the guy.”

“Okay, yeah, I’ve heard about him.”

“Anyway. So we’re done for the day, people are starting to leave, and Richie’s standing around talking with the guys running the camp. And Garver walks right up, interrupts us, and starts telling Richie that story about how he’s cousins with Gene Garber.”

“No. He didn’t.” I was dumbfounded. “To Richie Garcia?!”

“Yep. Swear to god. And Richie’s just standing there like, who is this guy? And then Garver tells him, ‘You know that change-up he threw?’ I felt my face tighten with embarrassment as Becker started pointing to his chest. ‘I’m the one who taught him the grip.'”

“No.”

“Swear to god.” Becker placed his beer on the asphalt to keep reenacting the scene. “Then he pulls out a baseball and starts showing him this grip, and it’s clear he’s never thrown a change-up in his life. It’s like he’s trying to close his fist around the baseball or something, the most awkward looking thing. And Richie’s standing there rolling his eyes trying to brush this guy off, but he just keeps going on and on, until finally Richie just sticks out his hand and says, ‘Nice to meet you,’ and walks off.”

“That’s too funny.” I shook my head. “I mean, we’ve all heard that story before, which by the way is totally bizarre. It’s not even the same name. But even the part about the change-up?”

“It’s pathological,” Angel chimed in. “Like he’s got to impress whoever he’s talking to.”

“And the funny thing is, he’s probably been telling that story for what, 30, 40 years?” Becker took another swig from his beer. “Back then, I’m sure it was weird, but at least people would be like, ‘Ooh, Gene Garber.’ I mean, if they believed him, which obviously he’s bullshitting. But from his perspective, he’s thinking, ‘These people are going to be so impressed that I’m related to Gene Garber.’ But now? How many people even know who Gene Garber is? And he’s still telling people that.”

“It’s pathological.”

“Who is Gene Garber?” Beth shook her head.

Angel laughed. “I didn’t know ’til he told me that story. Some reliever from back in the ’70s. Supposedly threw a change-up.”

We talked a bit more about Richie, and about the drills we’d gone through that day. It was the best turnout we’d ever had. Becker was hopeful it would raise the quality of umpiring over the next few years—Angel quipped that half the attendants wouldn’t remember any of it by their next game.

“Hey,” Rocky spoke up for the first time. “What do you think Richie meant by that union joke?”

“What do you mean?” Becker responded.

“Well, you know, about how you can do whatever you want with a strong enough union and not have to worry about fundamentals. You don’t think it sounded a little bitter?”

I hadn’t thought anything of it at the time, but now that Rocky had brought it up, I remembered how Richie had been let go.

“It’s just a joke, Rocky, he didn’t mean anything by it.”

“I didn’t think he sounded bitter at all,” Beth added. “Just seemed like a joke to me.”

Rocky glanced over at Angel. “I thought it was funny.”

I didn’t say anything. If Richie still had some kind of grudge, who could blame him?

“Yeah, I guess so. It’s just…nah, you’re probably right.”

I wasn’t so sure.

In the summer of 1999, 57 American and National League umpires submitted their resignations to the league office as a symbolic gesture over what they felt was MLB’s antagonistic turn in the lead-up to that winter’s labor negotiations. The idea—to sort of give the impression of a strike without actually striking—was badly misconceived.

Rather than treat the mass resignation as the threat of a work stoppage, the league saw it as a rare opportunity to force out tenured veterans and fill their roles with younger, cheaper, and hopefully more compliant call-ups from the minors. Two dozen replacements were quickly lined up as MLB announced it was were accepting 22 of the resignations. The umps had already tried to rescind their letters, but by the time the rescissions were sent, it was already too late.

Among the 22 was Richie Garcia. He was one of the best umps in baseball, but it didn’t matter. He would never work another professional game.

The sharp crunch of stomped aluminum broke the tentative hush we’d settled into. “Well, I don’t know about you union folks, but I’ve gotta get up at 5:30.”

“All right, Angel, thanks for coming.” Becker stood up to shake hands. “You working the Legion game this Thursday?”

“Yep, that’s me and Jim on that one.” He waved at me. “See you then, Jimbo.”

The rest of us finished our beers. Crickets were starting to warm up in the un-mowed hillside just past the outfield. I put the bucket of balls back in the shed and clicked the padlock.

“Richie’s down at the Tonga Lei. I’m heading down there if anyone wants to come. Beth?”

“I think I’m gonna head home, too. Thanks for doing the camp, Dennis. Jim, Rocky.”

“All right, see you.” Becker turned toward us. “How bout you two?”

Rocky perked up. I didn’t mind going either, and Becker was our ride home anyway. As we piled into his car, I noticed an old newspaper lying across the passenger seat.

“Where did you get this?”

“You like that, huh?” Becker glanced back at Rocky. “Just wait til we see Richie, then you can decide for yourself whether he’s a bitter guy.”

I picked up the paper and slid into the seat. “I just hope you don’t get yourself punched if you’re planning to show him this.”

***

The high-pitched clinking of shot glasses and the bass notes of Van Morrison’s Domino seeped out through the cracks in the doorway. Inside, incidental sounds—the running tap behind the bar, the rapping of footsteps, sounds that would be muffled and lost in the shuffling of late-night crowds—still rang clearly at this hour. A light clicking echoed from the worn eight-foot felt table in the side room as a billiard ball settled into the leather pocket.

Becker waved hello to the bartender as we stepped in. Richie was sitting at the end of the bar in the opposite corner from the jukebox. Even in the dim lighting, his hair was strikingly white against his skin.

“Hey, Dennis. You didn’t bring that, uh, what’s-his-name, did you?”

“Oh, no, don’t worry. Doug doesn’t know you’re here.” Becker sat down. “These two were at the camp, though.” Rocky and I shook hands with Richie.

His voice sounded warmer and less imposing than when he was instructing. The more he talked, I slowly began to notice a thin drawl occasionally slip through. He told us about his run-ins with Billy Martin, about how he once threw Cal Ripken’s dad and brother both out of the same game, or the time he ejected Tim Foli during the national anthem. He was bemused by our Doug Garver stories and all the things high school coaches would think were or weren’t in the rulebook. All the weird stuff you miss out on dealing with professionals.

Early sportswriter Henry Chadwick once defined umpires as “those who, by their innate love of fair play, marked determination of character, and peculiar aptitude for quickly perceiving the salient points of the game, show themselves to be umpires by nature as well as by training.” It was an eloquent way of describing the inner drive that pushes us to put up with the heckling, the cursing, the flying spittle and dirt that accompany every bad call, and to endure as arbiters of the sport. Here, sitting in a bar just outside a small town in middle America talking with Richie Garcia, it put us all on the same level. We might have been worlds apart in talent and experience, but we were still umpires.

The bar was gradually starting to fill in. Becker pulled up the paper he’d been holding in his lap.

“Hey Richie, you mind signing something for me?”

“Sure, just buy me a beer, and we’ll call it even.”

“Two Budweisers,” Becker called to the bartender as he unfolded the paper on the bar.

It was the newspaper from October 10, 1996, the morning after the blown call. The most infamous moment of Richie’s career. Staring right up at him were the shot of 12-year-old Jeffrey Maier’s glove hovering over a helpless Tony Tarasco, another of Richie tossing Davey Johnson, and a half dozen headlines showing varying degrees of sarcasm and bewilderment at the home run call that sent Game One of the ALCS into extras. Becker pulled out a black Sharpie.

“Anywhere is fine.”

For a moment I heard nothing as Richie stared at the paper. Not the jukebox, not the glasses, not even the bruising drunk who’d settled into the seat next to me. Just silence. And then laughter—rich, genuine laughter. Becker glanced over at Rocky and winked. I took another sip of my beer. And Richie scrawled out, in bold letters:

Best Wishes,
Rich Garcia


Adam Dorhauer grew up a third-generation Cardinals fan in Missouri, and now lives in Ohio. His writing on baseball focuses on the history of the game, as well as statistical concepts as they apply to baseball. Visit his website, 3-D Baseball.

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