By Ben Joravsky

The 13-year-old right-hander, a willowy kid with long, spindly arms, had been throwing nothing but fastballs. Then, with a two-two count, he slipped in a curve. The ball hooked in over the outside corner of the plate, and the ump–a grammar-school computer teacher named Sidney Guillory–barked out “Strike three!” The batter turned to walk away, but just before he left the batter’s box, he snuck a scornful look, almost a sneer, at Guillory, as if to say, bogus call, man.

Not that Guillory was paying attention. He’d turned his back, as though the batter had simply vanished, and was brushing off the plate. It was a classic umpiring move, and it went mostly unnoticed. No one cheers the ump, though in his own way Guillory was the star of this play. He’d made a tough call when it had to be made, unmistakably asserting his authority, then turned away long enough to let the disappointed batter save face. “I tend to be a little laid-back,” says Guillory. “I’ll let them vent their frustrations, but just a little. I find that works well for me.”

The season, he knows, has been a turbulent one for umpires, and not just in Chicago. According to a recent article in Sports Illustrated, there’s been an alarming rise in fights and outbursts at youth baseball games, including attacks on umpires by parents and coaches. Actually this has been a disturbing trend for several years. Even at Welles Park, at Montrose and Lincoln–where teams from one of the city’s best-run youth leagues play–it sometimes seems as though a day doesn’t pass without some adult throwing a tantrum.

One coach at the park–I’ll call him Steve–screeches like a deranged bird at every call that goes against him. In his back pocket he carries a wrinkled copy of the league rules, and he’s always ready to argue with the ump, no matter how hot the sun.

Another coach–I’ll call him Dan–usually has a placid demeanor. But at a recent game his face turned red, and he jumped up and down, flailed his arms like a chicken, and wailed, “No, no, no!” All because a call had gone against his team. One nine-year-old, her eyes wide in amazement, asked, “What’s wrong with that guy?”

And then there’s a third coach–OK, it’s me–who fell into the habit of calling the outcome of a play before the ump had a chance to. I thought I could trick him into calling things my way. I got chastised by an ump, felt humiliated, and promised never to do it again. (I swear.)

“I don’t know how to explain these things–it’s different in every case,” says Max Griffin, president of the Welles Park league for the past four seasons. “To a certain degree, arguing with the ump is part of the culture of baseball. I know that when I first started coaching I thought it was clever and funny to bait the umpire. This is sort of embarrassing to admit, but I actually wanted to kick dirt on the umpire–you know, the way I’d seen Earl Weaver do it. But I’ve come to see that it’s an act of disrespect. And the kids are watching us and learning from our behavior. So maybe it’s a culture we should try to change.”

One team at Welles recently had to forfeit a game because an assistant coach went on a rampage–ranting, railing, and cursing at an umpire, who was only 17 years old. “After the game the coach admitted he had gone over the edge, so he was contrite in that sense,” says Griffin. “But he also felt that the umpire had disrespected him by not responding to his questions. Of course his questions were posed along the lines of ‘How the hell can you make that call?’ Or ‘What the hell are you doing?’ It was a tough situation for us. On the one hand, you don’t want to punish the kids for the behavior of a coach. On the other hand, we can’t tolerate such behavior. We tell our kids all along that there’s a consequence for what they do. Well, the same is true for adults.

“The funny thing is that every coach has his explanation. They’ll tell you that they’re arguing for the kids because it’s just not fair to work so hard and then lose a game ’cause of an umpire’s call. But come on, it’s never about the kids. It’s about the coach’s ego. We tell the coaches, you have to live with the calls. Deal with it. More important–use them as lessons to teach the kids. The ump’s human. He makes mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes go against you. You’re not always going to get your way. There isn’t always a remedy for every wrong. Deal with it, and deal with it as a good sport.”

And if you don’t, expect to pay. “It’s more or less a zero tolerance,” says Griffin. “We won’t accept outrageous behavior. If you yell and scream and carry on you’ll be ejected. And if you’re ejected for one game you’ll sit out the next one.”

The truth is that most kids–at least most kids under the age of, say, 11–couldn’t care less about who wins or loses. They hardly even follow the score. Even after a game’s over, many don’t know who won. The desire to win is obviously an obsession acquired over the years.

Many umpires, including Guillory, say they can understand the frustration coaches feel when a call goes against them. “Most umpires grew up playing baseball,” he says. “We know what it’s like to have it go the other way.”

Guillory played baseball until the day he graduated from King High School in 1982. “When I was growing up, baseball was the most popular sport,” he says. “I played infield. I was the one with an accurate arm, but I never hit with much power. I was pretty much a number-two hitter–I could move the runners to the next base. Being a short man, I had to make up for it with speed, which I don’t really have. So I knew that once I was done with high school my serious competitive days were over.”

He stays close to the game by umping. “I’ve been doing it since 1998, and I love it,” he says. “Baseball’s in my blood–I’d miss it if I had to give it up. I ump in parks all over town. For me, the season starts in March and goes through August. I do at least 90 or so games a year–north side, west side, south side, you name it. I’d do more, but I’ve got a wife and children to think of.”

Some leagues pay as much as $50 a game, others as little as $30. “You can make a living at it if you’re willing to ump every day or whenever you’re called–you know, high school, college, Little League, Park District leagues, CHA leagues, whatever,” says Guillory. “But for me it’s never been about the money–though I’m not turning it down–so much as just loving the game.”

One recent Saturday he was umping some youth-league games at Hamlin Park, on North Damen. It was a quiet day, sunny but not too hot. Two teams of 13- and 14-year-olds (Cubs versus Cardinals) were playing on the diamond closest to the field house. Only 10 or 12 fans were watching. A fellow in a yellow T-shirt jogged by. A husky man with two pit bulls sat on a nearby bench. A woman lay on the grass reading a novel.

Guillory was wearing his standard uniform: gray slacks, black rubber-soled shoes, and a blue shirt. His chest, puffed out by a bulky protector, gave him the look of a linebacker. In the break between innings he chatted with the other ump, who goes by the name of Kendo.

“The quality of play in this league’s pretty good, but in general I think the game’s not what it used to be in Chicago,” Guillory said. “It’s reality shock to see how many kids have left the game. As umpires we talk about it all the time. Ever since Michael Jordan picked up that basketball and came to Chicago and made those commercials, that was it for baseball in this town. That’s it–blame it on Michael Jordan.”

The Cardinals came to bat, but the game had to be delayed as three teenagers strolled through the outfield.

“Hey, we have a game going on,” Kendo called out.

The kids looked up, but strolled no faster.

“I’ll give you a dollar if you hit them,” the Cubs coach called to the batter.

“I’ll give you ten,” said the Cardinals coach.

The innings went fast: pop outs, groundouts, strikeouts. The jogger returned, the two pit bulls growled at an approaching collie, the woman closed her book and shut her eyes.

Guillory took off his face mask and poured himself a cup of water from the thermos he kept on the backstop. “This game’s pretty cool–not too many outbursts,” he said. “Actually, I’ve been pretty lucky. I’ve ejected a few coaches, but not too many. The first thing you learn in umping is to keep control of the game. If a coach has a problem you meet him halfway. Walk to him, let him vent. Then walk back to your place. If he follows you, that’s a no-no. I won’t say it’s automatic ejection, but it’s a start. Some coaches believe that if they don’t get in your face or bump you, they’re not warranting ejection. But I say if that coach is still griping after you gave him his chance, kick him out. You can’t let them show you up.”

He drained his water and returned to the plate for the final inning. The Cardinals went down without a rally, and the Cubs won. The players shook hands. Guillory took his thermos and walked across the park to the diamond along Damen, where he was scheduled to ump another game–the second of three–between two teams of eight- and nine-year-olds. About 30 parents sprawled around the field in lawn chairs. More parents always means more egos, more contentiousness, and more pressure on Guillory.

He called a batter out. A father on the sideline moaned in disbelief. The pitch was outside. But when the pitchers are so young and most of them are lucky to get one, much less three strikes, umpires tend to expand the strike zone–otherwise every batter will walk. And that same father wasn’t moaning when his son’s team benefited from the fatter strike zone.

On the bench two substitute players, a girl and a boy, chattered, utterly oblivious to the game.

“You used to keep your hair longer,” said the girl. “But now it’s, like, short.”

“I know, ’cause it’s hotter,” said the boy.

“I like my hair longer ’cause I wanna have braids, but my mother won’t let me.”

A batter cracked a double. One set of parents cheered. The next batter lofted a fly, and the runner at second took off like a jet.

No, bellowed the third-base coach, go back or you’ll be doubled up. Every coach and parent started yelling at once. “Go back,” screamed the third-base coach.

“Run home,” yelled a mom, clearly unaware of the rules.

The kid stopped short of third, not sure what to do.

“Get the ball to second,” screamed the opposing team’s coach.

The outfielder dropped the ball, and he and two infielders scrambled after it. One kid picked it up and, for no apparent reason, heaved it in the general direction of the right fielder, who was watching the clouds. The third-base coach jumped up and down. Parents bellowed, dogs barked. The runner raced home.

One set of parents cheered, the other howled at their children, who stared back in bewilderment. The boy and the girl on the bench continued their discussion about hair.

Guillory brushed off the plate, and the next batter stepped in.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.