The Game Within
By any measure, the recently concluded Australian Little League Championship held in Lismore New South Wales was an unqualified success, with all participants surely heading home with lasting and fond memories of the occasion.
Of seventeen umpires appointed to the tournament, vastly experienced South Australian Russell King kindly accepted our invitation to record his own experiences and his impressions as a championship official.
Russell’s story provides detailed and fascinating insights from an umpiring perspective. Insights, that is, on The Game Within.
Russell King (Contributor)
15 June 2015
268 young baseballers , among them ten Lachlans, seven Joshuas, six Rileys (and a single Depeche), comprised the playing staff of all twenty teams at the recent National Little League (LL) Championships, held in Lismore from June 3 to 10.
Arriving at the same time as the players were seventeen umpires from all over the country. Ranging in age from 16 to 68, and in experience from two years to thirty, the assembled blues comprised the twenty-first team to arrive at the Far North Coast Baseball Association’s (FNCBA) Albert Park complex.
Also jetting in was veteran American LL umpire, Sherm Wallen, and his daughter Molly. Wallen, a Boston native, was reprising his role at the 2014 Australian LL Championships on the Gold Coast.
A get-to-know-you address from the joint umpires’ co-ordinators – Atcheli Richardson and Barry Foat from Brisbane - was the first order of business following the drive from Coolangatta. Then an inspection of the grounds and a rules/mechanics discussion filled in the time before the opening ceremony.
As the fireworks crackled the umps viewed their appointments for the series’ opening games, then headed off to see their accommodation and unpack prior to finding the nearest supermarket. Breakfast necessities – cereal, bread, juice, coffee and the like – were on the shopping list, but Vegemite for the older umps and Nutella for the younger types seemed to be at the top. Bedtime was relatively early, especially for the WA umpires, who had left Perth at midnight and been on the go all the while since. The first game was scheduled for 8:15 the following morning, so alarms were set for around 6:30, and up with the larks.
Clear and frosty was the recipe for the start of the tournament. Seventeen blokes and their gear meant that the umpire’s room was bulging; two welcome visitors – in the form of ABF Manager of Coach and Officials Development, Peter Gahan, and his predecessor, Geoff Robertson – added to the crush as they dropped by to say hello to the older faces and to meet the new ones, but things cleared soon enough as crews left for their respective diamonds.
The wet grass soon took the gloss off the new Rawlings balls, but nothing was going to take the gloss off the 2015 Australian LL Championship Series.
Those unaccustomed to the re-entry provisions in LL rules soon found that the increased paperwork they generated was best shared between themselves, the team management and the scorers as mandatory play requirements and game situations dictated changes. Advice from the more experienced heads went a long way to clearing up any confusion, and the patience of all three groups meant that things generally moved along fairly smoothly, if occasionally slowly.
Working mostly three-man mechanics, the crews cleaned out their cobwebs quickly. By the time the twilight nightcaps got under way rotations and positionings were noticeably slicker and quicker, though those watching the vain efforts of the blokes in the late game to stay warm made mental notes to get out the gloves and skivvies and jackets for their own late ones over the following few days.
As at any tournament, all umpires were assessed regularly by the co-ordinators and other senior umpires who gave their long weekends away to help the fraternity out. And, also as at any tournament (and pretty much since time immemorial), self-analysis was undertaken by individuals and crews alike, usually before hearing from the assessors. The process continued for the entire tournament, even after the Gold Medal game.
With the games for the day done, dinner was taken at the Lismore Workers’ Club. Thankfully none of the blues was game to enter the Karaoke competition that was in full swing in the room next door. Bedtime was again early and the mood upbeat.
The early fine conditions gradually deteriorated as the day progressed, until by the time ‘PLAY’ was called for the twilight nightcaps light rain was falling intermittently. Acting on the lessons learned from the previous evening the twilight crews had pre-positioned jackets for just such an eventuality, and donned them eagerly.
Everyone had all pulled up well after the opening day, and at the post-play washup meeting the co-ordinators pronounced themselves generally satisfied. Not wanting to appear too magnanimous however, they stressed the need for individual umpires to maintain their timing, and for crews to keep games flowing by ensuring that they – and the teams – hustled all the while.
WA umpire Karl Schmidt presents match ball
The light rain which had begun the previous evening came to stay with much more serious intent on the final day of pool play. Traditionally the day on which umpires notice stiff muscles and recalcitrant limbs, day three offered further challenges in the form of ongoing rain delays to just about every game played. Sterling work from the harried groundkeeping crew kept all diamonds playable, and the final game finished under lights, bringing the day’s proceedings to a halt over three hours after its first pitch had been thrown.
In the umpires’ room damp clothing was gathered together to be taken back for drying while the Far North Coast’s ingenious ball dryer worked overtime. Post-match discussions centred on fine-tuning rotations, satisfied that the basics were in hand, and the twin co-ordinators - while still asking for hustle and calm timing – seemed happy with things overall. Older heads looked ahead to the subtle winnowing of individuals and crews that would lead to the gold medal game.
With pool play finished, quarter-finals loomed for the top two teams in each group, and jostling for final rankings beckoned the remaining three from each. In the inner sanctum the day’s appointments were pinned to the noticeboard, and the nominated crews – games would be all four-man from hereon in - found themselves a corner in which to prepare for baseball that had suddenly become a little more important, a little more urgent.
The wet weather had well and truly cleared off, giving way to crisp early air and clear blue skies. Umpiring in such conditions was an absolute pleasure, and the post-game conversations were positively chatty. The last two games of the day were quarter-finals, and with only two crews working, the remaining umps gathered to observe and analyse, adding their numbers to a healthy, knowledgeable crowd.
Thickish fog threatened to delay proceedings on semi-final day, but the weather gods graciously sent their sun to clear things up. There were still plenty of games to adjudicate, and for the first time in the tournament a generous helping of sun screen was required.
The semi-finals were the last games of day five, and were played concurrently in front of near-full stands. Watching amongst the clusters of umpires who looked on with a lively and professional interest were the two co-ordinators, taking final notes as the candidates for positions in the gold and bronze medal games firmed up.
The Workers’ was bypassed for a change, and dinner was at Mary G’s hotel in Keen St. Bedtime was early again, with a big day in the offing.
Toby Pinder with Perth Metro East player
It might have been a little easy to forget that there were nine games to be played before the Gold Medal was decided. Not for the umpiring roster though, every man had a game to officiate in - some blokes two. Mother Nature played her part and summoned a stunner for the individual finals, powder blue skies and warm temperatures the order of the day, making the tables outside the canteen a pleasant place to warm the bones and polish the footwear in readiness.
Gradually things fell into place. Standings were decided, gear packed and dugouts vacated for the last time as all roads led to Diamond One, and the culmination of six days of Little League baseball.
Along the way a semi-official Home Run Derby gave organisers food for thought. However, the activity on everyone’s minds was baseball on a real diamond, the first game at 11:45 for a Bronze Medal, the second at 3:15 for Gold and a trip to Williamsburg, Pennsylvania and the LL World Series.
Slipping away as the winners celebrated, both crews shook hands and debriefed before donning their walk-out shirts and returning to Diamond One for the Closing Ceremony. Then they, too, packed their gear for the final time, paid their respects to the canteen staff (who had looked after everyone royally) and headed back to their digs, then onward to the Workers’ for a final dinner together.
Showered and breakfasted, the blues stripped their beds, tidied up and loaded their vans for the trip to Coolangatta. Delivering the house keys to Cassandra they said their goodbyes to the Albert Park diamonds and to the FNCBA.
Just the same, it was hard to get baseball off the mind. Conversation was lively, the topic singular: the 2015 Australian LL Championships. That everyone had enjoyed themselves was obvious, the weather had been generally good, the facilities fine and the baseball occasionally sublime. Games and rotations and plays were discussed, hiccups and problems analysed once again, and lessons learned filed for reference down the track.
Some members of the panel flew back to winter competitions, mindful of the need to expand their strike zones after a week of the minor version. Others have to wait until summer for their next games, with only rules nights and pre-season training to whet their appetites. Sherm Wallen and Molly spent a couple of days in Sydney before taking the long trek back to Boston, and the Green Monster.
Regardless of location, all of the umpires expressed their pleasure at being part of the tournament, and their desire to return, if possible, for another week of Little League baseball, and of playing the game within.
Australian Baseball Alumni extends its appreciation to Russell King for kindly – and cogently - providing his recollections of the 2015 Australian Little League Championship.
Images used in the story are credited to Kangaroo Photos, official supplier to Baseball Australia for the tournament.
Lismore umpire Aidan Hanlon keeping warm