Matthew Levine and
Robert Haydon Jones

Matthew Levine
Thinking Back On the Game

Watercolor
Response

Old Blue
By Robert Haydon Jones
Inspiration piece

Terry Moran agreed to take the plate as the Umpire In Chief of the final game of  the twilight league playoffs in the ragged park in the rusting, forlorn city ten miles up 95 – even though he knew he was taking a dumb chance.

The truth is his lust to do the game blew away his common sense. The season was winding down.  The regular schedule was over. Now the only games left were the make‐ups for rainouts ‐‐‐ and the playoffs.

Now he was at the mercy of Rudy Kirk, the Scheduler, for any more games. His chances were slim. Terry was the oldest active ump in the county ump union.  For the last few years, he had been assigned strictly second tier games. When some of the veteran umps asked him sympathetically if he minded, he said, “Hey, I’m good with it – I’m right where I’m supposed to be.” Of course, he didn’t mean it.

Back in March, when Terry called Rudy Kirk for a schedule, Kirk asked the same question he had been asking every spring for a few years now. “Aren’t you tired?” Terry kept his cool and said, “No, I’m not tired. I’m feeling tip top. Better than ever.“  He felt like telling Rudy to go fuck himself. But he pushed down the heat

So, Terry had gotten his forty games but it had been bad. From April onward, there had been a lot of bitching about his strike zone – and a number of heated arguments about calls on the lines and on the bases.

Although he had a notorious temper as a player and then as a coach and manager, Moran had not ejected anyone in twenty‐five years as an umpire. But this season he had thrown out four coaches and two players. He made a joke of it, saying, “Once I lost the white dress, it got easy.” But it was a bad sign. A good ump is invisible. Moran was proud of his ability especially on balls and strikes.  But now it looked like he was slipping

Terry knew a big part of problem was his age. On a close call, half the people are sure the umpire is dead wrong. If you ask why, they say because the umpire is a bad umpire. If the ump is over sixty, they say it’s because he’s an old umpire.

So even though he was already relegated to the bottom tier, Terry was worried this might be his last season. With all the trouble he was having, it looked like he might be done.

So as the season wound down, he began trying to freeze bits and pieces of the games in his memory so he could keep them:

The pre‐game meetings, first with his umpire partner and then with the opposing coaches; the green‐green, grass fields stamped “baseball” by the brown skin cutouts;  the fresh chalk lines and the new, utterly white, baseballs, called “Pearls”; the eager players, especially the catchers – some of whom he got to know pretty well over the years; the back and forth of play; the sweat and the exertion and the constant pressure when he worked the plate; the thrilling, down‐deep pleasure of being back  on the field when he was the field umpire.

God, he loved it! How maudlin it was to be freezing “last” games. Imagine doing that with all his life – hell he was old enough for it to make sense! The last cheeseburger, the last espresso, the last sleep, the last wakeup, the last piss!

So, when Rudy Kirk called just two hours before game time and asked him to take the plate for an ump down with food poisoning, Terry Moran said, “Okay, thanks for thinking of me”, even though he knew he was a last resort – even though he knew he was heading for a game that could be big trouble.

Terry had thrown out Ricky Miranda, the coach of the home team, twice this season. The League had suspended Miranda for two games as a result. He was a young, fiery, Latino who had led his team of poor Latino kids a lot further than anyone expected.

Ricky Miranda was a good coach, Terry thought, but he didn’t show respect for Blue. He didn’t really know the game that well. You could always argue for your guys if you showed respect. But if you didn’t respect Blue, you didn’t respect the game.

Just two days back, Terry thought he had probably worked his final game for the summer and maybe for his career. Surprisingly, Rudy Kirk had assigned him a big American Legion District elimination game. Terry had the plate. Plenty of potential for pressure, but the home team pitcher dominated and from the second inning on,  he was working with a four‐run lead. The game was over in 90 minutes.

It was a routine game on a beautiful field on a soft summer evening. After the last out, there was a lot of “Good game, Blue…” – and the fact was he had been pretty good back there. Terry kept an unused “Pearl” as a memento – in case it did turn out to be his last game.

Now his lust for one more game had him headed for a jackpot that could sully or even blot out his good game memory. He sure was old enough to know better.

*******************************************************************************

From the first, baseball was always a blessed refuge for Terry Moran. When he was eight, he moved from the city to the country. He moved from stickball in the street to baseball in the hay field in back of his house that the farmer cut twice a summer.

He played hard on that field ‐‐ usually with much older boys. He played all day until it got too dark to see. It was rag‐tag, adultless and surprisingly smooth ‐‐ like, well, like stickball. The difference was instead of broomstick‐whacking a spaldeen ‐‐ you were batting a baseball. The difference was that instead of traffic and sewers and stoops and cops, the field rolled on and on – not forever – it was bounded by houses with windows that in time Terry could break. It was the game that was unbounded.  It was so fun.

Terry’s life off the field was not fun. His parents were real unhappy. His dad lost his job and was real sick with a breakdown. His mom was alternately weepy and angry. She was cuffing and slapping and hitting Terry and his little brothers a lot. A real lot.

Terry wasn’t home much. He went to school and then he ran his paper route.  Then he played ball till it got very dark. The minute he ran on to the field it was good. The games were fun. The field was green and clean.

The April after Terry turned 12, a man in a suit and tie came to the field and asked him if he would like to play on his team. He said his team played on a field with fences and foul lines and umpires and uniforms. He said he would give Terry a uniform and a ride to the games. It was called Little League, he said.

Terry was a star right away.  The field was so small – it was like a miniature field. Hell, in his first at bat in Little League, he hit what he thought was a popup to second and everybody started cheering – the ball sailed over the fence. A home run!

It was easy. Terry had been playing with 15 and 16‐year olds. The Little League players were only 11 and 12. Most of them were real little and weak. When Terry pitched, he usually blew it right by them.

He would pitch till he was 27 ‐‐ when the kicked‐in‐the‐balls pain from the multiple bone chips in his left elbow drove him off the field.

His last game as a player was the deciding game of the playoffs in the Puerto Rican league in Central Park in New York City. He got shelled in the first inning. Four runs were in when the manager took him out. While they waited for the reliever, Terry told the manager he was hurting big time – and asked if was it okay he go home. The manager said, go ahead, like it was goodbye forever.

So Terry walked off and away from the game. No one looked at him. He was the only gringo on the team – and there was a $10,000 side bet on the game.

He walked off the mound and off the field and then up through the Park and out and then five blocks down Central Park West to his apartment. His 6 and 7 year‐old sons were excited to see him in his uniform. He went on past them straight to the liquor cabinet and chugged a half pint of Jameson right from the bottle.

After he took it off, he noticed for the first time that the uniform was a terrific uni.  It was heavy, white, flannel. His number, 37, was drop‐shadow embossed in red.

Underneath it was vivid embroidery of an Indian Chief in a war bonnet. Terry’s last game as a player was for the Ponce Chiefs. Someone came by for the uniform right before Thanksgiving.

*******************************************************************************

Now Terry was getting his gear on in the dingy men’s room at the ragged park. Jimmy O’Hara, his Field Umpire partner tonight, helped Terry pull the navy blue umpire shirt over his chest‐protector, maybe for the last time.

There was an unusually large crowd. Mostly Latin – from the sound of it. They had bongos, trumpets, cowbells, marimbas, the whole nine yards. It sounded like big trouble ahead. Trouble with a capital T.

Jimmy O’ Hara was grinning at him. “You gotta love it”, he said. “It sounds like  we’re going to be umping in the barrio tonight. Are you sure you’re ready for this?  Hey, I wonder if Ricky Miranda brought his pistol.”

Terry felt the fluttering of butterflies, big time. Then a soft warm rush as the adrenaline surged. His heart was beating fast. “I’m so lucky that ump went down with food poisoning,” he thought. “I’m so friggin lucky.”

——————————————————

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17 Comments

  1. Dave Monroe
    Posted October 5, 2010 at 12:41 am | #

    For the main character the game is more than the game — it takes him away from the sadness of his life when he’s young. And sure a love of the game grows, but then the sadness of saying goodbye to the game is double downed because now he has to say hello to the sadness he was escaping. Remarkable — visceral and erudite.

  2. Charles L. DeFanti
    Posted October 5, 2010 at 8:44 pm | #

    Jones is one of those writers like Malamud — even if you care little for sports, you want to read his stories. Their relevance transcends to the larger world.

  3. Ed Lambertson
    Posted October 6, 2010 at 1:40 pm | #

    A hundred years ago, back in my twenties, each week I would look forward to my next copy of New Yorker because I loved the stories and of course the cartoons.

    “Old Blue” is a classic New Yorker story……………thanks for another good one!!

    Matthew: I loved your depiction of Old Blue.

  4. sean beaudoin
    Posted October 7, 2010 at 2:56 am | #

    As always enjoying the return of Jimmy O’Hara….like Hank Chinaski to Charles Bukowski.

  5. Posted October 12, 2010 at 2:41 pm | #

    I learned more about the game from this piece in a few minutes than all my reading over the years . I dont give a fiddlers fart about the aptly named game base ball (low life activity) but this story dug very deep into the psyche and moved me . A metaphor for all ages. Simply written and well crafted a good story.

  6. Chris Egan
    Posted November 2, 2010 at 1:52 pm | #

    The BEST – Only old blues will truly understand.

  7. Posted December 6, 2010 at 1:11 pm | #

    I felt like I was there with you Jonsey!! Can’t remember the last time someone else other than me talked of a Spalding!! Made me want to be on the the field again!

  8. jeremy levine
    Posted December 8, 2010 at 10:21 pm | #

    Great piece… wonderfully expresses what the game has meant and still means to old blue; that is, it’s way more than just a game. Very enjoyable read.

  9. dan shulman
    Posted December 13, 2010 at 3:32 pm | #

    What really comes through is his love for the game and his love for the people who love the game; and he makes us understand why they love the game. This is really fine stuff.

  10. John Maynard
    Posted February 19, 2011 at 6:28 pm | #

    I found this story moving and touching, a powerful evocation of the anxieties of an aging person who is “still in the game”; it is not sentimental and not simplistic–rare in writing about aging.

  11. Posted February 21, 2011 at 6:36 pm | #

    Frank Hall
    Posted February 21, 2011 at 6:35 pm | #
    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    The legend says that when the Buddha turned 80 he was confronted by Mara, the evil one, who tried to entice the Buddha to enter Nirvana, now! But the Buddha wasn’t quite ready to ‘give it up.’ He had one more ‘game’ in him. He wanted it to be ‘on his own terms, in his own time.’ Like Terry!

  12. Perry Montrose
    Posted March 12, 2011 at 2:31 am | #

    Some of that imagery brings back memories and takes me to the heart of the game “on the field.” How perfect to be the luckiest man in the world to go through the most bitter pain of the end of something so vital to the emotional well-being of a life, to be able to feel the moment. I can picture Terry years later hearing the barrio blues and reliving it, the music always connected to the smells and feelings of walking off the field for the last time again. Not maudlin, but as real as it gets. Thanks for sharing.

  13. Paul Bortnick
    Posted May 1, 2011 at 12:07 am | #

    Captivating! Speaks to the inner thoughts of an Old Blue who has a lifelong affection for the game of baseball. Excellent job of putting you in the moment. When I was done reading it, I wanted to go back and read it again. If you love the game of baseball, you always want to be a part of it. Old Blue found that way, and it is sad to see him go. You will be missed! Awesome!

  14. Posted June 16, 2011 at 11:57 pm | #

    THIS WELL WRITTEN, FAST MOVING PIECE CAPTURES THE INNER SOUL OF A MAN WHO IS GRAPPLIING WITH THE HAZARDS OF UMPIRING VS. HIS LOVE FOR THE GAME. BUT HIS PASSION FOR THE GAME CONQUERS AND HIS BOTH HIS HEART AND SOUL ARE LIBERATED FROM THE BOORISH CROWD WHO HAVE ALWAYS STAINED OUR NATIONAL PASTIME. YOUTHFUL UMPS AS WELL AS THE AARP MEN IN BLUE SHOULD ALL GAIN FROM THIS. BRAVO!

  15. Jack Orth
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 2:22 pm | #

    R.H.J strikes again, and it’s his usual home run. “Old Blue”,Terry Moran calls the game from behind the plate, but draws you into the action as if you were at the game–both the game of life, and baseball.Many years ago, in the late 40’s, with Ted Williams at the plate for The Boston Red Sox, and Cal Hubbard behind the plate, Big Ted questioned a called strike, which he very seldom ever did. Ted said, “Ya missed that one Cal!” Cals answer was exactly what “Old Blue” would have said–“If I had a bat I wouldn’t have, Ted!” Well, R.H.J has a bat, and he never strikes out–the man can sure write!

  16. Kenneth Kolb
    Posted May 15, 2012 at 8:28 am | #

    We are “friggin lucky”, to have a writer of RHJ’s talent to help us feel like we are part of the game on the field and off.

    Keep em comming.

    Kenneth D. Kolb
    Old Greenwich, CT

  17. Jeff Miller
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 12:24 pm | #

    RHJ writes about the things I love to read about.As a fellow ump who has been lucky enough to help Bob pull his Jacket down over his gear,I look forward to more stories about the characters he creates who are out of the mainstream. Real everyday people. Keep writing RHJ.

    Jeff Miller
    Norwalk CT

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