Be kind to the man in blue

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 13, 2004

This time of year, there’s no game more loved than baseball.

And this time of year, there’s no one in the world more hated than the umpire.

It’s hard to imagine that Bobby Hayes, who tinkers daily with issues that affect thousands of people in one of Shelby County’s biggest cities, ever had the nerve to deal with matters of utmost importance &045; balls and strikes.

Make a political mistake, and the people might forgive you. Miss a call in a baseball game and you can forget it.

Just ask the popular Pelham mayor, who once called games from youth leagues to the college ranks, even umpiring for the Southeastern Conference while working as a SWAT cop for the city of Birmingham.

Hayes would dodge bullets by day, with or without a bulletproof vest, and then, with catcher’s gear that wasn’t built for the kind of blows he faced the most, he would take all kind of shots at night.

&uot;That’s the worst call I’ve ever seen.&uot; Glance off the shoulder.

&uot;Are you blind? You need glasses.&uot; Square in the shin.

&uot;You stink, ump.&uot; Right off the chin.

&uot;Kill him, kill the umpire.&uot; Smack in the center of the chest. That one stings.

Hayes, of course, didn’t have any problem taking these kind of shots considering the more dangerous ones he was facing at his day job.

One coach even had the nerve to say Hayes couldn’t handle the pressure and choked on a call in a college game.

Hayes let him know about real pressure.

You might wonder why he put up with it, why anyone puts up with the mouths that have hung around foul territory so long that they themselves have turned foul.

Hayes did because he loves baseball and genuinely cares for young people.

Others do for the chance to step onto fresh-cut grass and dig in behind home plate, to hold on to a game that left them behind years ago.

Sometimes I get cynical, think I’ve heard enough gripes, seen enough parents setting a poor example and wonder why I keep on coming back to call baseball games.

But then the kid out in left field, the little one who hadn’t caught a ball all season, the one whose confidence waivers like a Niekro knuckleball, stretches an oversized glove above his head and a scorching line drive sticks.

That little guy becomes a hero, if only for a moment, as every kid on the field and every parent in the stands cheers him on.

That’s why I umpire.

When a red-faced coach screaming from the dugout makes me want to say forget it, a rosy-cheeked 10-year-old offers a Cheez-it through the fence between innings and makes me remember the reasons I love being involved with baseball.

But the greatest reward for me comes once and a while when I get the chance, when the schedule works out right, to call a game with the man who first stuck a ball in my mit.

Nothing in the world used to make me prouder than stepping out onto the diamond in the same uniform as my old man.

We wore a number of different jerseys and colors through the years as player and coach, but nowadays our color is always blue.

Now I’m asking you, for our sake, for the sake of every umpire, for the sake of your children, be kind to the man in blue.

But now, football officials &045;that’s a whole different ballgame.

Ashley Vansant is the sports editor at the Shelby County Reporter. He can be reached at