Vol. 3, No. 2: Today’s Baseball Fans photo

The Cheeseburger RuleJeff Burt

Our Little League paid amateur umpires $10 a game, for a game that usually went ninety minutes, which meant they were paid slightly less than minimum wage. They also received a free cheeseburger and drink. I say amateur because none of them had any training other than the rulebook and a test. Some had never played baseball, either. But most were competent and fair. If a home plate ump was bad on balls and strikes, they were bad for both teams. If a base ump, usually the junior and more inexperienced of the two, and the lower paid, was inattentive, they were inattentive for both teams. As many characters as you could find among the eleven- and twelve-year-old players, there were umps of unique character as well.

Clint, for instance, had a cheeseburger exception. The team I coached was one run behind in the bottom of the sixth and last inning of a game, I had a player turn an ankle sliding into second for a double, and Clint came out from behind the plate instantly and told me to hurry and get the player off the field. I thought he was both insensitive and beyond his authority, and told him so. He kept looking at his watch and over at the snack shack.

When we returned to play, every pitch was a strike. Balls a foot inside or outside or in the dirt became strikes. A ball that clipped a batter’s helmet became a swing because it spun the batter around. I was confounded. My first baseman told me that Clint had ordered a cheeseburger at the top of the last inning to be ready in ten minutes, so he wanted the game to end.

We got a single with two out and tied the game. We went to extra innings.

Clint ushered the first batter in the top of the seventh to the plate. Again, every pitch was a strike, for both teams. Our team got a single and a double and won in the bottom of the seventh. Clint left the plate area before the winning run scored.

Every game afterwards, coaches would talk and laugh about the cheeseburger rule, and though Clint was embarrassed, he continued making his cheeseburger order at the top of the sixth.

After that, the cheeseburger exception became the cheeseburger rule. Clint called a decent game of balls and strikes, standing slightly oblique to the plate so that he could capture the strike zone from the left side of the plate. He was tidy, like a house painter when cleaning the plate, or a custodian of a church.

But with the grill a slight oblique right turn from home plate, and Clint’s attention more on the grill than the pitch, he began to miss coaching gestures from the first base coaching box. If the coach stood closer to the dugout, all Tom could see were occasional right-hand signals without turning his head. It drove him nuts. He would often stop the game to ask if a coach were calling time out, and once, thought the coach had made inappropriate gestures. The kids loved Clint for hassling the coaches, and would hang with him after a game.


The rule expanded.

During a close play at the plate, Clint, focused on the smoke from the grill, did not gauge the speed of the runner, and had to leap to the side, quickly leaned within an arm’s length of the play, and called the runner out with a swooping call. The players laughed, and the play at the plate took second place to the retelling of Clint’s call. The runner had been safe by a body length.

Once, when Clint had called out one boy twice on the same play, first at third though the third baseman had pretended to receive the ball and, in fact, had no ball at all, and then at home, for overrunning the plate. Several moms in the stands stood and told him to go home, and one challenged him to a fight if he removed his mask.

Clint did not hear the criticism, he said. He had been focused. Waiting in the wings was a cheeseburger, the aroma and smoke of the grill wafting over toward him and obscured distinguishing home plate from a base bag. He marched over to the grill after the out call and ate the first bite of the cheeseburger with his mask tipped up on his forehead, some parents fuming, some laughing, and kids lining up behind Clint to eat.