As published in Referee magazine, July 2004

This is the story about one boy’s odyssey through and beyond youth baseball and the abrupt end of a great playing career (yes, at age 12). But it is more about how a basic fondness for the game kept baseball in his life in other incarnations, and how his gentle Grandpa and a long-dead pitcher guided that path. It’s about how his conviction to stay in the game led him to the other side of the plate, where he made the transition from player to umpire as naturally as Delaware mud.

Staying in the Game: Grandpa, Charlie Root and a Career Cut Short

©2004 Ellen Notbohm. Please contact the author for permission to reproduce in any way, including re-posting on the Internet.

The boy is Connor, by happiest ever luck of the draw, my son. His Grandpa David, my dad, was a second-generation Chicago Cubs fan. The first innings of Connor’s life were interwoven with the last innings of his grandfather’s just like an MLB regulation ball: “two stripes of white cowhide, tightly stitched together.” Their story played out — and plays on — far from Chicago in the minor league town of Portland, Ore.

When Connor was four, Grandpa introduced him to a nearby riverbank clad completely in rocks. “In my four-year-old mind,” says Connor, “it was my job to fill up that river with rocks.” Time evaporated for Connor as he spent that entire morning firing granite bombs into the current. A lady passing by commented, “Your boy has quite an arm.”

By the age of seven, the allure of baseball had crept into his life upon mud-caked cleats. Connor and Grandpa were sports buddies from Day One. They went to the local ballpark to watch the home team short-season Portland Rockies. They prowled the neighborhood baseball card shops. Connor looked for Ken Griffey Jr.; Grandpa asked endlessly for Charlie Root. “I did not know who Charlie Root was,” remembers Connor, “but I sure knew that Grandpa wanted his card pretty badly.” That Grandpa David never offered an explanation eventually spoke eloquently about the characters of both Charlie Root and Grandpa.

Of course Connor joined a Little League team. Sponsored by an obstetric clinic, the team was dubbed the Storks. The jerseys were a thematically appropriate but dismal baby blue, and had probably been new about the time Bill Klem retired. Connor used Grandpa’s old glove, a relic of a bygone era. It was small and black — a sieve for ground balls — and he refused to part with it until his coach gently convinced him to let it go. All the same, his enthusiasm equaled any All-Star in any century as he scurried after long flies, pop-ups, foul balls and line drives. There was also a glimpse of the officiating career in his future, although we didn’t see it at the time.

When the call went out for volunteer umpires, it turned out that my baseball knowledge was adequate for that seven-year-old level of play and I quickly found myself behind the plate with one of those outside, hand-strap chest protectors. Early on, my training consisted of the advice: “If you see the ball coming at your face, don’t turn your head. That’s what the mask is for.” I also didn’t turn my head much for dyspeptic coaches, and one day I got a real whiner who heckled away the whole game from directly behind the backstop. He ceased fire only when I threatened forfeit.

After the game I went looking for my son and couldn’t find him. I finally spotted him marching away from Coach Dracula, who was staring after him. “What on earth are you doing?” I gasped.

Quite calmly, Connor replied: “I told him I did not appreciate the way he treated my mother. He said, ‘Your mother called a strike on my player and made him cry.’ I told him, ‘My mother didn’t do that to your player; you did that to your player and you have a lot to learn about sportsmanship.’”

A born umpire.

At age nine, a few seasons later, we learned he could pitch, and in the offseason, he found other avenues for those pitching skills. By that time, the annual family apple-picking expedition had lost a bit of its childhood appeal. Lucky happenstance it was that this particular year yielded a bumper crop of fallen fruit on the ground in addition to the edible harvest still on the trees. While the rest of the family tossed the raw beginnings of holiday applesauce into buckets, Connor warmed up. The late-summer air reverberated with the sound of 50-mile-per-hour rotten apples splatting against the stalwart trunks that had produced them. “Looks just like barf,” was the satisfying result. He went at least four or five innings against those trees.

He was ready to start on the mound in the Little League Majors at age 11, but three weeks before opening day, life delivered a wild pitch. Grandpa David passed away after a brief and brutal battle with a fast-moving cancer.

Connor knew Grandpa had cancer but it hadn’t seemed real. Grandpa was an athlete! He had been a Masters swimmer for 25 years. He had a map in his den where he logged his lap mileage; he was virtual-swimming from Portland to his son’s house in New Jersey. He made it as far as Philadelphia. As the cancer advanced through his bones, his arm stayed in a sling but he gave no inkling that something had snuck in there and affected his whole body. Connor figured Gramps would be back in the pool in a few months. He wasn’t.

So Connor pitched in Little League Majors but he never felt that Grandpa wasn’t there to see him. “When he was actually at my games, I never had to look over my shoulder to see if he was there because he always was,” says Connor. “After he died, I still didn’t look over my shoulder. He knew where I was, and I knew he was still here.

“Just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”

That summer we got a call from his coach. I have this client, he said. He’s a former major league All-Star and he has offered to do some training with my most promising pitchers. Would Connor be interested?

The client was Wayne Twitchell, a 10-season MLB veteran who had pitched in the 1973 All-Star game. He changed Connor’s stance and taught him how to hold and throw a curve.

“But what he really gave me,” says Connor, “was confidence. He told us how to handle game situations: just shrug it off, go pitch by pitch, make it more your game than the coach’s game, learn to make your own decisions. Those were great life lessons.”

By the next summer, he had arrived at the inevitable moment all athletes face — the end of their playing career. Unbelievable but true, the only baseball program for middle schoolers in the area at that time was a traveling team based in the next town over. It wasn’t a feasible option for Connor’s family situation. The young player was now a former player. Even so, he knew he still had a bad baseball jones.

One week after his last baseball game, Connor filled the void by joining a summer swim league. And the following winter Connor discovered that his life in baseball wasn’t over, just entering a new frontier. A flyer at school announced a 10-week umpire training course. Minimum age: 13. He was that, with two weeks to spare. Upon completion, he would officiate for the same league in which he had played just a few months earlier.

“I didn’t think twice about giving it a try,” he says breezily. “I wanted a greater understanding of the game.” The objectivity, the composure, the focus, the command of the minutiae of the rulebook — all the components of umpiring seemed to come easily.

Today, as a fourth-year Little League veteran, Connor views the gamescape differently and yet oddly the same from the back side of the plate. Although Twitchell’s advice had been directed at a young pitcher, the words now seemed to take on a new context:

Just shrug it off. Go pitch by pitch. Make it more your game than the coach’s game.

What makes a teen stick with such a complex and often thankless job, requiring immediate recall of hundreds of rules, constant focus on every single play, making instant judgments, being scrupulously fair to everyone, and on top of all that, exhibiting maturity while enduring potshots and insults from people three times his age? Connor smiles at such a simple question: “It’s something I enjoy.”

Walking the proverbial mile in steel-toed ump shoes has afforded Connor a vantage point not many players will experience. “I wish I could have been two people,” he muses. “I wish I could have been an ump while I was playing. An umpire sees in the kids not only what they do wrong, but how they progress through it. If I could have seen myself through that lens, I could have found a way to channel that knowledge and experience to correct a few things. My pitching was good, but my hitting wasn’t great. If my hitting had been better, would I somehow still be playing now?”

And what about Charlie Root? “I did finally find out who Charlie Root was. My mom won a vicious battle on eBay to get his 1926 card for me,” says Connor. “Charlie Root was the pitcher who gave up Babe Ruth’s famous ‘called’ home run to center field in the 1932 World Series. He’s practically a member of the family now.”

It was just like Grandpa David not to mention why he maintained a lifelong loyalty to Charlie Root: Charlie got a raw deal. One piece of bum publicity — a dubious story at best, it turns out — had followed Root to the end of a 16-year career, overshadowing an illustrious run that culminated in his being named the all-time Cubs right-hander in 1969. The Babe himself agreed that Charlie was getting a bad rap. Peter Golenbock’s 1996 book Wrigleyville includes this quote from Ruth: “I may be dumb, but I’m not that dumb. I’m going to point to the center field bleachers with a barracuda like Root out there? On the next pitch they’d be picking it out of my ear with a pair of tweezers.”

Grandpa David was all about the guy who was misunderstood, misrepresented, overlooked, underrated and just plain atypical.

Connor would agree that the most interesting players are not always the Hall of Famers. Over the two seasons his brother played Challenger League (Little League for children with disabilities), he served as an assistant coach and built a reputation as the pitcher who could get any kid to hit, often on the first pitch. (“It’s just you and me out here,” he’s been heard to tell a struggling batter. “Forget all these other people. Just you and me.”) He was recognized as such at the 2002 year-end District Jamboree, and was promptly rewarded by taking a hard line drive to the thigh in the first inning — delivered by this own brother.

He can also be found at the neighborhood Cub Scout meeting, teaching umpire hand signals to fifth-graders earning their sportsman’s badge. “I didn’t hear that!” he barks. “Steeee-rike!” shriek the boys, fists pounding the air. “Better,” he nods.

As for the Portland Rockies, “Grandpa said Single-A ball was the best; the guys are still like kids in Brooklyn playing with sticks. No big bucks. No shoe contracts. He liked watching the minor league rookies because he said you just never knew when you were watching a future star. I feel the same way about working with all these kids I see in a season.”

Four years to the day after his grandfather’s death, as brand new infield turf was being laid on the local field, Connor was awarded his first varsity letter in swimming. The silver-embossed certificate and the letter came home to a room where baseball and swimming trophies are parked together in a happy jumble on a shelf with that 1926 Charlie Root card and a faded half-brim umpire’s cap, covered with a not-so-fine film of last year’s chalk and dust.

Grandpa David, just a never-taken glance over Connor’s shoulder, would be pleased.

Ellen Notbohm was named the 2003 volunteer of the year for her work as umpire-in-chief of the Mount Sylvania Little League.

Connor Notbohm remains an umpire. At the age of only 17, he was umpired at the youth league state tournament level. For more of his view from behind the plate, please see related article Play Ball! What Your Teenage Umpire Wants You to Know.