Denny Kobayashi laughs when he recalls one of the best lines he has heard in his career as an umpire.
It came from a local coach who approached him during a break between innings.
“Blue, can I get thrown out of the game for what I’m thinking?”
When Kobayashi told him he couldn’t be, the coach delivered a slider: “Good. Because I’m thinking you’re the worst umpire I’ve ever seen.”
Kobayashi reacted with a chuckle.
“I told him to head back to the bench and the game carried on.”
Dealing with disgruntled coaches, players and fans just comes with the territory when you sport the umpire’s nickname, Blue.
The annual Dustball slo-pitch tournament playing out on seven Whitehorse diamonds this weekend marks Kobayashi’s eleventh year as umpire-in-chief of the event.
With 72-odd teams, he and 13 fellow umpires – 10 from outside the Yukon – will officiate for about 20 games apiece. Keeping things in perspective is Job 1.
“The first qualification for being an umpire is that your eyesight needs to be failing and your judgment needs to be poor,” Kobayashi jokes.
Like most umpires, he was an avid player before taking on the official’s mantle. Born and raised in the Okanagan Valley, he started as a shortstop before moving to the outfield as he matured.
“As a player, one of the favourite things we have to do is complain about how bad the umpires are,” he says.
When an experienced umpire suggested he should step into his shoes and call balls and strikes, Kobayashi accepted the challenge and took the necessary training to become an ump, although he continued to play and coach for awhile longer.
“I soon found out that it’s not just anybody that can step in there and do it,” he says.
“Fortunately there were some very good senior fastball umpires here in the Yukon at the time, who took me under their wing a bit and gave me some fantastic guidance in terms of mechanics and, frankly, how to be a good umpire.”
While the rules say the umpire’s word is final, Kobayashi admits that even an experienced umpire can sometimes second-guess a call.
“Usually it’s when you get this real funny look from the pitcher, saying ‘Wasn’t that a strike?’ Quite often the pitcher is right. But, you know what, they can’t have them all.”
Even with the authority to eject a player or a coach from the game, Kobayashi says he hasn’t had to exercise that power for about the past 10 years.
“As you become more mature as an umpire, you learn how to exert game control, so that you keep players calm, and you make sure that they stay in the game just by how you control the game,” he says.
“But when you’re young and you’re sort of feeling your oats a bit, it feels great to do what they do on television and throw your arm up in the air and send somebody to the bleachers.”
Kobayashi does remember sparking controversy during an earlier Dustball championship involving the shortstop for a visiting team – one of the best players in the tournament.
“He chose to question a call and keep going, and got to first base and decided to call me a name and continued to question the call.”
Kobayashi used the hammer and threw him out of the game.
“It was a very tight match near the finals, and yeah, it actually put their team in a very difficult position, losing their best player, and a player on base and an extra Out,” he recalls.
“So their coach and that player had more things to say to me after that call.”
With experience comes the wisdom to take such things in stride.
“As long as you stay calm as an umpire, the situation has a way to diffuse itself, and 90 per cent of the time the players from the person’s own team say, ‘Hey, hey, hey, that’s enough. Let’s just settle down.'”
Most challenges, Kobayashi says, actually come from coaches rather than players.
“The coach’s job is sometimes to argue calls just to give the team a bit of a break. To keep the players calm, the coach gets upset. It’s a coaching strategy. Some coaches just think that’s their role in life when they step on the field.”
Kobayashi doesn’t hesitate to name one local coach known for employing this strategy.
“Craig Tuton was famous for not liking a call, and he would kick dirt on you as an umpire.”
The umpires soon learned that responding in kind usually resolved the issue.
Then, of course, there are the challenges from the bleachers, where the umpire doesn’t reign supreme.
“The fans love to give the umpire some jazz. And you know what? I think we’d rather have them pick on us than pick on the players,” he laughs.
“Part of being a fan is the right to make disparaging comments about the umpire and the call.”
All that, plus the odd hotdog and a beer, should make for another entertaining Dustball this weekend.