I hate goodbyes, but more so this year, because while I know we will be back at SOME point, I can’t say with certainty that it’ll be next year, or the year after, or the year after that.
So as the procession of well-wishers and other baseball acquaintances stop by the field here in Utena to say goodbye, the hugs and handshakes are a little longer, the tears a little larger, and the emotion just a little more heart-felt. On both sides.
It started Wednesday when Arturas and Loreta, whose farm we visit for an evening each year, made the hour-long drive over from just outside Vilnius. Then Gintaras (Eel Man) and Ina, who host us at their lake house nearby each year, paid a special visit.
This evening, tournament organizers invited all the coaches and umpires to a reception at the lake to celebrate our involvement in making this tournament what it is today.
Ironically, earlier today, as four totally-decked-out umpires took the field, I was thinking how far this event has come – maybe not so much from the perspective of number of teams, but certainly in terms of quantity and quality of umpires.
In the first Sporto Vilkai Cup, the umpires were Sam Griffith, Bobby Gumbs, Zilvinas Bareinke (Z-Man) and me. Z-Man was a first-year umpire then – now he’s done a couple of European Regionals.
In fact, the fifth different umpire will work this tourney’s championship plate on Friday. Edgaras Matciuvicius, the 24-year-old up-and-comer from the Lithuanian stable of umpire talent, gets the dish. He’s long, lean, athletic, has good mechanics, takes criticism well, and understands the game, its rules and its nuances.
We’d like to think that we’ve had a hand in making him the umpire he is today. Certainly, we’ve had a hand in dressing him – earlier in the week, I gave him three different color shirts he didn’t have and a new hockey-style mask, and Sam gave him new ball bags. Today, Sam gave him his plate slacks.
FINAL POOL PLAY standings: Czech Republic 3-1, Belarus 3-1, Vilnius-Lithuania 2-2, Kaunas-Lithuania 2-2, Poland 0-4.
The defending champ Czechs meet Belarus in Friday’s title game. In their pool play game, the Czechs won, 10-9. Kaunas and rival Vilnius battle for third.
ONLY IN LITHUANIA Dept.: Funny scene no. 1- Belarus batter gets hit by a pitch, throws his bat away and starts to run to first. “Not so fast,” says plate umpire Sam Griffith, explaining to the batter, and then the coach, that the hitter must make SOME attempt, even a flinch, to get away from the pitch; otherwise, the pitch is simply called a ball. So the batter retrieves his bat, steps into the box and proceeds to get plunked by the very next pitch.
Funny scene no. 2 – In my plate game Wednesday, Belarus was bunting over and over, and with no chalk to identify a batter’s box, its hitters kept creeping closer and closer to pitcher. So I called time, and attempted to take the bat out of the hitter’s hands to use the knob to etch a line in the dirt. But the batter didn’t understand why I wanted his bat and wouldn’t let go, so it became a mini tug-of-war that I finally won, but only after his coach told him what I was trying to do.
Even funnier – after I drew the line that would serve as the front of the batter’s box, the hitter proceeded to straddle it rather than standing behind it, eliciting even more good-natured laughter.
INTERPRETATION DEPT.: I asked one of the English-speaking Lithuanians to interpret what the Kaunas team was chanting during its game against Belarus Thursday. The answer: “We came here to win, and we’re not afraid of anybody.” Don’t think I’ve heard that one in the states.
FEET-FIRST? When I saw a player slide feet-first into first base on Monday, I had to think long and hard about whether I’d ever seen it before. Now I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen it this week
SENTIMENT IS running 20-1 in favor of my decision to call time and keep Belarus from pulling a hidden-ball trick on Poland when they were leading 11-0 with one out to go. In fact, Pat Pozzell, the head of baseball officiating for the Big Ten Conference said, “I agree with the decision in that situation. The game is about strategy, not trickery.”
CUP RUNNETH Over Dept.: Only a secure umpire walks over to the fence between innings, reaches in his pants, pulls out his cup and hands it to his wife. That was Z-Man’s special moment with wife Lina this afternoon. I didn’t pursue details.
FOUR THINGS we’d like to see before we come back to Utena: large coffee cups, multi-ply toilet paper, peppers to shake on your pizza and fabric softener.
I AM TRAVELING home Friday to attend a wedding; as such, Sam Griffith will report on the final games in a first-ever guest-blog on this site.
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