Make the call!

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. M. Kenui Balutski
  • 71st Flying Training Wing command chief
I'm sure he was nervous. After all, he was umpiring his first major league baseball game and millions of fans in TV-land would be watching his every move.

No doubt he felt those fluttering "butterflies" long before the first batter even stepped up to the plate. Surely he questioned his readiness on the baseball diamond and wondered if he was completely squared away for this MLB gig.

Those were all natural feelings. But the majority of his nervousness probably stemmed from the reality that umpiring in the major league wasn't his full-time job. In fact, he listed his primary occupation as "Noncommissioned officer in the United States Air Force."

It was the spring of 2005 and one of our very own Vance enlisted, who I will call "CD," had just been called up to the majors after umpiring for 9 long years in the minor leagues. As the top graduate of a professional umpire academy, CD was the first in his class to get called up to the major league as a fill-in umpire.

In fact, he was the first and only graduate from his class who was even calling games at the AAA level, so he was the logical choice for a promotion. To get to this point, our young ump had honed his baseball skills, spent many grueling years on the road, used up all of his leave, balanced an Air Force career, and paid his dues for nearly a decade.

But CD still wondered if he truly had what it took to execute on the colossal stage set before him -- calling a nationally-televised major league baseball game. In any event, his skeptics thought he was way out of his league.

With all eyes focused on him, our rookie got ready to do what he was trained to do. As plate umpire in that game, CD methodically steered the pre-game activities and skillfully directed the other umpires on the field of play.

Throughout the warm-ups, he kept reverting back to all those years of training and began cataloging his many experiences for potential use during that night's game. At this point everything appeared well in hand. But soon enough, CD would face his first major league challenge and it would test his competence and professionalism in a matter of seconds.

It was the first inning and the leadoff hitter was dug into the batter's box with two strikes in the count, eagerly awaiting the pitcher's delivery. In a blur, that anticipated pitch cut across the strike zone and buried itself into the catcher's mitt with a dull thud.

It was an easy call, so CD emitted a forceful "strike three." There were no arguments from the batter. No kicking up dirt, no throwing bats or heated exchanges at the plate. The batter simply turned around, undid his batting gloves and trotted back toward the dugout without protest. But that wasn't the end of this call -- not by a long shot.

Before the batter could get back to the dugout, the home team's veteran manager was on the field vehemently contesting the called-out. After all, the ump behind the plate was just a newbie who hadn't paid his dues in the big show yet, while the manager was baseball's elder statesman.

In other words, the manager was an authority figure with a lot of credibility in the game, who thought he'd test this young ump to see how far he could get. Meanwhile, as the one-sided verbal tirade began to escalate, CD stood back and quietly revisited the two things that had been his personal hallmark thus far. Those were training and experience.

In a flash, CD reminded himself that training "shows you what to do," and experience "tells you when to do it." With that in mind, CD let the rant continue until the manager made inappropriate comments that warranted an ejection. Once that happened, CD promptly did what he knew was right and ejected the manager right then and there -- in the bottom of the first inning.

Now here's the instant replay for those of you who were napping during the seventh-inning stretch. On one hand, we have a brand new major league baseball umpire calling his very first televised game. On the other hand, we have a beloved hall-of-fame manager seeing if he could get away with something he knew was wrong.

In the gallery there are a few million fans watching over this rookie's shoulder. So, after a quick deliberation of the facts, the rookie makes the hard call and sends the world-famous manager packing. How's that for a maiden voyage? But wait, it gets better. As a consolation prize, CD had just opened himself up to increased scrutiny as everyone, including the announcers, would now second-guess his decisions for the next eight innings.

I asked CD how he made that tough call and he told me flat out it was by virtue of his training, and by understanding what was right and wrong. Because he realized that doing what's right is always right, CD was able to make an immediate decision and then see it through to the end.

Regardless of convictions or capabilities, regardless of personality or prejudice, doing what's right is not always easy. But that was just fine with our rookie because he was used to making the hard calls and accepting the results. His Air Force experience had taught him that drill.

As we are given more leadership opportunities in our Air Force careers, we're expected to make the tough calls and to do the right things at all times. Sometimes we're rookies in big game situations. Sometimes we're the crafty veteran.

Regardless, there are still two primary things we should count on when making judgment calls. Those are training and experience. To reiterate, training will show you what to do and experience will show you when to do it. If you are lacking in either aspect then get help from someone who can assist you now. You never know -- your next hard call might be 5 seconds away.

Now for the rest of the story. CD continued to call a flawless game that night. Afterward, he was debriefed by league officials and had his decisions confirmed as "warranted" by his superiors. The next day he received kudos on his performance from the ejected manager.

In the end, the tested rookie was seen as a competent major league umpire who was willing to make the hard call. And from that point forward, there weren't many managers willing to test the waters when that particular Airman was behind the plate. CD would go on to call another 41 major league games that year, all with stellar results.

Although there isn't a television audience watching our every move, there are roughly 300 million Americans depending on us to do what's right every day. If you find yourself in a predicament that requires a hard call, use your training and experience to help you through the process.

Never forget that right is always right. If we continue to make the tough calls, those willing to test the waters will realize that it isn't worth the risk.

(Editor's note: Actual names of the umpire, the team manager and team could not be used without permission from Major League Baseball.)