It was 1971 and we had just moved from the city to the Mathias Ranch six miles south of Boonville with an overwhelming load of juvenile delinquents, and on the wholly deluded assumption that delinquents would be less delinquent under the redwoods than they were under the street lights. The ranch, which came with a small herd of wild horses forever breaking out onto Highway 128, was then owned by Bible Bob Mathias, a former superintendent of the Boonville schools. It has since evolved into, of all things, a gay retreat center.
Somewhere, Bible Bob is writhing.
It was always a relief to get away from Rancho Loco for an evening of fast pitch softball and beer drinking in Cloverdale. Because we were still young enough to want to play ball games and were unaware Boonville had a team of its own, and also unaware there was a Boonville, we hooked up with some softball-playing long hairs who unhesitatingly put three of us straights on their team.
We were the worst nine in town; not for lack of trying, but lack of a whizbang pitcher. With a good pitcher, a squad of paraplegics can dominate in fast pitch softball, but our two hurlers, hard as they worked, got ripped good every time they went out there.
But we had the best post game fun of anyone in the league. Hippies were still fun in '71. A few years later they were scrambling for respectability, pretending it hadn't happened, and hippies, like fast pitch softball, were over.
Those dusty, hot Cloverdale summer nights were made even more memorable by Blindman, aka Bob Wright, an umpire who became a Cloverdale legend. He was a chunkier version of Popeye. A man in his middle 60s, he had Popeye's jut jaw and he sure as hell had Popeye's tenacity.
Not that Blindman at all saw himself as a comic figure. He saw himself as authority, theauthority when it came to baseball and all sub-species thereof, from Little League to fast pitch softball to American Legion baseball.
Blindman was Cloverdale’s umpire.
There were summer days when Blindman would be behind the plate all day and well into the night, calling balls and strikes for Little Leaguers in the morning, Pony Leaguers in the afternoon, men's softball games in the evening. And the guy was no kid. Try umpiring baseball games all day from about nine in the morning until nine at night in a Cloverdale summer. Who would want to do it for maybe 10 bucks for two hours in 100-degree heat? Blindman, whatever his deficiencies as home plate arbiter, was there, omni-available.
The man had absolute confidence in his judgment, and never hesitated to stick his authoritative jaw into the faces of incredulous ballplayers denouncing him in the most vile terms. And he looked like an umpire, complete with whisk broom, shin guards, chest protector, face mask, even a rulebook he would condescend to consult from time to time, invariably interpreting a dispute in ways not remotely implied by the actual rule.
Blindman wasn't off on every call, of course; if he’d been consistently off even his round-the-clock availability wouldn't have saved him. Most of the time he was at least acceptably bad behind the plate. You could count on him to miss about one in every 10 pitches, but when he missed one he missed it big time, head-slappingly big.
“Jesus, Blindman, where was that one? Are you kidding?” Blindman would blandly reply, “It caught the corner, for Chrisssakes. You never seen a breaking ball? Quit bellyaching and get back in the box.”
Blindman could make a preposterously bad call against a family man’s Little Leaguer in the morning, an astoundingly bad call against the guy’s Pony Leaguer in the afternoon, and here he was the same night calling some real doozies against the guy himself in a fast pitch game.
Around town, Blindman was Blindman, not Mr. Wright as his age might entitle him to be addressed — certainly entitled him to be addressed by children if they knew him by his right name. And even Blindman's wife, a silent, wraithlike presence in a corner of the grandstand was often observed silently laughing as the love of her life was deluged with insults. She was known as Mrs. Blindman. Mr. Blindman was Blindman to everyone from little kids to gaffers in walkers. You'd hear a kid who looked like he was about eight sing out a merry, “Hi Blindman!” to which Blindman would distractedly but instantly reply, “How ya doin’, sonny?”
Blindman umpired two generations of Cloverdale ballgames. There were grandfathers telling Blindman stories from their ballplaying days as their grandchildren walked dejectedly back to the dugout on a Blindman called third strike that the kid couldn't have hit if he'd swung at it from the top rung of a stepladder. And if the kid so much as glanced quizzically back at Blindman as he made his puzzled way back to the dugout, Blindman would say something like, “If you're going to play this game, kiddo, you'd better get used to risers.” Blindman had somehow seen the pitch in the strike zone before it had taken a sudden, Blue Angel like 100-degree climb so steep that it had eluded the leaping catcher’s glove. That was the old riser ball, by God, and Blindman knew it when he saw it.
There were days when Blindman had to be the most verbally abused senior citizen in all of California. Americans have never been shy about denouncing umpires regardless of their age or physical condition, and abusing the ump in the most vulgar ways. “For Christ sakes, Blindman, you're the first guy I’ve ever seen to get his head all the way up his ass and suck his thumb at the same time!” To which Blindman, as always serenely confident, would blandly reply, “I call ‘em like I see ‘em.” And that would evoke, “That's the goddamn problem, Blindman, you can't see ’em!”
In three contentious minutes, Blindman might absorb more verbal abuse than most people suffer in a lifetime. But he loved baseball, he was always available and, you could say, he had the perfect judicial temperament. So far as Blindman was concerned, he was Solomon himself in shin guards and chest protector. Nothing anybody said ever seemed to bother him.
Blindman worked all the games by himself, too, meaning that his most famous bad calls weren’t over balls and strikes, which come and go almost subliminally. No, Blindman's most memorable calls were like the one he famously made one hot summer night during an otherwise forgettable game.
Now, those of you who have played or watched fast pitch softball know the ball gets up to the plate real fast, typically going from the pitcher to home plate at between 90 and 100 mph. At night, under weak lights like Cloverdale's, the ball seemed to get to home plate even faster.
That night, a man of about 40, a little too old and more than a little physically past it for a game this fast, squared around to bunt, and here came the pitch at a good 95-per, a hard, round projectile coming straight at his crotch where it struck the man squarely in his unprotected pills. The guy went down like he'd been shot. Everyone froze for an “Oh no!” moment. The downed man's wife came flying out of the stands, crying and terrified.
We surrounded the wounded ballplayer in a worried clump. The guy didn't move for many seconds. He looked like he was dead, but finally stuck both hands protectively into his groin and rolled into a fetal cringe, groaning, his face gray, pain tears running through the home plate dust on his agonized face.
Blindman had been standing nonchalantly off to the side, seemingly unconcerned. Someone said, “We better call an ambulance.” Someone else said, “It's on the way,” and sure enough we could hear a siren. Just then, Blindman, jostling his way roughly through the crowd, leaned way down between the injured man’s grieving wife and directly into the injured man's face and yelled, “Yer outta there! Out! You! Are! Out!”
There was a stunned silence. We all stared at Blindman. It wasn't computing. It couldn't be that Blindman was telling the injured man that he'd somehow made an out. This was an injury accident scene, no longer a ballgame. This guy might be crippled for life! Maybe totally impotent! Someone asked in a weak, shocked voice, like someone who had just overheard his father making a pass at the widow at a funeral. “Wha—, what- what are you doing, Blindman?”
The Blindman, unperturbed — the wronger he was the calmer he got — replied, “The batter is out because he didn't try to get out of the way of the pitch. That's the rule. If you get hit on purpose, you're out. He's out.”
And then Blindman, just as the ambulance crew hustled up to the downed man, shouted, “Play ball!”
We were shocked speechless. But Blindman's bizarre ruling had miraculously brought the dead man back to life. He was rolling around in the dirt of home plate moaning, “No, no, no, Blindman,” as if fearing the heartless ump might pounce on him again. Somebody laughed a disbelieving laugh as everyone else commenced a barrage of insults, the kindest of which was, “You're nuts, Blindman.”
Months later, I happened to stop in at the Cloverdale Bakery, a known Blindman haunt. Blindman was lecturing another old guy on, of all things, the danger of the International Communist Conspiracy. If a platoon of heavily armed Viet Cong had at that moment come jogging through the door, Blindman probably wouldn't have noticed, and if he had noticed he probably would have thought they were an American Legion team from Chinatown. But I liked the idea of Blindman as global strategist; I was happy he had a life away from the ballpark.
Blindman's second most memorable move came later that night during an extra inning game that didn't start until 9:30 because the previous game had also gone into extra innings. A heavy fog had rolled in. It was cold and damp and the fog was so thick the outfielders were barely discernible from the stands. They looked like ghosts out there. Blindman was calling his third game of the day when we kicked off. The ensuing contest was replete with arguments, walks, minor injuries, and other time gobblers. We were still playing at midnight. We wouldn’t be able to drink beer after the game because the bars would be closed by the time Blindman had made his last bad call and we'd called it an exhausted night.
The score was something like 17-16 with our team on the short end, as usual, when we came up for our last at-bat. It was a quarter past the witching hour. We had started playing on Wednesday night and now it was Thursday.
We loaded the bases with two outs when our guy hit a long fly ball that was barely visible in the thick mists of left center field, but a dim form appeared to be circling beneath it, an easy catch, a can of corn as they say, when suddenly the lights, never particularly illuminating even without the fog, went out. The night had gone black. Everyone was suddenly invisible. There were yelps, thuds and curses as guys careened sightless around the base paths, running into each other.
The lights magically snapped back on. All eyes were went to the power box behind home plate, and there was Blindman, a huge grin on his face. “You know,” he explained, “I have played ball all my life, and I have umpired thousands of games, and I always wanted to do that.”