Bottom of the 9th - The View from Behind "The Dish"
The View from Behind â€œThe Dishâ€ by Greg Dieker
It all started when I was about 11 years old. The year was 1967, it was summer and I was growing up in Topeka, Kansas. It was a brutal summer because that winter Charley Finley had moved the Kansas City Athletics to Oakland, CA. Baseball was our lives. The Aâ€™s were our lives. Trips to KC to see them in the old Municipal Stadium couldnâ€™t come often enough. The stadium wasnâ€™t the greatest place for baseball but it had history and tradition all over it having been the home of the Kansas City Monarchs from the Negro Leagues, minor league teams, the Aâ€™s and eventually the Kansas City Royals for their early years. You could feel the tradition of baseball in your bones when you were there.
But now we had no team. Baseball was our lives, lived in the open field across from where our house was. The whole neighborhood played every day all summer long. Itâ€™s what we did day after day no matter what else happened.
What saved that summer was our local AM radio station in Topeka, KTOP, picked up the St. Louis Cardinals Baseball Club and instantly we were hooked. Every day we listened to the games (there were nearly no night games in that era) and the heroes of our mortal world became the Cardinals. I can still recite the 67â€™-68â€™ starting lineup of Orlando Cepeda at 1st base, Dal Maxvill and Julian Javier at short and 2nd, Mike Shannon at 3rd, Lou Brock, Curt Flood and Roger Maris in the outfield and Tim McCarver behind the dish. The pitchers were epic hurlers led by the future all proâ€™s and Hall of Famers Bob Gibson, Nelson Briles, Steve Carlton and many more.
That summer my Mom finally got re-married(my Dad had passed away when I was just 6 months old) and instead of a honeymoon we took a family trip with the four of us kids to St. Louis to see the mighty Arch, Busch Gardens, the Budweiser Clydesdales and take in some baseball at the old Busch Stadium. We all loved it but I was in heaven because this was â€œTHEâ€ St. Louis Cardinals and I was going to see my heroes in person.
One of the four games we saw fell on July 15th, 1967. That day went down in Cardinal â€“ Pirate history when one pitch and one swing of the bat changed everything. The great Bob Gibson was on the hill with Pirate Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente at the plate. He hit the fastball Bob served up on a string right back at Gibson and nailed him in the shin. Eventually he got up and the umpires let him throw a couple of pitches to see if he was okay to play. Amazingly he pitched to two more batters before collapsing again and coming out of the game. In the hospital later that day x-rays confirmed that Clemente had broken Bob Gibson's leg with that line drive.
In those days there were no video cameras, games werenâ€™t filmed and rarely shown on TV unless it was the World Series. There was no ESPN, no Sports Center, no Fox Sports, just the play by play action from Jack Buck on the radio and the tick tick tick of the typewriters from the newspaper men to record the games history. But on that glorious day my new Dad just happened to be taking some 8mm film, a popular thing to do in those days and we were lucky enough he was filming the game action at that historic moment in baseball history.
I came home from that trip more enthusiastic about baseball than ever before and knew then that I wanted to be a catcher. Watching Tim McCarver work the pitchers and call the plays for the fielders and run the game made me know thatâ€™s where I wanted to be. I wanted to be in on every pitch, every play and not stuck in right field hoping a lefty would come along and pull one my way once or twice a game.
So began my love affair with the dish. All I ever wanted to do after that was catch. My role around the dish changed however the summer of my sixteenth year when I had just finished a game at the local baseball complex. I knew the head of the umpires well since heâ€™d worked a lot of the games I had played there for years and he grabbed me after the early game I had played in and said he was in a bind and needed someone to umpire the Pee Wee league game of 8 to 10 year olds. It was just 4 innings, two hours of time and I could make $15 cash. In those days it took me all day mowing lawns in the hot Kansas sun to make that kind of money so I jumped on it. He gave me an old balloon style outside protector he had in the shed and sent me to the Pee Wee diamond.
I was hooked in just one game. At first it was the easy money, I needed that for gas in my old 54â€™ Chevy, but eventually it was because I liked it. Actually I loved it. I had fun umpiring baseball and they told me I was good at it as well. Iâ€™m sure the years behind the plate as a catcher helped but it just seemed like this was a place I belonged. Even though I wasnâ€™t playing I was still involved in every pitch, every play and it was fun.
By the time I was 18 I was working the local semi-pro league games. A couple of well-known umpires took me under their wing and taught me everything they knew. In those days we used a two man system because no teams could afford to pay for three. These guys invited me to work with them and paid me a piece of their checks so I could at least cover my gas and get something to eat after each double header I worked with them. I knew the three man system better than the two-man in short order.
By the time I was 20 I was playing college ball in the NAIA and umpiring NCAA games on the days I could get away. Summers were filled with playing and calling semi-pro games and eventually a trip to umpires school in Bradenton, Florida in January of 1974. Umpires school was 6 weeks long but I could only stay for 4 or I was going to get booted out of college for missing too many classes. The instructors tried hard to get me to stay, I had the â€right stuffâ€ to earn a job in the minors they told me but my folks would have killed me if I didnâ€™t finish the college they were paying for so home I went.
The next 20 years were filled with thousands of college, semi-pro and more than a few minor league vacation replacement games. I made it to nearly every ballpark in the country and always made an effort to meet the crew before or after the game and made some great friends along the way. Some are still my best friends today though all of us are out of the game. My umpiring career ended in the summer of 94â€™ when I was bucked off my roommateâ€™s horse. I landed on both feet but in the process shattered my left heel into over 50 pieces. It took over a year in a cast for the bone to heal and over two years to walk without pain, three to walk without a limp. I never ran again, still canâ€™t run to this day, and have never worn that uniform since.
Umpiring was a wonderful and humbling experience. No matter how good you are, you are still human and humans are not machines, we make mistakes. When I was young and full of myself I got my hackles up when challenged by a coach or player and ejected more than my fair share. How dare they challenge my authority I thought! But as the years went on I realized more and more the game was not about me or my skill in calling the game but in making myself invisible. I realized that I wasnâ€™t there to defend the dish, the game or myself. I came to realize that my best games were the ones where they couldnâ€™t even remember I called the game. I finally humbled to the fact that umpiring was all about keeping everything in front of me while not losing my view of â€œthe gameâ€.
I am so thankful to the men who guided my career in baseball and gave me of their time and heart to make me better. From the two aged umpires in Topeka who took me under their wing, to the pros who went to bat for me with the league so I could work vacation fill-in games at the old Denver Bears and the Colorado Zephyrs, to great coaches like Marc Johnson from Cherry Creek High School, still one of the finest baseball men I have ever known, all who never gave up on me. We all miss some calls, even the pros. They let me be human, make mistakes and keep on doing what I loved.
And now we come back full circle to the Cardinals. The day before the fateful injury I was honored to work the plate in old Mile High Stadium for an MLB Legends of Baseball game held just before the Colorado Rockies game. The umpiring crew shared the Denver Broncos locker room under the old south stands with the Legends players but we had to be on the field early so we didnâ€™t get to see many of the players rolling in late. As the players hit the field I was stunned to see one of my St. Louis Cardinal heroes stroll to the mound, Bob Gibson. He threw 5 warm-up pitches and hollered at me â€œHey letâ€™s get this things started, thereâ€™s only so many pitches left in this old armâ€ and away we went. In the locker room after the game I chatted with Bob at length and told him about the film from 67â€™ and he asked me to have my Dad call him. I gave my Dad his number but he never did call Bob. To this day that film sits in his basement and has never been seen outside of our family a few times. Before he dies Iâ€™ll find some way to wrestle that three minute long piece of baseball history from him, get it restored and copied. Hopefully the Cardinals or the Pirates or perhaps even Cooperstown will want a copy. It will be my way of giving back to the game that has and still gives me such joy.
When we leave this earth no one will remember the cars we drove, the houses we lived in, the trips we took or the money we made. But they will remember the way we made them feel, the people we helped along the way and the legacy we left behind. My hope is I leave a legacy that was guided by my faith in Jesus Christ.
The view from behind the dish can be a very lonely one if you let it. Itâ€™s a lot like life in that you have to embrace it, understand itâ€™s not perfect and sometimes ask your partner for help. Thereâ€™s always a ton of action coming our way that we arenâ€™t always ready for. It can be a loneliness that is even deeper if you donâ€™t have a relationship with Jesus Christ to lean on for strength when you donâ€™t know what the right call to make is. If you are reading this and you donâ€™t have the relationship you want, find someone you admire that does have that relationship and ask them to guide you onto the right base path. Jesus has a roster spot open on His team no matter who you are, what uniform you wore before or how many times youâ€™ve struck out. You donâ€™t have to hit a home run to get his attention; a single act of asking for his forgiveness will get you to first base. Following an honest and righteous base path gets you to second, publicly testifying that you believe in His word will get you to third and accepting Him as your Lord and Savior will bring you home.
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; urge, admonish, and encourage, with complete patience and teaching. 2 Timothy 4:1
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