The Vermont Mountaineers are hosting the Keene Swampbats on a sparkling Saturday afternoon in July. The Montpelier Rec Field basks in the sun as Mountaineer pitcher Alex Curry winds up from the top of his well-sculpted, red-dirt hummock. He fires a fastball down the center, it smacks the catcher’s glove, and a moment later the umpire steps back from his concentrated crouch and pumps his hand to the right. It’s a strike, and the 2000-plus crowd roars with delight. This is the New England Collegiate Baseball League, and behind the plate, Bruce James is making the calls.
A resident of Lyndonville, James has been umpiring baseball games since 1986. He drives all over New England from March to October in a tidy blue Mazda convertible with his wife Nancy. All that top-down driving and open-field umpiring has given him a deep tan. That, combined with the wrap-around mirror sunglasses and Red Sox sun hat, makes him look more like 40 than 57.
James arrives at the field an hour before game time to change into his official uniform — black patent leather protective shoes, gray slacks and a black short-sleeve shirt — and to make sure the lines are chalked, the bags are set, and the field is in a condition befitting a quintessential American pastime. It gives him a chance to shoot the breeze with the coaches and players — some of whom he has followed from Little League. He’s also the rules interpreter for all high school baseball umpires in Vermont and the high school baseball commissioner for the Northeast Kingdom. In addition, James umpires the World Series for the Babe Ruth League and has umped A and AA minor league games, calling the pitches of current Red Sox pitchers. “As a baseball fan and a real country bumpkin, I get a real kick out of that,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.
Sitting in the air-conditioned umpire trailer behind the first-base line, next to pop-up tents and giant grills sizzling with barbeque chicken and ribs, James shares one of his beliefs: “Life is a bus,” he says. “You ride the bus and when the door opens, you get off and say, ‘Wow, here I am.’”
So far, the ride has afforded him a view of entertainment country. His first job, as a rock ’n’ roll musician, led to an artist-manager gig. James now owns four radio stations in the St. Johnsbury-Lyndonville area: Magic 97.7, The Notch 106.3 in Littleton, and Kicks 105.5 and WSTJ in St. Johnsbury.
Outside the trailer, the teams are warming up — pumping up, actually — to strains of Mötley Crüe and Poison. They’re “comprised of some of the best college baseball players in the United States,” James says of the New England Collegiate Baseball League. They sign contracts in the fall and start playing in the spring, but a player can terminate his contract if he gets an offer from a major league team. To be at their level, James observes, “I have to be on top of my game.”
SEVEN DAYS: What made you want to become an umpire?
Bruce James: I love the game. I grew up around the game. My father was my Little League coach. I played Little League and Babe Ruth, and then coached my son when he was playing Little League. When my son went into Babe Ruth, that’s when I went into umpiring. That was 21 years ago.
SD: Is it more difficult to umpire games at the higher levels of the sport?
BJ: You know, the game at the higher levels changes. You still have to call balls and strikes. You still have to call safes and outs. But most importantly, you have to deal with situations. Deal with players. Deal with attitudes. That’s not a negative thing. Some-times it is, but not always.
SD: What are some common characteristics of great umpires?
BJ: Never carry a grudge. Know the game that you’re in. Be fair. Be consistent. And move on.
SD: What do you mean by “move on”?
BJ: Sports officiating is the only avocation where you’re supposed to be perfect, and get better from there. And we’re human. We all, at every level, try the best that we can to get the calls right. But it doesn’t happen every time. And you can’t let it eat you up. You have to move on.
SD: What effect does the crowd have on the way you do your job?
BJ: It’s more fun to have a good crowd. The higher up you go, you hear more, meaning there are larger crowds. You hear more from the players and coaches, too, but hopefully it doesn’t affect the game of the umpire.
SD: What’s the most interesting part of your job?
BJ: The fraternity of baseball. Whether you’re the umpire or the player or the coach or the ball boy or the bat boy, we’re all in this together, and we all have a job to do, and we have to all respect that. I see players at Babe Ruth, then I’ll see them in high school, and then I’ll see them in college, and then I’ll see them as coaches. So it’s a great fraternity.
SD: What’s the hardest part of your job?
BJ: You’ve got to remain consistent. One of the things that helps me out with that is, when I have the plate and a pitch is coming in, I’ve got a blank mind. When that pitch comes in, I make up my mind as to what it is, and then call it.
SD: Umpires stand behind the plate or in the field. Where would you rather be?
BJ: I’ll take the plate every day. You’re in the game; it’s exciting. I joke that an umpire has a type-A personality, which means that they think they’re right even when they’re wrong. I want to be in on that play. I want to make that call.
SD: What do you do when a coach challenges a call?
BJ: You can let a coach challenge a call, but you can’t let a coach challenge you. To challenge a call is fine, especially at the collegiate level. We want to listen to what they have to say and give them an honest answer, but after it’s over and done with and headed toward an ejection, our learned phrase is: ‘Coach, this is your warning. Stop now.’ If it goes beyond that, everybody knows where it’s going to end up, so there are no surprises.
SD: Is part of your job making sure that no one cheats?
BJ: Yes, that’s the most important part of the job. I extremely dislike cheating at any level, at any thing. I want the game played evenly and fairly. The basic tenet of sports officiating — I don’t care what the sport is — is advantage and disadvantage. What we’re supposed to do is make sure that no team or person gains an advantage, and no team or person is put at a disadvantage. There’s no room for cheating, period.
SD: Name something you love about the game.
BJ: Sometimes I’ll be on a field with no action, and I’ll say to myself, ‘I wonder if this is what it’s like in North Dakota.’ And you know what? I bet it is. The game is still the same. Whether you’re at Fenway Park, or whether you’re doing Babe Ruth baseball in North Dakota, it’s still the same. It’s still the same feeling.
Name: Bruce James
Occupation: Vermont Mountaineers Baseball Umpire