I have for each of the last 25 years been the starting umpire behind the pitcher’s mound at the Artists and Writers Softball Game. The first game was played in the front yard of the home of artist Wilfrid Zogbaum in 1948, for friends of his who included painters Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning, and it has gone from there. Over the years the Artists have won about half the time and the Writers half the time. Last year, the Artists won. This year, the Writers would be seeking revenge.
A nice crowd assembled. And it began. In the top of the first, standing behind pitcher Benito Vila, who has often pitched for that team, I watched as the Artists went down one to three.
In the bottom of the first, a beautiful woman I had not seen before came to pitch for the Writers. She was Countess LuAnn de Lesseps, a star of “The Real Housewives of New York City” on the Bravo Channel. We introduced ourselves. She threw a few warm-ups and I thought she was pretty good. Then someone ran out to the mound and asked if the Countess would be allowed to pitch about six feet forward of the regular pitcher’s mound and I thought that would be okay. I looked around. Others thought it was okay.
Her first pitch was a strike. As she is tall, graceful and leggy—a former model—I had to look around her to call it.
“You seem to have pitched before,” I said.
“I have,” she said. “But it was a long time ago, in high school, and I haven’t pitched much since.”
That was the last good thing that happened to her in the game. On her next pitch, the Writers’ leadoff batter Mike Lupica smashed a single to left. After that, one after another—David Baer, Jan DiPeitro, Richard Weise and Mike Pellman, the Writers—these are pretty good ball players all—hit her this way and that, and as the score was now 5 to 0 without her getting a single out, she seemed a little discouraged. I should mention Pellman’s blast had been a home run.
“I think you’re pitching fine,” I told her as she came back to the mound.
But at that moment, the Artists’ coach Leif Hope called her over and told her she had to come out of the game.
In to pitch for the Artists was architect Joe Sopiak, who has been pitching for that team since the late actor Roy Scheider passed away. Joe put out the fire.
Still the damage was done. After just one inning it was Writers 5, Artists 0.
Narrating the game to the crowd from behind the backstop this year were television host James Lipton and WINS radio reporter Juliet Papa.
They were bantering away after that disastrous inning about the raffles that would be announced further into the game. And then it began to sink in.
“Usually, these games go right down to the wire,” Juliet said. “So even if this is a blowout, stick around folks,” she said.
Lipton, usually very animated, didn’t seem to know what to offer.
To make matters worse, the Writers added three more runs off of Sopiak in the bottom of the second. Now it was 8 to 0.
I thought I did a pretty good job umpiring the game, calling balls and strikes and making the other calls. State Supreme Court Justice Richard Lowe relieved me behind the mound in the bottom of the third. Lief Hope, the director of the game, moved me over to be the umpire at first. I did come back to behind the mound to finish up the game in the eighth and ninth. I made maybe 500 good calls. But then I think I made a bad call in the top of the ninth or at least it was a call everybody in the entire place thought I had wrong. And I will get to that. I did stick to my guns about it though.
Greg Bello led a comeback in the top of the fourth for the Artists by hitting a double that drove in two runs. That made the game 8 to 5.
“Well folks,” Juliette said, “it looks like its finally going to be a ball game.” And she was right about that. In the top of the eighth inning, a huge rally by the Artists featuring a towering home run by artist Eddie McCarthy brought them to within one run of the Writers. They were now behind only by 11 to 10.
Here are highlights I enjoyed from behind the mound and on the first baseline.
In the sixth inning from my position along the foul line on first base, announcer James Lipton issued a warning from behind the backstop that everybody be careful because Richard Weise, the President of the Explorer’s Club, was a powerful left-handed hitter who often hit line-drive fouls down the first baseline. People moved back. I felt very much alone.
Weise didn’t hit anything foul for the first three pitches, and the fourth pitch—this is a slow pitch game where the ball is lobbed in—he was hit on the arm.
“Take your base,” Judge Lowe said from behind the mound. But Weise said he didn’t want to. He was fine. So everyone agreed it was just an “accident” and Sopiak pitched the next pitch, a ball, and then lobbed the next ball in which hit Weise again on the arm. Another “accident” Sax ruled. So he was still up. Weise never did hit anything hard down the first-base line though. Whew!
From behind the mound just as I had called “Play Ball” for the beginning of the the top of the eighth, an infielder for the artists called to me and asked for time out. He pointed to right field. Out there, Artist Alec Baldwin had turned his back on the field to talk over the snow fence there with three admirers, one of whom was holding a baby. It was only 10 seconds until he turned around and trotted up a few feet to his position. So then it was time in. He later told me he had been called over by the fan because she said the baby had been named after him.
Among those famous playing in this game this year was Jim Leyritz, the New York Yankee who during the World Series against Atlanta in 1996 hit the home run that turned the tide and gave the Yanks their last championship. In an interview after the game, a reporter asked him what it felt like to hit that blast.
“I just got a single here,” he said. “Same thing.”
And still another incident during this game was the collapse of an inflatable 12-foot-high Snapple bottle, which was attached to the snow fence in centerfield. I think it had something to do with “hit the Snapple bottle” and win a prize. There were lots of sponsors for this game. Anyway, it wiggled down to the ground all of a sudden. Later, the Snapple people inflated it back up as we approached the grand finale of the game.
So here was the big mistake I apparently made. It was in the top of the ninth inning with two out and the Artists up. They had pulled to within one run in the top of the eighth with a huge rally, but in the bottom of the eighth the Writers had roared further ahead with five more runs to make it 16 to 10. Now in the top of the ninth, it seemed well beyond the grasp of the Artists to rally back from that. Also at that time, we were all dusty and tired, the weather was very hot and I personally was getting a little dizzy from the hot sun. (This is my excuse.)
With two out in the top of the ninth with just one out to end the game, an Artist got tagged as he crossed home plate. Had I called him out, the game would have been over. I called him safe.
Everyone went nuts. People ran out onto the field. I had seen him safe. And of course the Writers wanted him safe, so they were agreeing with me although later they told me I really blew that call. Anyway, I stuck to it, and the next batter came up and indeed, that was the last out. So no harm done.
Over beers at the Race Lane Restaurant nearby where both teams congregate after the game, Lief announced that almost $75,000 had been raised for charity. Also announced, as the player of the game was David Baer, the shortstop for the Writers who made some of the most dazzling stops and catches anyone had ever seen. And then at the bar, at one point, a woman came over to say that she wanted it noted that the LOSING pitcher for the game was Countess LuAnn de Lesseps.
“She is who gets the loss,” this woman said, apparently not a friend of de Lesseps. “She pitched her team behind, and the other team never caught up. She’s the official LOSER.”
“I thought she was nice enough,” I said.
People talked about Mort Zuckerman not being there. He is a great supporter of the game and is usually a starting pitcher for the Writers. But he had injured his knee. People missed him.
In the game program, there is an ad for an upcoming documentary of the game being made by screenwriter Bill Collage. Called The Old Ball Game, it will feature footage and commentary and narration of many of the 63 games held on this sandlot field over the years and will be out in the summer of 2012.