The Lesson I Learned in Moscow

a.k.a. the story of Roy the umpire

Post from Drew Spencer about Roy van de Wateringen, an umpire who changed my approach to the game of Baseball.

This is a piece that I wrote in June of 2019 after returning from Moscow where the London Mets were competing in the CEB Federations Cup Qualifier. When I wrote it, I did so knowing that I was going to start a blog on mindset one day. So now this story finally has a place to live.

Sports competitions bring up emotion in all of us. This week I have had the privilege of coaching a team of young men as they competed in the CEB Federations Cup Qualifier, an important European club baseball tournament in Moscow, Russia.

The hosts (RusStar) put on an amazing tournament at RusStar Arena, the best Baseball facility I’ve been to in a very long time. We brought a very good team. We left London with a lot of confidence. We spent the last year preparing for this week. You could feel the determination in each and every player from the minute we got on the plane.

The first 2 games didn’t go our way. We didn’t make some plays we’d normally make back home. We didn’t hit like we’re used to hitting. The scores were much closer than we were used to. All great things to learn from.

But the lesson of this tournament was something else.

RusStar Arena, the beautiful new home of the Russian National Baseball team, has a big screen in left-center field. They had replays going all tournament. So when a couple of calls didn’t go our way, we got to see it again on the big screen. Being able to see it again up on the screen was new for us, and quickly became more of a reason to chirp at the umpires about calls we were unhappy with.

Photo of RusStar Arena taken by Drew Spencer
RusStar Arena, June 2019. Photo by Drew Spencer

One umpire, in particular, had an issue with it. His name is Roy. Roy was part of the umpiring crew when we played in this same tournament last year in Bulgaria. He was friendly to everyone but also took his job very seriously. Because my team was a bit mouthy last year too, Roy and I got to know each other a little bit. He remembered me and said hello at the Technical Meeting in Moscow. We shook hands at the start of the tournament, remembering last year and exchanged the usual pleasantries between coaches and umpires before the games get played.

Those pleasantries came to an abrupt end when, during the second game, I yelled at an umpire after a call didn’t go our way. As I walked back to our dugout, the replay went up. And I felt it showed something different from what he had called on the field. I let him know how I felt about that. 

When I walked back to the 3rd base box the next inning, Roy said something like “We aren’t going to play this game up on a replay screen. we are going to play it on the field.” He said it in that way that any Baseball person knows actually meant, “say it again and you’ll be watching the rest of this game from someplace else”.

As a coach, that can be a tricky moment. Sometimes you have to speak up on your players’ behalf. I’ve seen first-hand how players can get when they think their Manager won’t defend them. That can cause a dugout to break down, sometimes not just for that game. It can impact a team for weeks, if not an entire season. So, as I have been developing as a Manager, I’ve become more and more vocal with umpires. Trying my best to balance that fine line between keeping them honest and keeping my team from getting out of control.

Roy and I talked after that game. I had also made a comment about another replay. When we talked, I thanked him for allowing me a bit of leeway. He said, “Baseball is an emotional game.” He showed me that he understood that, but also warned me against letting emotion get the better of me in those moments.

I thought I knew what he meant.

See, in British Baseball players (and coaches) constantly complain about the umpires. It’s always their fault. I hear people moan about “how bad they are” all the time. I’ve definitely been guilty of it myself.

When we travel abroad, I often hear people say “the umpires hate British teams”. We all say it, we all think it. And when we don’t get the close calls, it confirms what we believe… which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

When I voiced my opinion about the replay on the call in game 2, Roy gave me the silent treatment for the rest of the game. We lost that game. And as if on cue, when we didn’t get a close call, we all told ourselves it was because they were against us. I didn’t take that loss very well. I spent the whole night tossing and turning and trying to figure out what to change in game 3.

I shaved (we’d gone with team mustaches, which now didn’t make sense when you’re 0-2). We changed our lineup around a bit. We tried to loosen the team up with different warmup music. All the things competitors do to change the energy in the clubhouse.

I also decided to just keep my mouth shut all-game. Sure, a couple of times I winced when a ball got called a strike, or vice-versa. I’m only human. But when close calls didn’t go our way, I kept quiet. 

Maybe too quiet.

We were behind all game. The team from Poland jumped ahead early and our energy seemed flat for a lot of the game. In the 8th inning, we mounted a comeback. To try to give my team some energy, I got really animated in the coaching box. I was shouting, but making sure to only be shouting to my own players. I was giving them everything I could. So was our dugout, we were really focussed on us and what we could do to compete in that moment.

And, hey guess what? We came from behind, scoring 6 runs in the top of the 9th inning, got 3 outs in the bottom and notched our first win of the tournament.

After the game, Roy said to me. “You finally stopped focussing on the umpires and started coaching.” He was right.

In Game 4, we played the hosts. For us, it was win or go home. We were naturally pumped up. And in the first couple of innings, a couple of close calls didn’t go our way. The team started chirping. Roy called over to me at one point and said: “make them stop, Andrew” (he used my full name like my Grandma used to do when I was in trouble). I had noticed them chirping too, so when I went into the dugout after the inning, I made it clear to the team that we needed to stop.

The best part of this, and where the lesson comes from is that once we stopped focussing on the calls we weren’t getting, we became the team I’m used to. We made great pitches. We made great plays on defense. We got timely hits. We picked each other up. Everyone was focussed on competing and we played in one of the most exciting games we’ve all been part of, which sadly we lost.

After that game, Roy’s words really stood in my head. In an effort to show my guys that I had their back, I had stopped coaching them.

This story isn’t really about Roy. He is just the messenger here. The message is that it’s time that we focus on competing. It’s time to be all about controlling the things we can control, not the things we can’t. We have to put all of our energy into the next pitch, not the last call.

I wonder how our tournament would have gone if we had that mentality starting in game 1, not the 3rd inning of game 4? I wonder how many other British Baseball teams and individuals might have benefitted from this mindset?

It’s not rocket science, it’s not even new.

But if you watched the London Mets play against RusStar and enjoyed that valiant pitching performance by Lucas Friss, the clutch at-bats by Jonathon Cramman, Jordan Edmonds and Zach Stroman, the great defensive effort from Brendan Power and most importantly the energy coming from our whole dugout, which kept us in that game until the final pitch, I’m telling you that the difference was that we were focussed on attacking the next pitch instead of complaining about the last call.

I will forever be a different manager because of this tournament.

Roy also defended his team (the umpires) but didn’t stop there. He also used this tournament to try to make the game better, by helping me get better.

I’m passing on this story in hopes that it helps more than just the 18 guys in our dugout that night.

We all need to be better at this.

This is a big part of how we get better and get to the next level.

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