The baseball game he's umpiring on a cool April night is being played on a high school field less than 20 miles from Dodger Stadium, but Malachi knows he's a lot closer than that.
With every fielder's choice, every rundown and every call of time, he's getting there, trading the grit of pollution and concrete for the long summer days of sun and grass on the shining diamond with the backdrop of mountains and the hilltop view of city lights.
Malachi Moore is 22 years old and knows that someday he'll be a Major League umpire.
Go ahead. Tell him he won't.
Rule 1.00 -- Objectives of the Game
The story begins in the little green house with bars on the windows on an East Compton street a local gang claims to own. Malachi is 13 years old, and his brother, Nehemiah, is 16.
During the day, the occasional sound of semiautomatic rounds cuts through the smog. At night, the boys take shelter on bunk beds under posters of Kobe Bryant dunking over Sean Elliott and skying high above Vlade Divac's beard.
They'll wait for the muffled rattle of the first police helicopter, the "ghetto bird" that begins its buzzing as soon as the sun vanishes into the Pacific by the rich 'hoods a 20-minute drive and so many worlds away.
The boys have already watched "Boyz n the Hood" too many times to count, and they know to not even think about what might happen if they venture out after sunset into that vast expanse of cracked concrete, where the lurkers do their bidding near rows of boarded-up, graffiti-laden storefronts and under the crusty marquees of long-closed movie theaters that have become churches. You just don't do it. That's where you can be picked off for nothing more than a perceived glare or the wrong color FUBU shirt.
They listen to their mother, Neva. They shoot baskets across the street with their 13-year-old cousin and next-door neighbor, Little Marc, until they lose track of time, but when the streetlights spark to life under a scarlet sky, they know it's time to hurry home for dinner.
They'll sit around the table, Malachi, Nehemiah, Neva and her parents, Troy and Louise. The boys will answer questions about the homework they'll have to get done before bed, Malachi's batting average in Little League, or the last goal Nehemiah scored in ice hockey practice. Those are the important things.
And for Malachi, Nehemiah fills in the rest, like the rules of the street: You're probably pretty safe in the mornings and afternoons, and things are worse out there during the summer when the teen gangbangers aren't forced to sit through school all day. The weather gets hot and the tempers get hotter. Play a sport, because for some reason these fools look up to the ballplayers. Maybe they thought they'd be ballplayers, too, and then they realized they weren't good enough and had to join a gang just to have something to do.
Nehemiah chased away bullies for his little brother, and now he tells him how to talk to girls. Be yourself, he says. Be patient. Make them laugh, if you can. Make them feel comfortable around you. Most important, pay attention to what they have to say. Don't get right to the point, even though we all want to know if she has a boyfriend.
When Neva puts him up to it because it's time for a pep talk, Nehemiah will tell Malachi the only thing his little brother really needs to hear. "You're my brother," he'll say. "You know I love you."
Bellflower is eight miles from Compton, but it's a better school district, and it's the only town the Moore boys knew before Neva and their father, a big-rig driver named Joseph, split. Neva couldn't make it work there as a single mom, so she moved back in with her folks in East Compton, and a 1,400-square-foot house suddenly slept five. Still, she was able to secure the permits that kept Malachi and Nehemiah in the Bellflower schools.
It's there where Malachi has a 3.8 GPA. Where he's become a second baseman and leadoff hitter, a catalyst with a smile on his face and a book about Jackie Robinson in his backpack. And it's there where he's leaving the Bellflower Middle School library one February afternoon with his friend, Josh, walking to the bus stop, where Malachi will catch the 128 Metro back to Compton.
They're about 50 yards away when they see the three boys coming.
Malachi has known them since kindergarten, and he knows they're all in a gang now, having been "jumped in" at the ages of 12 and 13. They've been hinting that they want Malachi to join, making jokes that aren't really jokes. But they know how it is. It'll never happen.
"You been hangin' around the homies a lot," says the oldest of the three boys, the one who sits atop a black mountain bike.
Malachi nods. He's been tight with these boys since kindergarten.
"Time for you to get put on."
Malachi can't prevent a half-sarcastic snicker from escaping. He's heard that some gangs will brutalize you for 15, 20 seconds -- four guys, maybe five or more collapsing on top of one, raining fists and elbows, sneaker toes and spit, dirt, blood and the venom of young rage. Absorb all that and you're tough enough.
The boy dismounts the bike with a flourish as Malachi and Josh stop, approaching with calculated steps. Malachi sets his feet, waiting, just like Nehemiah taught him. When the boy cocks back an arm, Malachi swings, landing a right cross to the boy's upper lip. The rest of the bodies rush in and the scrum is on, all limbs and knuckles and kicked-up lawn bits, diffused within seconds by two of the school's security guards.
A few days later, Malachi is expelled from Bellflower Middle School for associating with gang members. The arguments from his mother about Malachi's high grade-point average and perfect attendance fade into the boom of district-meeting assumptions and declarations.
His permit has been revoked. He's going back to Compton.
Rule 2.00 -- Definition of Terms
Malachi Moore is 15 years old and he's sitting in the pews of the Carver Foursquare Gospel Church, listening to Pastor Doby talk about heaven. Malachi closes his eyes and pictures it the way he wants to picture it: the golden gates, the gentle white puffs of clouds floating through a light blue sky, family all around him. Everyone's smiling. If anything is perfect, it's this.
A few months later he's sitting on the sofa in his living room and his uncle, Big Mark, who will be his varsity baseball coach at Dominguez High School when he becomes a freshman next month, asks him if he's heard about what's going on at the local junior college, El Camino.
"They're building a new baseball field," he says, and soon Malachi and Little Marc and three more of his teammates are crammed into Big Mark's Rav4, driving to the construction zone next to the junior college's running track, noticing the rise of sand hills, the hum and crawl of excavators, and the focused movements of guys in hard hats taking measurements.
One of the men is Phillip Bowers, who comes over to meet the visitors and show them around. He tells them he's been contracted to the project as head groundskeeper. The project is the new Urban Youth Academy. Built by Major League Baseball. Opening early next year. Four fields with stands and dugouts. A big clubhouse, 12,000 square feet, with lockers and showers and a weight room. Anyone from around the way can come and play ball and work out. That's why it's being built. Major League Baseball wants kids from Compton to come here and play. It'll be open year-round.
Malachi thinks to himself that this is going to be expensive, way too expensive for him to be involved. Before he can ask, Phillip tells him it won't cost anything.
Malachi looks around. He finally does ask Phillip a question. "Are you serious?"
Not even two miles. Just head west on Greenleaf, turn left into the parking lot, and you'll arrive at what Malachi is convinced will be the real heaven, now descended to Earth, with steel gates and pearl-white bases.
Rule 3.00 - Game Preliminaries
"You need to get over here on Palmer."
Neva Moore doesn't recognize the voice.
"Who is this?"
"Nehemiah's been shot."
"What? Who is this?"
It's June 7, 2006, a Wednesday evening in East Compton, and Neva's been home from work for a bit, and now the phone has rung and she's picked it up and heard this nonsense, and she can't for the life of her imagine why anyone would say something so unfunny and so stupid and why this idiot would try to pull her leg or Malachi's leg, especially with that crap, and well, now she's got to get over to East Palmer near Santa Fe, where Nehemiah hangs out with his skateboarding friends, just to make sure, so she's grabbing her purse and heading out the door, she's driving her Camry down the same old streets from her childhood, heading for Palmer, and she knows she'll just zoom by the wide, four-lane street like always, nothing will be going on, and she'll drive back home, shaking her head, making herself crazy wondering who this knucklehead might be and why he would play a joke like this, what on earth he could possibly have been trying to accomplish, and now she's getting closer and she turns onto Palmer and sees it all: the crowd, the spinning red and blue, the fire truck, the ambulance, and she can't even pass through the people because Palmer is roped off, and she gets out of the car, still feeling her legs and feet as she walks -- or maybe she's running, she's not sure -- and she recognizes the woman passing her on the sidewalk, it's the mother of one of Nehemiah's friends, and she stops and looks at the woman's face and sees the wide eyes, the forming of tears, the horror, and maybe Neva finally starts feeling it, too.
"Somebody shot him," the woman tells her. "Somebody shot him."
Rule 4.00 -- Starting and Ending the Game
By the time Neva Moore cuts through the hubbub to reach Nehemiah, he's already in a stretcher and being loaded into the ambulance. She can't get a good look at her son while she's shoved into the back of the truck; the paramedics are all over him. She hears them speaking to him. She doesn't hear him answering.
They're speeding toward St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood, three miles away. Neva doesn't know where they're going. She feels like it's taking an hour to get there.
The ambulance stops. The doors swing open. Neva is whisked out and Nehemiah's stretcher is lowered to the pavement under the light of the emergency room sign.
She notices her son's left arm moving slightly.
That's good, she thinks. He's going to make it.
That's when she sees the blood-soaked bandage. That's when she sees the hole in his head.
Malachi Moore is two weeks from his 16th birthday and he's walking through the Academy clubhouse, down the hallway and back out to the field. Words are printed high on the wall, shining down to those who walk beneath: Faith. Responsibility. Self-discipline. Courage. Perseverance. Fairness. Tolerance. Compassion. Self-sacrifice.
Since Major League Baseball's grand opening of the facility at the end of February, Malachi has been there every day. He has a job on the grounds crew with Phillip. He's seen the place evolve from piles of sand to smoothed-out dirt on top of sand to the flawless green diamonds upon which he and his friends and teammates play.
It's been a long day of practice and he's getting a drink. He opens the back door to cut back to the field. He's met by Big Mark, who has just received a phone call. It's time to leave.
Malachi and Little Marc are smiling in celebration -- the ever-so-rare half-day -- until they notice Big Mark's stone expression. Before they can ask what's up, they're shoveled into the Rav4 and are on the road.
Big Mark's hands grip the steering wheel like it's about to snap off and he's doing everything he can to hold it in place. His foot is pinned to the gas pedal with his eyes fixed on the traffic lights he's ignoring.
Malachi turns his face to the window. The houses and vacant lots and strip malls he's always peered at from moving automobiles rush by, all colors and shapes and textures being sucked into a void behind him, and then they're in Lynwood and he's kneeling by his brother's bedside with his mother, crying and praying. And waiting. And waiting some more.
There's surgery, and another surgery. Now Neva's out in the hallway, asking the doctor for any sign, any percentage that her son will live through the night. The doctor says maybe there's a 30 percent chance. Neva tells Malachi and they pray some more. There's a chance.
Let him make it through, they say. Give him the courage. Give him the strength.
Neva goes back in and touches her son's cold, swollen body. She thinks she sees his tongue moving. She still sees the blood on the bandage around his head. She wants to do something to keep him warm. There's nothing she can do.
The doctor arrives and Neva has to ask again.
"What is happening to my son?" she says.
"He's dying," the doctor says.
Rule 5.00 -- Putting the Ball in Play
Malachi Moore is 20 years old and he's laughing. He and his teammates can't seem to stop. Umpires, of all people, are at the Academy on a Saturday morning in November 2010. Umpires. They're all over the place.
His experience with the men in the gray pants and masks has consisted of politeness, the occasional rolled eye (but only once he's back in the dugout), the slightly-more-than-occasional sigh of amazement at their incompetence while watching on TV, and an overwhelming inability to catch a glimpse of the real men behind those black shirts and chest protectors. No, the exalted realm of the guardianship of baseball's sacred rules -- and man, there are a lot of them -- is on lockdown, 24/7. You're not getting in.
Malachi and six of his junior college teammates have just been told they're not practicing today. Nope. There are Major League umpires here, they're giving a one-day clinic for local Little League, high school and college umps, and the team's helping out. Go get the gear and put it on.
Malachi has never even thought about wearing that uniform. Malachi is an athlete, a baseball player, and he's only gotten more serious about it in the four and a half years since his brother was killed. Malachi left the hospital that June morning with the grief already a boulder between his ribs. The pain could leave him briefly: in the weight room when he was pushing every bit of his 5-foot-7, 170-pound frame to bench 275. Or at varsity football practice, all leaping nerve endings at the safety position, hurtling that body at running backs or wide receivers faster than yesterday, hitting them harder than yesterday -- the only way to get noticed.
Neva steered him in that direction. She kept Malachi away from anything associated with Nehemiah's murder. She endured a trial that dragged on into an appeal that was denied on Sept. 30, 2009. Malachi would find out later -- the word around the neighborhood going along with what Neva heard in court -- that the boy who would eventually be put away for 90 years to life exited a black SUV, walked up to Nehemiah, whom he erroneously thought was a member of a rival gang, and shot him in the back of the head. Nehemiah's friends, one of whom was shot in the leg, told Malachi that they ducked and ran inside the house at Palmer and Chester and were wondering where Nehemiah was. They looked outside and saw him sprawled out on the sidewalk.
Malachi turned inward after the shooting, but he also turned to his mother. He knew he needed to be there for her, and the best way, he figured, was for her to never have to worry about him. So after high school, it's been all baseball and books and the grounds crew at the Academy. Malachi likes the pacing of the long season, the minutes that seem to stretch on for a lot longer. He can't think of anything better than standing in the batter's box right before the pitcher winds up -- that sacred moment. The chance to prove you're better than the other guy.
He's still leading off and playing second, and his ability to get on base and steal has gotten him pretty far. Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, now the head coach at San Diego State, called Malachi one day and said he'd call again if a scholarship happened to open up. Malachi hasn't heard back, and it's been months, but maybe someone else will call. In the meantime, he's in shape, he's playing, he's dragging the infield and warning tracks with John Deere bunker rakes, mowing the grass, prepping the mounds, washing the dugouts and blowing leaves from the batting cages. He's in good with the staff there and at El Camino with his coach and latest mentor, Shannon Williams.
So what the heck? Umpire for a day. Why not?
He's introduced to the guests of honor. Here are the veterans: Kerwin Danley, Gary Cederstrom, Mike DiMuro, Jeff Nelson, Tim Tschida and Bill Miller. The ones you hear about when they blow a playoff game with the foul call that was fair. The ones who argue with the managers.
Over there, Danley points, is the Professional Baseball Umpire Corp staff. PBUC, or "Pea-buck." Those are the Minor League guys -- your future bosses if you make it as an umpire. Malachi's half-listening and half-wondering what's next, and then he's in a line behind first base getting ready for the "Whacker Drill," where a bang-bang play at first base is set up and it's up to you to either call the runner safe or "whack" him out. It doesn't matter if you get it right or wrong, but you better do it with confidence. You better do it aggressively. And you better be loud, son, because you're not just selling the call. You're selling yourself. You need everyone on that field and in the stands to know that you're in control of this whole situation. You're the one who's being counted on to keep everything in order. You're the one who has to make sure everything happens the way it's supposed to. You owe it to yourself, but mostly you just owe it to the integrity of this great game.
Now Danley's got Malachi's full attention. Danley, who's also African-American, grew up pretty close to here. He went to high school at Dorsey in Los Angeles, not far from the University of Southern California campus, and he seems to like Malachi.
The Whacker Drill starts and Danley tells Malachi to amp it up. Malachi gets in position and sees the runner get to the bag before the ball hits the first baseman's glove, and he knows how to throw both arms out at his side, flattening his hands and screaming, "Safe!"
It feels pretty good. It's still weird like this, though, all dressed up in a different identity, maybe even looking like a traitor to all his ballplayer brothers who have been taught that ump equals enemy. But this time the runner is out and Malachi is getting into this now, really into this, and he hops up and pumps that right fist like Tiger Woods on Sunday, and out into the air, from his diaphragm or maybe even his soul, he yells, "He's out!" and that runner is out, and there's no question about it to anyone who might be watching.
The next stop is the batting cage. Danley, who's been smiling at his new protege since the drill ended, is walking Malachi over there himself, telling him he wants to see a few ball-and-strike calls. A pitching machine is set up, a catcher is waiting, and Danley is showing Malachi the proper stance behind the catcher. Malachi's set and Cederstrom is in there, too, about to feed a ball into the machine. Tschida's looking on.
"What's your Strike Three call?" Danley asks Malachi.
"I don't have one."
"Aw, come on, Malachi. You gotta have one."
"What's yours? I'll use yours."
Just like that, Kerwin Danley, Major League umpire with 14 years of service time, uniform No. 44, unsheaths his Strike Three call like a scimitar. His right hand appears from behind his hip and rises with the calm authority of hundreds of thousands of innings. The hand, working now with its counterpart, pulls an imaginary cord as if it's starting a well-oiled lawn mower.
"Ha!" Danley yells, echoing out a primal syllable that doesn't laugh at the batter but reveals a cruel, very real fate.
Malachi mimics it three times before the pitch comes in, right down the middle. Malachi starts up the lawn mower, punching out the invisible batter. Ringing him up.
Malachi can't help but laugh at the ridiculousness of it all, here at the Academy doing something he never thought he'd be doing. Danley is not laughing.
"I'm glad you're having fun, but you actually look good," Danley says. "Now let me see you get serious for a second. Just for a second."
Another pitch comes in. Another strike. Outside corner.
"You look good, man," Danley says, the wink in his eye directed at Tschida, Cederstrom and Miller. "You look good."
Rule 6.00 -- The Batter
Malachi Moore knows that Cole Woodman is thinking that thought again. Cole has thought it every day for the first week at the Wendelstedt Umpire School.
Cole thought it when he showed up on the first day and caught his first whiff of the winter spray from the Atlantic right outside the back doors of the LaPlaya Resort and Suites in Daytona Beach, where the school houses its offices and 150 students for the five-week program. That was when he realized how far he'd traveled from Winnipeg. That was when the dread, that crippling anchor, settled back in his chest.
What am I doing here?
Even now, at the supposedly mature age of 24, seven years after the cancer took his dad, Jim, a lovable firefighter everyone called Woody, it just wasn't right. Cole didn't feel like he fit in anywhere, so how could he fit in here, thousands of miles from home and his mom, Deb -- stuck in a classroom all morning and on baseball fields every day, watching the people around him hustle and strive and sweat and snap hamstrings for a fraction of a percentage of an opportunity at a Major League dream he probably didn't even share?
It's a dewy morning in January 2011 and Cole's looking out the window of a rental car, piled in the back seat on the daily 15-minute drive to the complex in Ormond Beach. He's wondering how he'll confuse and embarrass himself at the four-field cloverleaf where the rest of the day's work will unfold.
Will it be another case of not being able to rip off his mask with his left hand? And what about the instructors, the Minor League umpires in red pullovers who wield iPads in constant judgment and somehow don't miss a thing, whether it's a slight flinch when bat meets ball, a blink of an eye following a popup to the pitcher, or a tell of uncertainty detected from the slightly lower decibel level while Cole pronounces foul a weak grounder right of first base? Will they crush him again?
These daily questions have made life on the Fun Coast of the Sunshine State bleaker than the frozen flats of the Canadian hometown Cole had never left until listening to his mom and using the money he'd saved to give this umpiring thing a shot.
"Step up to the plate," she had said, proud of knowing the baseball lingo, and here he is, already feeling like he's been sent back to the dugout. But the doubt is soon drowned out by the boom of the car stereo. It's "Black and Yellow" by Wiz Khalifa, the standard sing-along for this eight-mile ride, and his buddy, Malachi Moore, is smiling, like always, and nudging him in the shoulder.
"Come on, Cole," Malachi says. "Let's hear it."
"Hear them haters talk, but there's nothing you can tell 'em/Just made a million, got another million on my schedule," Cole drops in perfect time with Wiz, and Malachi and the rest of the bass-bumping carpool busts up, and so does Cole, and right now things are OK because Malachi's here.
It's OK because Malachi's here.
Here's a 20-year-old guy from Compton, of all places. Malachi's beloved brother was murdered on the street there not even four years ago. This guy has come from poverty and despair and he is driven, man. He will succeed here. He will finish at the top here, he'll make it to the next step, the PBUC Evaluation Course in March, and he'll breeze through and get a Minor League job. His career will start, he'll have all the connections he needs, and Malachi will keep working hard and impressing people, learning on the spot, and within seven or eight years he'll be on a big league field. Cole knows it because Malachi knows it.
Malachi knows a lot, as far as Cole can tell. He knows God was involved when Kerwin Danley convinced him to take the one-week umpire course at the Academy after the one-day tryout. Malachi knows God helped earn the scholarship that brought him here, that God told him to listen when people offer advice, to do it right the second time and every time after that. Malachi knows God led him to Sophany, the girlfriend he Skypes with every night in his room when he's not working out, helping Cole with footwork or mechanics, or studying the rulebook.
Malachi also knows that Cole needs to stay here at school and tough it out. He tells Cole every day that he can't quit, can't even think about quitting. Malachi knows umpire school is about a lot more than umpiring, as the instructors keep saying. It's about life. It's about how you handle yourself and situations. It's about always adhering to your "order of responsibilities." Fair or foul comes first, because if a ball is foul, nothing after that matters. Catch or no catch -- that's next, and you go right down the list.
It's a month later now, four weeks of balks and catcher's interference, obstruction, bases awarded and rescinded, and instructors pretending they're incensed big league managers kicking dirt and spewing cusses.
Cole isn't Cole anymore. He's "The Canadian Claw," the notorious umpire-school veteran with an unmistakable rake-fingered Strike Three call and a fresh, confident stride. The dude who hears the surf crashing onto the beach each morning and doesn't worry about where it came from or where it might go. Deb has been staying with him for the final days of school, and she's seen the change, too.
At the final banquet the night before the school session ends, Cole is given the Most Improved Umpire award. Malachi wins a Golden Mask Award for hustle and heart. The next morning, the students are called in by the staff for their final grades. Cole will not progress on the road to becoming a Major League umpire, and he knows it. He's fine with it. He's got more on his mind now anyway.
Malachi sits down at a ballroom table with Hunter Wendelstedt, the Major League umpire whose father, Harry, started the school, and Tripp Gibson, a Triple-A umpire who will soon be on the verge of the Majors. Malachi feels good about his chances of moving on to the Evaluation Course. He won an award, after all.
"Malachi," Wendelstedt says calmly. "Do you want to be a Major League umpire?"
Malachi isn't expecting this question -- he figured Hunter already knew the response. Oh, heck, just answer it anyway.
"Yessir, I do."
"OK, good. Well, I've got good news and bad news. Let's hit you with the bad news first."
The Canadian Claw and Deb are waiting to say goodbye when Malachi knocks on the door. Cole sees the defeat in his friend's eye and Deb asks what happened. Malachi says he didn't make it to PBUC. It's quiet, and they hug before Malachi takes his bags back to the lobby to catch a taxi to the airport.
Up in Cole's room on his last night in Florida, Deb asks him if Malachi will be OK.
Cole doesn't answer. He doesn't have to.
Rule 7.00 -- The Runner
It's a fair ball into the right-field corner. Malachi Moore, 20 years old, umpiring in a rickety old yard they used to call Port Arthur Stadium and now call Subway Field, can at least see that. As the batter-runner, Thunder Bay Border Cats shortstop Brett Kay, begins his route around the bases, Malachi tears off his mask like he's supposed to. He runs near the first-base line like he's supposed to. He recognizes that his partner, Sam Hansen, has taken the responsibility of the ball, like he's supposed to.
Malachi is in Canada, umpiring in the Northwoods League, a summer circuit for elite college players. Hunter Wendelstedt arranged for Malachi to land here from June through August after he just missed earning a spot at PBUC. It's the first time Malachi has been out of the country.
"You're raw," Hunter said that January day, and Malachi could only nod. "You need to see pitches. Thousands of pitches. You need innings. You need games. You've got all the tools. Now you just need the experience."
"I understand," Malachi said.
The report card didn't help. There were 25 rulebook tests over five weeks, 10 questions apiece, and Malachi got 194 correct out of 250. That was good for a C, and that mark matched his grades in the judged categories of Coordination, Instincts, Timing, Judgment, Positioning and Rules Interpretation on the Field. Hustle, Aggressiveness and Voice were Bs. Mobility was an A. Attitude was an A-plus. Hunter told him the final decision was close, but Malachi couldn't help but scold himself for not being good enough.
"The good news," Hunter said, after delivering the bad news, "is that I think you're going to be a big league umpire. So follow my plan."
Malachi followed it to Minnesota hamlets called Willmar, Alexandria, Duluth, Rochester and Mankato, back to Rochester and Willmar, and over to Brainerd before crossing the border to Thunder Bay. He looked out the window of Sam's 1997 Dodge Stratus and saw cornfields, cranberry bogs, tractor sheds and big red barns. He thought of his own backyard garden in Compton, where he would have been busy planting his own corn, lettuce, jalapenos, collard greens and tomatoes if he weren't on the road to this career. Malachi always liked planting a little seed, watching it grow and knowing he made something out of nothing. Maybe that's what's pushing him along in this crazy adventure from Hampton Inns to Wendy's to ramshackle dressing rooms where your nightly meal, usually brought down from the concession stands, seems hot when the home team wins and kind of cold when the home team loses.
And the next morning it's back on the asphalt of America to Holiday Inn Expresses, Howard Johnson's and Maid-Rite restaurants for something called a Loose Meat Sandwich, which isn't half-bad, although it might not be the ideal pregame meal, if you get the drift. Malachi's getting used to never being home. From Opening Day until the end of the season, an umpire doesn't have a home.
He talks to his dad a lot about life on the road. Joseph Moore has taken Malachi on road trips before -- to Las Vegas and all over California -- and given him the basics: Don't ever leave that hotel room door unlocked, for one. Sure, you might want to leave it cracked for your buddies to come in, but you know what? You're just asking for trouble if you do that. Your buddies can knock, can't they?
All that experience and knowledge, plus the $3,750 stipend for the summer and Sophany's texts and the T-shirt with Nehemiah's photograph that Malachi hangs in his room every night, the one that says, "It's so hard to say goodbye," and maybe it's enough to get through the 76 games in 81 days and the humidity and the bugs and the knowledge that he still has to go through the same five-week program at the Wendelstedt school next year if he's even going to sniff The Show.
And now this: bottom of the seventh inning on June 23, 2011, in Ontario, where Andy Henkemeyer, the right fielder for the St. Cloud River Bats, follows Kay's batted ball into the corner. The outfielder's momentum takes him past the right-field foul line as he fields the ball and careens toward the chain-link fence that encloses the ballpark. He hits the fence, but it's not a fence, no, that's a gate, and somehow the gate wasn't locked before the game started, and now the right fielder has gone through it and is on the other side of it.
Henkemeyer is now standing in dead-ball territory while Kay steams around the bases, and he throws the ball back to the infield anyway. The second baseman cuts off the throw and relays it to third base. Kay has already slid in to third, safe.
St. Cloud manager Jon Hansen approaches from the dugout, claiming it's a ground-rule double because the ball was dead as soon as Henkemeyer left the field of play. Sam and Malachi agree, and Sam points Kay back to second, which, naturally, gets Thunder Bay skipper Mike Steed into the conversation.
Now Malachi's having doubts. He confers with Sam and says that the rulebook is based on common sense and fair play. The offense shouldn't be penalized here. The batter-runner would have been on third base regardless of what happened behind that fence.
Malachi knows he's got to make a decision, to gain control. This is his game. His field. His moment.
"I'm leaving him at third," Malachi says after a five-minute conversation with the managers. "That's where he was, and time wasn't called."
Before Steed turns away, Malachi says he's not quite sure about the call, but he will be soon. He'll stay up all night looking at the rulebook if he has to, and he'll tell him what he found first thing tomorrow.
Hours later, looking in section 7.00, "The Runner," Malachi locates Rule 7.04(c): "If a fielder, after having made a legal catch, should fall into a stand or among spectators or into the dugout or any other out-of-play area while in possession of the ball after making a legal catch, or fall while in the dugout after making a legal catch, the ball is dead and each runner shall advance one base, without liability to be put out, from his last legally touched base at the time the fielder fell into, or in, such out-of-play area."
OK, it's close, Malachi thinks, and the rulebook is all about interpretation, but my guy didn't fall.
He keeps looking and finds Rule 5.10(f), which refers to 7.04(c) and adds: "If a fielder after making a catch steps into a bench, but does not fall, the ball is in play and runners may advance at their own peril."
That's it. Well, it's close enough.
Somehow they got it right yesterday. And while Malachi might be killing himself for lucking into the call, he knows he's a better umpire now. He knows the rule. There's nothing better than that.
Rule 8.00 -- The Pitcher
Marvin Villareal. Marvin Villareal. Who is Marvin Villareal?
Malachi Moore is in that same hotel room in Thunder Bay, looking at the Facebook friend request, accepting it just to be a nice guy, then checking out the profile picture. He can't seem to place the face.
OK, so this Marvin Villareal says he knows Malachi from Dominguez High School in Compton. That's strange, because this kid looks like he's in high school now. Marvin wants to get back in touch. Back in touch? When were they in touch in the first place?
The next day, he's got another message from Marvin, and now it all floods back. It's Little Marvin! Baby Marvin! The batboy from Dominguez, the nephew of one of Malachi's varsity teammates.
Wow. The last time they saw each other, Marvin couldn't have been more than 10 years old, and now he's telling Malachi that he's 15, he's a left-handed pitcher, he's going to make varsity at Centennial as a freshman, and he's looking for a workout partner. Is Malachi interested?
Two months later, the two are one. As soon as Malachi returned from the Northwoods League, he was picking up Marvin at the house across from the light-rail tracks, driving to the Academy, and lunching at the Pho joint in Long Beach that Sophany loves.
Marvin doesn't have an older sibling -- just Fernando Jr., his 11-year-old brother. And when Marvin point-blank told Malachi that he wanted to get better and learn more about the game, well, Malachi was convinced that God had just granted him another brother to replace the one He had taken away.
It didn't take long for umpiring to come into the picture. Malachi had come back from Minnesota and worked out with the old JC team for a week, his mind still on playing, but if the swagger from umpiring a full season on his own and the chance at another scholarship to Wendelstedt wasn't enough, a stern talking-to in Coach Shannon's tiny, boiling-hot office did the trick. Malachi Moore was no longer a baseball player. He was an umpire, and if Marvin wanted to play, he might want to call a few balls and strikes, too.
It couldn't hurt, right? Sure, Plan A was to get drafted out of high school, and 5-foot-8 Marvin could already hit 75 mph on the radar gun, but just like Neva told Malachi, you need a Plan B. And you might as well pack a Plan C while you're at it.
Now it's November and Marvin's doing the one-day umpiring school at the Academy, just like his new big brother did, and by January he's picking up home-plate jobs in high school games, even working alongside Malachi, making a little money and figuring out how to manage what he makes.
Coach Shannon told Malachi, "This is an opportunity, and you need to roll with it," and that's what Malachi tells Marvin. Make the most of any chance you get, because you come from a place where you don't get many.
Marvin listens. Once second semester began he took Malachi's advice and sat in the front of the classroom. Every month he hands his report card to Malachi. His GPA has gone from a 2.0 to a 2.5.
It's a Monday night in April and they're at a Dodger game. It's Malachi, Sophany and Marvin. The Braves are in town, and Malachi got good seats through an umpiring connection. Chris Capuano has just thrown the first pitch, and already Malachi's in Marvin's face. There are rules here, too.
Marvin must bring a notebook. He must write down the lineup as soon as they sit. He must notate every position switch and every pitching change. He must be ready for when Malachi quizzes him -- and believe it, it's going to happen a lot.
At the end of the fifth inning, clockwork: Malachi turns to Marvin and says, "OK, right now a torrential rain storm comes and power goes out. No scoreboard. You're the crew chief. What do you do?"
Marvin looks at the scoreboard, where it says "Dodgers 5, Braves 1."
"That's easy," he says. "Dodgers win."
Rule 9.00 -- The Umpire
Malachi Moore hopes this stop at Staples is going to be a quick one. Just one fax, the W-9 to be sent off to the high school where he umpired last week's game, and then he and Sophany can relax for a while before Marvin comes over and the three of them leave for another Dodger game.
Malachi is 21 years old. It's late April 2012 and he's waiting to hear where his career will begin. He went back to Wendelstedt in January and from the first day's exercises, it was an afterthought that he'd be put through. After five weeks, Malachi had won Top Returning Student honors. He had heard the story of the top student a few years back, the guy who got drunk after the final banquet, punched a hole in wall of his room at the LaPlaya, and was kicked out of school right then and there. So Malachi drank one beer after his banquet and called it good.
He was ready for PBUC in Vero Beach, Fla., in March, and 12 days later, when Justin Klemm, the organization's executive director, extended his hand and welcomed him to professional baseball, Malachi knew he belonged.
Now he spends his days with Sophany, making the most of their minutes together while stitching up the rest of his life before starting a life on the highway, kind of like his dad, Joseph.
The first stop will be the Arizona Rookie League, where he'll oversee the sun-baked diamonds of Spring Training parks in the Phoenix area. It'll be a furnace, 100 degrees even at midnight, but he has to put in his time. After that comes two levels of Class A, then Double-A and Triple-A. He'll be evaluated the whole while. He'll need to shine or it could all end, just like that. No guarantees.
The corn he planted in March is almost as tall as the green house with bars on the windows, and Malachi allows himself to dream once in a while. When he's in the big leagues, he'll move his mother to one of those gated communities somewhere nice in Orange County, or maybe Arizona. Then again, he'll always keep this house. Too many memories here in East Compton. Good memories.
So Malachi and Sophany are sitting in chairs in Staples, the one at the Gateway Towne Center shopping mall a few blocks from home, waiting for that blasted fax machine to open up. Sophany asks Malachi how his math class went that day and he tells her he had a test. She asks him how he did, and he says, "Not so good," before offering a light chuckle.
Two middle-aged black women are seated at the adjacent work table. They've spread out a few hundred envelopes, several books of stamps and a long list of addresses written on looseleaf paper -- the arduous but necessary task of preparing invitations. The one closest to Malachi hears his laugh and shoots him a glare. She has had enough.
"What math class are you taking?" she says to the stranger in the Wendelstedt Umpire School T-shirt, adidas track pants and new Nike Andre Agassi sneakers.
"Statistics, Ma'am," Malachi says with a hint of a smile. She cannot match his calm or his grin. She will not.
"You need to study more," she says, proud anger curling up her lips. Her friend nods without looking up. Malachi nods, too, but the silent agreement doesn't satisfy his inquisitor.
"No, son," the woman says, now spinning around in the chair to cover him with her presence. "You need to get straight A's. You need to be at the top of your class. And you know why?"
Malachi shrugs, as if to say, "No, I don't know why," when he does know why. He's always known why.
"Because you'll never get a job with Bs and Cs," she says. "Top of the class is something to put on a resume. Top of the class is who they're looking to hire. You do want to get hired, right? You do want to do something with your life?"
Malachi smiles again, knowing that there are a few things he could tell this woman right about now.
He could tell her that he did as well as any student in the history of the Wendelstedt Umpire School. Coordination: A-plus-plus. Instincts: A-plus-plus. Timing: A-plus. Judgment: A-plus. Positioning: A-plus. Rules Interpretation on the Field: A. Hustle: A-plus-plus. Aggressiveness: A-plus-plus. Voice: A-plus-plus. Mobility: A-plus-plus. Attitude: A-plus-plus.
He could tell her that he answered 242 of the 250 test questions correctly. That's 96.8 percent. Put that on your invitations.
He could tell her that he already has a job. He's already impressed the guys doing the hiring. Right away, even though he's at the lowest level of the professional umpiring food chain, he'll make about $2,000 per month plus a hotel room, use of a car, gas money and about $30 a day for food. It's a start.
Oh, and the other job, too: Hunter already offered him a position as a school instructor starting next year. Five paid weeks in Florida in January. Not bad.
And if he continues to progress -- and you better believe that Malachi Moore will progress, lady -- he could make it to the big leagues in seven or eight years. Then he'll buy Neva that house. Then he'll make sure Joseph has whatever he needs. Then he'll buy the MLB Extra Innings satellite package for his mom, dad and any other relatives who want to watch his games.
He could tell her all of this, but he doesn't. Umpiring is all about handling situations, and this one is best handled with a polite nod.
"You're right, Ma'am," Malachi says. "You're right."
"Damn right I'm right," she says, and she turns back to the work table.
Malachi walks to the fax machine and does what he has to do to get paid for his work. Sophany looks at him, shakes her head and giggles along with him.
He takes his receipt and then her hand. The automatic doors spring open and they walk out into daylight.