‘Multicultural’ is hardly the word I would use to describe Sardinia. While this beautiful Mediterranean island attracts thousands of tourists from all over the world every summer, not many people live there who weren’t actually born there. Thanks to the blogging world, I found out that Jennifer Avventura does, and she has some great stories about what it means to be an expat in Sardinia. She is the exception, however, and not the rule, as most of the island is populated by Sardinians, born and raised.
The Italian softball world, however, is quite multicultural. Softball is a minor sport in Italy, so teams look to bring players and coaches in from abroad, from stronger softball countries, to strengthen their teams. The league sets a limit on how many foreigners each team can bring over, in order to ensure that Italians will continue to have playing opportunities and the sport can continue to develop there. During my first year, I played for 2 Cuban coaches, and was catching a Cuban pitcher. I lived with another American, and the rest of the team was Italian. In subsequent years, any combination of Italian, American, Cuban, Canadian, Dutch and Australian players and coaches could be found in our little Nuoro.
It was exactly this peculiar mix of cultures that set the stage for the most perplexing and hysterical argument with an umpire that I have ever witnessed or heard about. We were playing at home in Nuoro and we were hosting a team from Legnano, a town not far from Milan. The head coaches of both teams were Cuban; the umpires were, of course, Italian; and the player at the center of the controversy was Chinese.
The whole thing started over a pretty common softball situation. The Chinese batter from Legnano, who was left-handed, ran through the batter’s box and swung as she turned to already run to first base. In softball this is called slapping. She slapped the ball almost straight down and it hit her foot, then ricocheted into play. As I said, this is a common enough occurrence. I am confident that the ball did indeed hit her because as the catcher, I have the best view of this. However, it is very difficult for the umpire behind home plate to see if the ball hit the batter, or was batted cleanly into play. The batter, as we are all taught to do, ran to first base anyway since neither umpire made a call to stop play.
The correct call in this situation is a ‘foul ball’, play stops; a strike is issued to the batter if there were not already 2 recorded; all runners remain or return to their original base before the play; and the at-bat resumes. What happened instead was that the ball went into play; no umpire made any signal; the batter ran; my team made an error; the batter arrived safely at first base.
Then, all hell broke loose. My Cuban coach came sprinting onto the field, yelling and gesticulating the whole way. Since the play was in his favor, the other coach stayed in his dugout…at first. When our fearless leader, Bepe, had made enough noise to cause the umpires to gather on the field to discuss what had happened, Armando came sprinting out of his dugout knowing that anything could happen at this point and eager to influence the decision.
The argument that followed, in some combination of Italian and Spanish, was loud, long, and absolutely ridiculous. At first my team and I were just as furious as our coach about this injustice, but after a few minutes of watching this spectacle there was no place for anger. Anger over the bad call had been replaced by the embarrassment of being even a small part of this circus, which was pushed out by a sort of solidarity with the girls on the other team who were equally as embarrassed by the behavior of their own coach.
The situation went from embarrassing and ridiculous to hysterical and borderline racist when Armando resorted to stereotypes to argue his point that his Chinese batter should, in fact, remain safe at first base. Since the entire situation hinges on whether or not the ball struck the batter’s foot before going into play, the only person (besides me of course and it did hit her) who actually knows what happened is the batter herself.
As I mentioned before, the batter finished the play and was now watching this madness from the safety of first base. Armando wanted the umpires to see this as her declaration that the play was clean, that the ball did not hit her, and further, expected them to believe her because: “She said it didn’t hit her, and the Chinese…they don’t lie!!”
Wait…whaaaat?! Did he just use a general, personal stereotype of an entire race of humans to convince an umpire crew that the ball was fair?? Yes. Yes, he did.
And Bepe was NOT going to let him get away with it.
After a strong initial contribution to the screaming match, Bepe had taken to pacing around the field while our assistant coach continued the verbal grudge match. Was he trying to bring his blood pressure down or planning his strategt? We will never know, but when he heard Armando’s declaration of the honesty of the Chinese people, he was right back in the game. He wheeled around and sprinted once again toward the collection of umpires and opposing coaches, screaming and pulling madly at his shirt. This was more than the usual gesticulating of romance language-speakers as they “talk with their hands”. He seemed to be referring to his shirt and using it as a visual aid to whatever he was screaming.
In another second, all the Italians within earshot, even those that had to this point been somber, angry, or horrified, burst into laughter. Raucous laughter. I had lost the conversation to a combination of factors, including the number of people screaming and the increasing percentage of Spanish being spoken as the Cubans became more and more excited. I needed to ask for a translation. When my teammates had composed themselves enough to breathe and speak, one of them told me what Bepe had said. His final blow, closing argument response to Armando’s faith in the Chinese as an honest race was this: “That’s not true!! The Chinese lie, they do lie!! They make T-shirts, and say they are Nike, but they’re NOT!!”
To roughly quote David Spade in the classic slapstick comedy, Tommy Boy, we had derailed. We had somehow managed to turn an umpire’s judgement call into a debate over cultural stereotypes. Full disclosure: I have no idea what the umpires finally decided. Their final call was only relevant for the next few innings, while the story of Armando and Bepe’s verbal battle over the honesty of the Chinese lives on, in my mind at least, as the greatest softball argument of all time.