John: "If he strikes out, he just runs back and sits down. I see other kids cry and get upset. But he just sits and puts his helmet down. He would never think of slamming his helmet. He just sits there like a big-league ballplayer would."
Usually, big-league players wear the same numbers on their uniforms every season. But after John died, Michael wore different numbers every year. He liked to wear the age that John would be, if he were on the team.
In September, Michael was in a Minneapolis hotel room, getting ready to go to a baseball game with his dad, when a seizure hit him. He felt the familiar dizziness before the left side of his body stiffened. His eyes went blank. The phone rang, but Michael, sprawled in a chair, didn't move.
"Michael, would you get the phone for Dad?" John Hirschbeck called from the bathroom.
But there was no answer.
The umpire ran to Michael's side, and in the dazed empty eyes he saw it again: The reason he carried a pager everywhere he went. The reason a phone ringing during the school day could make him jump. The reason a blank stare at the dinner table induced panic -- even though the doctors said Michael had been steadily improving for several years. In Michael's eyes, John Hirschbeck saw the question, and he saw the answer:
We don't know.
Hirschbeck tucked Michael in bed. The seizures usually passed quickly, but they left Michael shaky and exhausted. A mile away, at the Metrodome, workers were preparing the field. Seattle was playing Minnesota, a Sunday afternoon game, and Hirschbeck was scheduled to work the plate. He had promised himself: On the field, it wouldn't get to him.
For a while, Hirschbeck watched Michael sleep. Then, after an hour or so, he carried his son to the ballpark. Michael was still too tired from the seizure to watch the game, so a bed was fashioned from towels and blankets on the carpeted floor of the umpires' room. While his father worked, Michael slept. The clubhouse manager woke him up once for medication, but he drifted off again. Jamie Moyer, a Mariners pitcher who wasn't working that day, looked in on Michael four or five times and flashed Hirschbeck the thumbs-up sign from the dugout between innings.
At one point, Ken Griffey Jr. came up to bat for the Mariners. Before he stepped in the box, he spoke to the umpire.
I just saw Michael, and he's still sleeping, Griffey said. He's fine.
Thanks, said Hirschbeck, crouching down for the next pitch.
The big leagues
Everywhere the older brother went, the younger brother followed.
John and Mark Hirschbeck were the first brothers in history to umpire at the same time in the major leagues. John, the older brother, went to umpire school first; Mark, six years younger, chose the same career as his brother.
Today, John works in the American League; Marks works in the National League. Like most umpires, the Hirschbecks are seldom the focus of the game. And when they are, it's usually because people disagree with them.
On Sept. 27, in a dispute over a called third strike, John Hirschbeck ejected Roberto Alomar from a game against Toronto. During the argument that followed, Alomar spit in Hirschbeck's face. Afterward, the second baseman tried to explain what he'd done. "He had a problem with his family when his son died," Alomar told reporters. "I know that's something real tough in life, but after that he just changed, personality-wise. He just got real bitter." The next day, after hearing Alomar's words, Hirschbeck charged into the players' clubhouse, threatening to kill Alomar. He was restrained by another umpire and sat out that day's game.
In the weeks after the spitting incident, as the story continued to make headlines, Mark Hirschbeck worried about his brother. He called John three and four times a day, just to check on him. He stood up for John, telling a reporter that Alomar's five-game suspension was too lenient.
The suspension was set for spring and allowed Alomar to play in the post-season; the Orioles went on to face the Cleveland Indians in the division playoffs. The series featured a match-up of brothers: Roberto Alomar playing second base for the Orioles, his older brother Sandy Jr. catching for the Indians.
The Umpire's Sons
How do you survive the death of a child? How do you go on knowing another child shares the same genetic disease? When you've traveled umpire John Hirschbeck's journey, being spit upon is just a footnote.
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