Sunday, September 30, 2012

Replacement Ref: Venting and Vodka


Sitting  at a small table in a nearly empty, upscale Los Angeles bar one afternoon, a tall, middle-aged man put a raised finger to his lips in a gesture of silence. "Don't use my real name. Just refer to me as a replacement ref."

Mum's the word. Nobody will know your name, just that you're one of those infamous, hated replacement refs, one who's venting, fueled by shot after shot of vodka. Next to him his buddy, a professional gambler, sat very quietly and just listened.

"The whole experience, working all those games when the real refs were locked out, just tore me apart," said the ref, tackling his fourth vodka, or was it his fifth?

What did he hate most about the replacement experience?

"The way the players looked at us," he replied. "They thought we were clowns. They didn't respect us. We didn't control those games they way we should have. They knew that. Most of the time we didn't know what the hell we were doing.. Some of the guys were good but some were real bad. Some were in way over their heads. I admit. Sometimes I was overwhelmed.

"After a game, I'd look at a DVR of the game and I'd see I did this wrong and I did that wrong, that I missed this and I missed that. Here's what it was like. It's like the players were these fancy sports cars zooming around and the refs were in horse and buggies, trying to keep up. And we couldn't. We were always a step behind. I was stressed out, really stressed out. I was drinking more and  more. Ever try to referee a game with a hangover? It's brutal."

Time to slip in a most uncomfortable question, one that always lurked in the background during the replacement ref days. Where any of the games officiated by the replacements fixed?

"Don't go there," said the ref nervously. "I heard things....things. Don't go there. Don't go there."

Were those few months entirely awful?

"Are you kidding? I hated the experience but I loved it. It was a dream come true. I wasn't really equipped for it but it was the greatest experience of my life. I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

Waving his empty glass in the direction of the waitress, he said: "Another please." She looked quizzically at him. His buddy finally spoke: "Don't worry, I'm driving."

More venting. Then another question. What did he think of the Seattle-Green Bay game?

"When I saw that last play, how they screwed it up, I threw a plate at my TV screen. Broke the damn screen. At that moment, I knew it was over. I knew they'd end the lockout and get the real refs back ASAP. I knew my days as a replacement were over. It was a sad moment for me."

Suddenly angry at himself, he said: "I shouldn't be saying all this stuff. I shouldn't be ripping the guys I worked with. They're all saying nice things about the experience. They don't want any controversy.. Sometimes I talk too much. When I drink too much I talk too much."

But he kept on venting. Once in a while, though, he'd stop and ask, "What's my name?" Then he'd answer his own question, putting that raised finger to his lips.