virus: Happy Birthday Lonnie

Richard Brodie (
Mon, 10 May 1999 08:27:54 -0700

Some months ago, I a rumor that Lonnie was killed in prison. It shouldn't have surprised me, really. What should have surprised me was that he lived so long in that festering rat-hole. What was it, eight or nine years? Scrapping, cajoling, bribing, threatening---using his wits, his god-damned misplaced wits to buy himself another few years before someone took enough of a disliking to him that he took his weapon of choice, probably a razor blade attached to a stick, and got to Lonnie when his luck was running low.

I met Lonnie when I was umpiring kid's baseball. I was just starting out, working a junior-varsity game by myself. The J.V. didn't rate more than one umpire, being as nobody really cared about the outcome of the game. It was mostly just practice---practice for the kids on their way up to varsity and then college or maybe even the pros, and practice for me, getting in the three to five years it took to develop a consistent strike zone and learn the mechanics of the game.

Lonnie was over on the next field, working the varsity game with a partner. Both of them were pretty experienced, and as is the custom in the umpiring community, they were more than willing to chat with me and give me whatever help and encouragement I needed to advance in my career. I say career, because some of these guys (although Lonnie wasn't really one of them) took umpiring pretty seriously. They, like the players, had dreams of making it big: to Division I NCAA games, if not the pros. Me, I was looking forward to climbing the ladder a bit, but mostly was just having fun.

There were definitely sub-groups within our little umpire community. A few of us, who had been to umpire school down in Florida, tended to hang out together and considered ourselves superior to the rest. Lonnie was one of these. He had been to Joe Brinkman's school down in Cocoa, FL, the year before I had. Lonnie was a fun-loving guy who liked to sit glued to ESPN, watch as many baseball games as possible, and scam people. He used to get into Seattle Mariners games free by flashing an ID he had from an old job as a cable-TV installer. "Yeah, I'm working out in the truck," he would say. "I gotta go in and check some stuff." And he'd go in, find a seat, and watch the game. I think one thing he liked about me was that I was tough to scam. A challenge, maybe.

Lonnie quickly became my favorite partner to work with. He loved to have fun out there and never shrunk from a challenge. He held the record for ejections, something like 51 in a year. He made a lot of enemies, but was always entertaining and knew the rules well. Since he didn't have a real job, he liked to work as many games as possible, including the one-man J.V. and junior-high games that umpires of his experience were not required to work. We used to help each other out on our one-man games, giving the J.V. teams two umpires for the price of one.

One such game sticks in my mind. After the first half inning Lonnie, who was working behind the plate, signaled to me that he wanted to talk. "Who's your favorite umpire?" he asked. "You mean in the Major Leagues?" "Yeah." I thought awhile. "Larry Barnett," I said, naming the veteran American Leaguer who was still reviled in Boston for a controversial call during the 1975 World Series. Real umpires knew he got the call right, no question. But there's no arguing with fans.

"Aww, all right," he grumbled, and went back behind the plate. Well, I took my position behind First Base on the foul line, waiting for the first pitch to come in, and son-of-a-gun if he didn't call that first strike like the twin of Larry Barnett: "Steeeeeeeeeeee!" with the scrunched-up face and the finger pointing to the side.

The rest of the game was spent with me picking the most outrageous umpires I could think of and Lonnie mimicking them. It was all I could do to contain myself.

I used to talk to Lonnie about what he wanted to do with his life. He hated working, and the only thing he really wanted to do was umpire, he said. But he wanted a shot at the pros.

When you go to one of the professional umpire schools, they take the top few graduates and offer them jobs in the lowest level of the minor leagues. From there they work their way up, over seven to 10 years, and about two percent make it to the big leagues. Just like ballplayers, really. Both Lonnie and I had missed the cutoff, although I did get to work two games as a fill-in substitute umpire for the Class A New York-Penn League Elmira (Red Sox) Pioneers and Oneonta Yankees, something I will never forget.

So one December, a couple weeks before umpire school was about to start, I told Lonnie I'd lend him the money to go back to umpire school and try again. He was in heaven. I figured it was unlikely I'd ever get the money back, but I didn't really care. He went back and, surprise, surprise---he made it! He got a job right in the Northwest, where I could go watch him do games up in Everett, WA.

Unfortunately, his cocky nature continued to get him in trouble. He did not get along with the teams, the coaches, his partners, or anyone, and quickly washed out. We all felt bad for him and admired his persistence, but perhaps secretly knew that we could have done better, given the opportunity.

He went back to our little umpire association, but seemed more unhappy than ever. One day I got a call from him. He was in jail. This surprised me but not some of the other umpires, who apparently were not as unused as I was to having friends turn up in jail. Lonnie had been arrested for stealing credit cards and forging their owner's signature.

But it got worse. While he was out on bail for that, he flew to Indiana. That's when the weird stuff started. It turned out he went there to be with a 15-year-old boy whose mother had moved him to Indiana to get him away from Lonnie, whom he was having an affair with. Lonnie went over there, the mother got a restraining order, and now Lonnie was in jail in Indiana.

While he was there, charges were filed against him back in Seattle for something even more serious. It seems the police had found videotapes Lonnie had made of himself having sex with minor boys. This led them to charge him with the stalking, armed burglary and rape of another 15-year-old boy down in Federal Way, WA. He had stolen a gun from his father's pawn shop, they said.

When the rape charge finally came to trial, he had already spent more than two years in jail both in Indiana and Washington. The shock in the umpiring community was considerable. The general consensus was that, if he did what he had been accused of, he belonged behind bars. But it's not so easy to dissolve a bond of friendship. I went to a few days of the trial, saw the emotionless victim testify. I knew in my gut he did it. So did the jury.

The judge, a well-respected woman on the King County Superior Court in Seattle, threw the book at him then found a couple more books and threw them too. In the same week that a televised multiple murder trial in the next courtroom concluded with a sentence of 11 years for first-degree murder, she sentenced the 28-year-old Lonnie Lee Burton to over 47 years. If she had sentenced him to death he might have lived longer.

Over the years, I got a collect call from Lonnie---the only kind he was permitted to make in prison---every few weeks. He was upbeat most of the time. He had found religion. He was working on his appeals, going to get the sentence overturned, going to sue the guards for rough handling---

A few months ago the calls stopped coming. I still haven't been able to confirm his death.

Lonnie would have been 35 today.

Richard Brodie
Author, "Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme" Free newsletter!