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As They See 'em: A Fan's Travels in the Land of Umpires
Where do you find such a man: A man involved in a game who has the authority of a sea captain, the discretion of a judge, the strength of an athlete, the eye of a hunter, the courage of a soldier, the patience of a saint and the stoicism to withstand the abuse of the grandstand, the tension of an extra-inning game, the invective of a player and the pain of a foul tip in the throat? He must be a tough character, with endurance and the ability to keep his temper and self-control, he must be unimpeachably honest, courteous, impartial, and firm, and he must compel respect from everyone!
Just about the first thing they teach you at umpire school is how to yank your mask off without upsetting your hat. Umpires place great stock in their appearance, and if you're trying to make a call or follow a play with your hat askew or caught in your mask straps or — the worst — spilled in the dirt, you look foolish, inept, exactly the image you don't want the ballplayers, the managers and coaches, or the fans to have of you.
Like everything else in umpiring, or at least in umpire instruction, the method for removing the mask is reasoned and precise. You keep your head straight, your eyes forward, and move your hand to your mask, not the other way around. The only reason you remove your mask in the first place is to watch a play on the field, and you never want to turn your eyes down, away from the play, even for a moment. There's no worse feeling, umpires will tell you, than looking up from an instant's distraction, seeing the ball on the ground, and not knowing how it got there.
Anyway, you grab the mask with your left hand, wrapping your thumb, forefinger, and middle finger around it at seven o'clock. You don't use your whole hand. You can't, really, because your ball-andstrike indicator is also in the left hand, held snug against the palm by the ring finger and the pinkie. So with the three available fingers, in one swift motion you pull the mask straight out from your face to clear the bill of your cap, then straight up and off. You don't toss it aside; the catcher is the only one who ever throws a mask. If you have to come out from behind the plate and run to a spot to make a call, if you have to hold up your arms to signal foul, even if you have to use your left hand and pump hard with your elbow to sell the call that a ball was touched in fair territory, you hold your mask tight.
This is all, of course, rudimentary, something a professional umpire will do with muscle memory and a shrug, the way a concertmaster will toss off a warm-up arpeggio. But the reward is real. When you do it right, with the casual adroitness that approximates instinct, it looks both graceful and aggressive, leaving you, the plate umpire, properly possessed of the authority and dignity of your office.
Naturally, for a beginner it is a harder trick to perform than it sounds, and for me, a fifty-two-year-old student umpire, it was the first of many skills that looked simple and proved annoyingly resistant to mastery. During school drills, I'd get it right a couple of times, then let my concentration slip, undoubtedly because of something else to focus on. I'd come out from behind the plate to follow the path of an outfield fly ball or to straddle the third-base line to judge a line drive fair or foul, pull off the mask, and my hat would end up on the ground — usually smack-dab on the baseline so it was marked with a telltale streak of lime — or merely jostled and tipped crooked, the bill off-center like a rapper's, or tipped forward and shading my eyes. How you can pull your mask upward and have your hat tip forward I don't know, but that it is possible I am a witness. It wasn't until school was done and I went out on the field to work an actual game and my frustration continued that I solved the problem for good (or thought I did) — by buying a hat with a narrower brim. Who knew different-size baseball-cap brims even existed?
It turns out that an ordinary baseball cap has a brim about 3 1Ú4 inches wide, with eight seams sewn into it. The brim of a base umpire's cap is a little narrower, maybe 3 inches and six seams wide, and the brim of an ordinary plate umpire's hat, which is what we were issued in school, is narrower still, 2 1Ú2 inches and four seams. The gradations downward continue until you get to a kind of skullcap with a 1 1Ú2-inch brim that looks like an appetizer portion of cantaloupe. Umpires call this version the beanie, and when you remove your mask, it makes you look like a refugee from the nineteenth century. But I liked the eccentricity of it and bought one.
Umpires, however, cannot afford eccentricity. Later I would discover a scene in the popular film A League of Their Own in which the actor Tom Hanks, playing a manager, accosts an umpire wearing the beanie. "Did anyone ever tell you you look like a penis with that little hat on?" he says. But I wasn't aware of this at the time, and the first game I wore it, I noticed the teenaged players giggling at me behind their hands. Whenever I made a call one of them didn't care for, he rolled his eyes and gave me a look — what a geek!
Immediately after the game, I went back to the store and bought a hat with a two-inch brim, and when I came back the next day to work a game in the same league, I held much more authority in the eyes of the players. Or so it seemed to me, which is really all that mattered.
At this point perhaps you are thinking, okay, taking the mask off, enough already. This is far too much detail about a mundane thing. And that's correct, except that the process I just described is a perfect analog of learning to be an umpire. You master the fundamentals, you cast them off when they don't serve, and in the end you accommodate yourself to the game and its participants. It turns out you're not alone out there. It only feels that way.
The impetus for this book was a visit I made in January 2005 to the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring in Kissimmee, Florida, in order to write a story for the New York Times, where I work as a reporter. I thought it would be a lark, a chance to talk baseball rules and baseball trivia — I'm the kind of baseball fan who has never gotten over his boyhood obsession, who reads the sports page before the front page and pores over box scores as though they were hieroglyphic finds — not to mention a chance to wear short sleeves in midwinter.
But what I found there in three days of observing — the whole course of instruction runs five weeks — was weird and intriguing, an amalgam of strict vocational schooling in subject matter as concrete as auto mechanics and behavioral instruction as delicate and interpretative as you'll find in any acting workshop. Moreover, virtually everything I saw was new to me.
The experience persuaded me to write two more stories for the paper that year about umpiring. For one, I went on the road with a crew of Double A umpires, three young men locked together for a season, traveling long distances in a van packed with their belongings through Texas, Missouri, Kansas, and Arkansas. For the other, I met in major league ballparks and four-star hotels with Bruce Froemming, then the senior umpire in the major leagues.
I came away from these three stories convinced that a land of umpires exists, that it has citizens, laws, and a culture, and that it is exotic enough — both in the context of baseball and the context of, well, the known world — to warrant further exploring. Indeed, the presumption of this book is that professional umpires are an unusually isolated and circumscribed group, sort of like the inhabitants of a remote country that few people have ever visited, and that I am the sociologist who was dispatched to send back word of what life is like there.
I spent just about all of 2006 and 2007 and part of 2008 in the land of umpires, beginning when I went back to the Evans academy and enrolled as a student in the five-week program. From then on I went where the tales of professional umpires took me, sort of like a ball bouncing erratically across a pebble-strewn infield. It wasn't a comprehensive investigation, but for the most part it was a lot of fun.
Among other places, my travels took me to Cocoa, Florida, where a team of former professional umpires was evaluating umpire-school graduates for jobs in the minor leagues; to Cedar City, Utah, where a former air force engineer, Grant Secrist, was keeping alive his quest to create a simulator, akin to the one used by fighter pilots, to train major league umpires in calling balls and strikes; to the exurbs of Phoenix, Arizona, and the farm country of Ohio, homes of two former umpires — Don Denkinger and Larry Barnett, respectively — who made two of the most controversial calls in World Series history; to southern Connecticut to visit with the candid ex-commissioner of baseball, Fay Vincent; and to central California, where Doug Harvey, the legendary National League umpire who narrowly missed being the ninth umpire inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2007, waxed formidable and egocentric about what it takes to make it in the major leagues.
I spent several weeks with minor league umpires in places like Boise, Idaho; Huntsville, Alabama; Omaha, Nebraska; Bowie, Maryland; Des Moines, Iowa; Fresno, California; Trenton, New Jersey; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; and Portland, Maine, getting to know some of the young men (and one young woman) who were willing, remarkably, to put up with endless indignities — rotten pay, long road trips, mediocre hotels, cramped locker rooms, not to mention the utter thanklessness of the umpiring task — for up to a decade or more in pursuit of the unlikely possibility of a major league job opportunity.
To talk to major league umpires, I went to spring training in Florida in 2006 and Arizona in 2006 and 2007. I went to the 2006 All-Star weekend in Pittsburgh and over two seasons spent regular-season series with different big league crews in New York, Milwaukee, Chicago, San Diego, Phoenix, and St. Louis.
I spent the 2006 World Series traveling between Detroit and St. Louis with Randy Marsh, Tim McClelland, John Hirschbeck, Mike Winters, Wally Bell, and Alfonso Marquez, the six men who'd earned the privilege of officiating the games between the Tigers and the finally triumphant Cardinals; during the 2007 World Series, I went to Denver, home of the Colorado Rockies, and sat down with five of the six crew members — Mike Everitt, Ted Barrett, Ed Montague, Laz Diaz, and Chuck Meriwether — before the Red Sox completed their four-game sweep and everybody went home.
In the end, I conducted about two hundred interviews with working and retired umpires, with players and coaches in the major and minor leagues, and with baseball executives both current and former.
Both in baseball generally and in umpire-dom particularly, these were eventful years. During this time, minor league umpires, testing the power of their fledgling union (it was incorporated in 1999), went out on strike for the first time over the issue of their pitiful salaries. Ria Cortesio, the only woman umpire in professional baseball and the sixth in history, was dismissed, after nine years in the game, by minor league officials. After a flurry of miscalls in which rightful home runs were ruled foul or in play — or fly balls that should have been foul or in play were ruled home runs — the use of instant replay to help umpires on batted balls near the home run boundaries was instituted toward the end of 2008.
The revelation, in the summer of 2007, that a National Basketball Association referee, Tim Donaghy, had been providing inside information to gamblers and betting on games he himself was officiating sent a shudder not only through basketball but other professional sports. Donaghy's actions cast suspicion on all officials, who are hardly viewed with respect under the best of circumstances; the result in baseball was that the administration of the game tightened security around the hiring and monitoring of umpires, probing into their lives with investigative checks that umpires found humiliating and invasive.
And of course the issue of performance-enhancing drugs grew steadily in prominence, culminating, on December 13, 2007, with the release of former senator George Mitchell's report on his twent-ymonth investigation into the use of steroids, human growth hormone, and other illegal substances by major league players, and the subsequent challenge to his findings by Roger Clemens. Clemens, possibly the preeminent right-handed pitcher in baseball history, was merely the biggest name in a 409-page document that identified eighty-six players by name and concluded that the use of these substances was widespread and that it had been at best overlooked and at worst condoned by both baseball's administration and the players' union.
Umpires essentially shrugged; they had been aware for a decade or more that some players were juicing. They could tell by the players' bodies and also by their temperaments. When I asked whether they ever thought of reporting what they saw, several umpires said yes, they thought about it, but decided not to because it wasn't their responsibility.
"If I went to a manager and said, 'Hey, do you know your third baseman is so high he's foaming at the mouth?' he'd just tell me to mind my own business," one veteran umpire told me. "'You do your fuckin' job and I'll take care of my team.' That's the mind-set."
Indeed, the reaction of many umpires to the Mitchell report was with perhaps the one essential umpire emotion: indignation. As one umpire wrote to me in an e-mail, "Why don't you ask baseball about the perception for the last ten years of the umpires being the aggressors on the field when we now know that most players were on either steroids or amphetamines?"
What was most striking about all these events was what little effect they had on the way umpires do their jobs and live their lives. As a group they are remarkably unshakable and certain of themselves. It wasn't much remarked on, but anyone who was paying attention during those years could see that the criticism of umpires was steadily escalating. On talk radio and Weblogs, the excoriation was high; the disdain from the broadcast booth was regular and severe. In one extraordinary moment in September 2007, Chipper Jones, the star third baseman for the Atlanta Braves, spurred by his displeasure with home plate umpire Rick Reed, exploded in a postgame interview:
"It's a joke," Jones said to George Henry of the Associated Press, as part of a long tirade about umpiring in the big leagues. "Major League Baseball ought to be ashamed. It's abysmal. It's awful. Not all of them but some of them. It's awful."
The level of disdain began to approach that of the 1990s, when the print media, supported by substantial dissatisfaction among baseball's club owners and administrators, led a public-opinion revolt against umpires with a wave of stories complaining about their weight, their arrogance, their lack of hustle, and their missed calls, often with animosity-provoking headlines such as "The Belligerent Men in Blue," which appeared in the Sporting News.
But when I brought this up to umpires, suggesting they were going through another bad patch, most of them shrugged. Nah, they said. Business as usual. Indeed, what I found in the land of umpires was a society with rock-solid traditions of both thought and deed, and if current events tended to have any effect on those traditions, it was only to harden them, to make umpires more, well, umpirish.
To speak generally, umpire nation is a place buried deep in the conservative, middle-American heart, where the prevailing and not-necessarily-consistent values are similar to those you'd find on the floor of a large factory: The union is lionized, management is held in suspicion, yet the privilege and affluence that come with managerial power are nonetheless coveted.
In umpire nation, Applebee's and Chili's are high-end establishments, steak is a gourmet meal, and, for some reason, lite beer is preferable to regular beer. It's a place where the playing of the national anthem before a ball game is serious business, where women are discomforting, Jews are a novelty, homosexuals are unwanted, and liberals tend to keep their opinions to themselves.
In umpire nation travel is so relentless that it is more deadening than broadening. It's a place where outward confidence is a must, and the mistakes that erode the foundations of self-esteem are obsessed over. The denizens are proud of what they do and resentful they aren't better paid and better recognized. They are defined and held together by the powerful bond of their singular profession, but, as in a large dysfunctional family, the differences among them are varied, deep-seated, and often bitter.
Umpire nation also has its own language, or at least a patois, and it is anything but delicate. The usual four-letter imprecations are well represented in the daily umpire lexicon, but it has one especially distinguishing feature: the word "horseshit."
For some reason, "horseshit" is specifically a baseball term, having been the most popular and utilitarian curse word in the game for generations, as familiar a locution at the ballpark as "strike three."
I suppose it's a relative of "bullshit," a word many people who aren't in baseball casually use, though it doesn't mean quite the same thing. "Bullshit" is basically a noun that means "baloney," and it occasionally morphs into an adjective, e.g., a bullshit explanation. "Horseshit" is first and foremost an adjective, and though a horseshit explanation is, I suppose, the same thing as a bullshit explanation — and Webster's defines the two words more or less the same way — in baseball "horseshit" means "worthless" or "irredeemable," and it is applicable to, well, everything. A second baseman who has trouble with the double play turns a horseshit pivot; the home run hit off the lefty reliever came on a horseshit slider; the stretch of games through the middle of August that includes seventeen straight playing days and three doubleheaders is horseshit scheduling.
Far and away, however, the most frequent targets of the word are umpires. They have horseshit strike zones. They make horseshit calls. Their eyesight is horseshit. Their attitudes are horseshit. Their positioning is horseshit. At one game I attended, Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees celebrity third baseman, sauntered over to Bruce Froemming and gave him an unsolicited compliment, something about how much he appreciated all of Froemming's years of professionalism. Froemming reported this to me, and when I asked Rodriguez about it the next day, he shrugged. He said Froemming, as the longest-serving umpire, deserved it.
"After all, all we do is tell them they're horseshit," Rodriguez said.
Since the late 1970s when their union coalesced behind the aggressive leadership of a Philadelphia lawyer named Richie Phillips, major league umpires have won substantial concessions from baseball. All of them earn six-figure incomes now, around $400,000 for the most senior guys. But none of that has mitigated their belief that they are tolerated by baseball's administrators with distaste.
Major league officials, like current players and managers, don't exactly admit to this. They are generally loath to discuss umpires; among other things, the privately and widely held assumption in baseball is that the umpires are vindictive and, when slighted, will extract vengeance either on the field or at the bargaining table. When officials do talk about umpires for public consumption, it's usually to brag about what a good job they do or about how relations between baseball and the umpires have improved in the last few years.
Even so, the essential enmity does ooze into public view from time to time. During the 2007 season, for example, after the Donaghy scandal, Major League Baseball sought permission from the current union, the World Umpires Association, to conduct in-depth credit checks on its members. The union sought a concession from baseball, an added crew member for the World Series, in return. Negotiations immediately became contentious.
"The discussions broke down over one, and only one, issue, and that was the WUA's demand that we make an economic concession in return for the members being forthcoming on what we view to be an integrity issue," Rob Manfred, baseball's vice president for labor relations, told the New York Times. "We strongly indicated that we were offended by the effort to trade economics against integrity."
It was the tone of Manfred's rhetoric, rather than its substance, that was telling. Baseball officials would be within the limits of reasonable argument in saying major league umpires now have relatively little to complain about in terms of their compensation and benefits package, and that the integrity of the game should be everyone's concern, so baseball shouldn't have to pay the umpires any further to safeguard it.
Umpires, on the other hand, might rightfully resent Manfred's indignant seizing of the high road, since their record for integrity is the one baseball can legitimately brag about. It was the players, not the umpires, who conspired to throw the 1919 World Series. A manager, Pete Rose, not an umpire, was banned from the game forever for betting on games. The owners, not the umpires, were caught colluding to keep player salaries from rising between 1985 and 1988.
Umpires were not surprised by Manfred's statements. They never are when anyone from Major League Baseball disparages them; the received disdain and suspicion are well ingrained in their collective psyche. They speak about it with a shrug and a sneer.
"We're a necessary evil," Larry Young, a major league veteran who would retire after 2007, said to me before a game at Shea Stadium, using the phrase that I heard often from umpires as a sardonic acknowledgment of their lower-caste status. "The trainers, they're on the same level with us. The only ones who get treated worse than us are the scouts."
Perhaps naively, I found myself surprised by this. Like most baseball fans, I think, I was under the impression that the authority that umpires are given on the field allies them naturally with baseball's management. But in fact it seems umpires have few allies in the establishment of the game.
Mike Port, who became the major league vice president in charge of umpiring for the 2006 season after working in the front offices of the Red Sox and the Angels, told me that in thirty years of going to meetings with general managers and owners, he never heard a single kind word uttered about umpires. The closest thing to a compliment he could recall, he said, was a comment about the umpire Billy Williams, who made a habit of removing his dentures before taking the field.
"And one guy said, 'With five being the best and one being the worst, I'd give him a one,'" Port said. "'But I'd make it a five if he'd put his teeth in.' And remember, that's the nicest thing I ever heard."
"I didn't like the umpires," Frank Cashen, the former general manager for world championship teams with the Orioles and the Mets admitted. "Nobody in my position did."
"I can tell you this," said Steve Phillips, the ESPN analyst who spent from 1998 through 2003 as the general manager of the Mets. "Management never cared for the umpires."
"The owners basically see them like bases," Fay Vincent, the baseball commissioner from 1989 to 1992, told me. "They say, 'We need a base, we need an umpire, same thing. We've got to pay them, they're human beings, but they're basically bases.'"
Significantly, my foray into the land of umpires came after the tense and combative decade of the 1990s, and after the umpire cataclysm of 1999, a season that changed what it meant to be a major league umpire, humbling a group of men very unused to humility. That summer, some two decades' worth of open hostility between the umpires' union and baseball's administration finally exploded in a battle the umpires resoundingly lost.
What happened, in sum, was this: In an attempt to bring baseball to the bargaining table, the union, pushed by Richie Phillips, pursued an aggressive strategy that turned out to be folly and brought ruin on itself. Phillips urged the umpires to resign en masse, and fifty-seven of the sixty-eight union members did. But instead of being cowed, baseball simply accepted the resignations and began hiring minor league umpires to replace the resignees. In a panic, many umpires rescinded their resignations, not all of them in time. In the end, twenty-two big league umpires lost their jobs, some of them permanently; the union was decertified, and a new union, with entirely different leadership, was formed. Further, the commissioner's office established full control over umpire administration. In the aftermath, lawsuits and animosity were flying every which way. League turned against league and umpire turned against umpire.
"If you were to go to Gerry Crawford, who was president of the union back then," John Hirschbeck said to me, "he'd say it was all because that asshole Hirschbeck didn't stick with us."
Hirschbeck became the leader of the new union, and Crawford did, in fact, say something very much like that to me. And though seven years had passed before I met either Crawford or Hirschbeck or any of the other umpires who were burned by these events, certain wounds clearly remained raw.
The residual ill feelings made a group of reticent men even more so. Indeed, this is probably a good time to point out that umpires, especially in the big leagues, tend to be wary of outsiders. Even though there are divisions among them, they do share a circle-the-wagons loyalty to one another. Several major league umpires declined, politely but firmly, to talk with me. A handful of others would speak only of the weather.
No doubt there is a contrary impulse in many of them — "Hey, we're worthy of the spotlight, so why shouldn't we bask in it?" — but on the whole they're not the easiest guys for a reporter to deal with, exemplary neither at returning phone calls nor keeping appointments. In the end I managed to speak at some length with about a third of the umpires who worked in the major leagues between 2006 and 2008.
Actually, it wasn't easy getting people to talk about umpires, either. Current players generally veer away from the subject as if it had germs — "Oh, man, do we have to go there?" the catcher Paul Lo Duca, then with the Mets, said to me at the 2006 All-Star game — except to mouth platitudes, believing that umpires will hold grudges and redress them on the field. Kenny Lofton, the much traveled outfielder whom I encountered in the locker room at Dodger Stadium when he was playing for the Dodgers, looked for a moment as if he had a load to get off his mind, but then he just laughed. "I'll have a lot to say about them after I retire," he said. For their part, the umpires tended to laugh, too, whenever I told them the players are afraid to talk about them for fear of retribution. "Good, that's what we want them to think" was the usual response.
I tried to talk with several managers who are or were known as umpire baiters, but they wouldn't say much, either. Earl Weaver, the legendary former manager of the Baltimore Orioles who was famous for his tantrums, answered the phone at his home at noon one day and said he didn't have time to talk about umpires. Weaver was genuinely disliked by a lot of umpires, though in his Hall of Fame induction speech, he spoke of them with admiration. I said I'd come to see him at his convenience, but he brushed me off.
"They're my friends, but I don't have time to talk about them," he said. "I really don't."
I approached Lou Piniella, the volatile manager who took over the Chicago Cubs in 2007, at the Cubs spring training camp in Mesa, Arizona, but he said he was busy, even though he wasn't; he was just hanging around on the field about an hour and a half before a preseason game. As he walked away, he turned back to me and said, "You know, I don't think I ever want to talk to you about umpires."
Bobby Cox, the venerable manager of the Atlanta Braves, who in 2007 set the record for the most times in a career being ejected by umpires, spoke with me amiably for about ten minutes one early evening in the visitors' dugout at Shea Stadium in New York. I asked him if in the old days, when he was a player — in the 1960s, he played third base for a woeful Yankee team — the umpires would use the strike zone as a weapon to exact revenge on a player or enforce discipline.
"Years and years ago they could, sure," he said. "If they didn't like you, you know, they could get you. It is more uniform now. It's good. The umpiring's fine."
He said the general attitude of the umpires was not the way it used to be, but when I asked him how it used to be and how things had changed, he told me he thought we could write a bestseller together if he answered that question and that it was a shame for me he wasn't going to.
All of this helps explain why umpires don't get written about much. In most accounts of the development of the game, umpiring generally gets a few scant pages, usually concentrating on the early days, when professional baseball was a scoundrel's playground and the umpire plied his trade at some physical risk. The only extant volume devoted solely to the history of umpiring, The Umpire Story, by James M. Kahn, was published more than half a century ago, in 1953; and the last (and best) book-length reportorial look at umpires, The Best Seat in Baseball, But You Have to Stand!, by Lee Gutkind, who spent the 1974 season traveling with a major league crew, is now more than thirty years old.
With or without reason, the umpires felt betrayed by Gutkind — among other things, he reported on some unenlightened racial attitudes and revealed some less-than-savory nocturnal activities — and three decades later, the sting lingers. At least a dozen times the Gutkind book was offered to me as an explanation for why umpires, even those who weren't around in the 1970s, distrust reporters.
Not surprisingly, they've preferred to tell their own stories. Beginning in 1935 with Standing the Gaff, an amusing if unsophisticated volume of recollections by Harry "Steamboat" Johnson, a legendary minor league umpire in the first half of the twentieth century, many umpires have published autobiographies. Most of these books are ghostwritten and somewhat suspect. Anecdotes tend to recur in them from one to the next, and according to other umpires, they were written with the twin ideas that anything that happens to one umpire might as well have happened to any of them and that apocrypha is fair game. Ron Luciano, who was known for his on-field flamboyance — he liked to signal a runner out on a close play by mimicking a sharpshooter with a pistol — and who went on to a career as a broadcaster, wrote four separate anecdoteheavy memoirs, and his fellow umpires remembered his sending them letters, asking for material. (Luciano, alas, came to a sad end, taking his own life in 1995.)
Umpires in general feel free to borrow from a pool of stories. More than once, in interviews, I heard about the catcher who asked the plate umpire to get confirmation from the first-base umpire that the batter had checked his swing. Depending on who was telling the story, the plate umpire was either Art Williams or Emmett Ashford, both of whom were African-American; whoever it was did as requested, received the safe sign from his colleague at first (who in this story is never identified except as a Caucasian), then said to the catcher, "There, now you've got it in black and white."
Two different umpires told me that, once, when they were behind the plate, Carl Yastrzemski turned around angrily after a called strike and said to them, "Where was that pitch at?" Each umpire said he answered, "Carl, don't you know better than to end a sentence with a preposition?"
This is, of course, the beginning of an old joke — I've heard a variation attributed to Winston Churchill — the baseball version of which ends after the next pitch and another called strike, with Yastrzemski turning around again and saying, "Where was that pitch at, asshole?" A third umpire told me the exact same story, except that in his version the hitter was Lou Piniella.
The collective reticence of umpires is matched by a collective defiance. They consider their fraternity a bulwark against the forces of baseball corruption and chaos, even though, as a breed, they can hardly claim to be moral paragons. After all, they live on the road, which has tested a great number of umpire marriages. They have a fondness for dirty jokes, many of which disparage women or homosexuals (though it is widely known among them, and the secret is kept, that at least one major league umpire is gay).
Wired after work, they stay out late at night, and many of them drink rapaciously. "If you can't umpire hungover, you can't umpire," goes a tried-and-true umpire saying, and as Don Denkinger, who worked in the American League from 1969 to 1998, recalled, "I didn't have to drink every night when I was umpiring, but I did."
There isn't a whole lot of tell-all in the following pages, so I'll stipulate right now that I witnessed some behavior on the part of some professional umpires that they probably wouldn't want their wives or children to know about. I'll stipulate as well that within the fraternity, some of the feuds are as monumentally petty as any office spat can be: This guy is hungover so often that he forgets to make the plane reservations for his crewmates; that guy is afraid to eject anyone; this guy won't suck it up and work with an injury; this other guy is a kiss-ass to supervisors; and that crew chief is a condescending jerk, mad at the young guys because they don't fawn over him the way he fawned over older guys when he was coming up.
But I never saw any umpire do anything that made me question his on-the-field integrity. It bears acknowledging that in 130 years, only one major league umpire has ever been accused of professional dishonesty, and that was in 1882.
"The integrity of the game is the umpires," Doug Harvey said to me. "Nobody else. The entire integrity of the game is the umpires." Harvey is an especially fervid umpiring evangelist, but he's got an argument. For one thing, the vast majority of people who think they know baseball (and that includes players, even at the major league level) aren't terribly familiar with the rulebook, an arcane and convoluted document that has more nooks and crannies than an English muffin. (If you think you're so smart, describe a situation in which the umpire is required — required! — to give a manager a choice of two different outcomes of a play resulting from a batted ball.*)
And, of course, even the most familiar rules aren't necessarily held sacred. From John McGraw, whose habit as a third baseman was to hold the belt of a base runner attempting to tag up on a fly ball, to Billy Martin, who once declared that "cheating in baseball is just like hot dogs, french fries, and cold Cokes," to Kenny Rogers, the Tigers' ace whose apparent use of pine tar to help him grip the ball tainted the 2006 World Series, to the spitballers, corked-bat users, and steroid injectors who make perpetual baseball news, it has long been clear that in the major leagues winning trumps fair play as a motivating element. As umpires are wont to remark wryly, "If they played by the honor system, they wouldn't need us."
This shared sense of righteousness, along with the shared sense that they have no other friends, makes for a kind of tribal society. Since 1876, fewer than sixteen hundred men have appeared as umpires on major league diamonds, fewer than five hundred as full-time employees of baseball. The number of big league jobs is minuscule — since the last major league expansion in 1998, there have been sixty-eight — and the men who are in them tend to hold on to them with the tenacity and durability of Supreme Court justices.*
Given the 220 or so minor league jobs, then, there are fewer than three hundred professional umpires at any time — a society, almost exclusively male, of itinerant workers who conduct their business daily in front of thousands if not millions of people, yet as conventional wisdom has it, they've done their job only if you don't notice them. An umpire is only in the spotlight if he has screwed up or someone else has screwed up and blamed it on the umpire. The result is a public argument, usually with a hometown hero who is often childishly demonstrative, that puts the umpire on display as an object of scorn and ridicule.
Indeed, even if umpires were paid well and lived well — the vast majority of them are not and do not — you could still say that their plight genuinely stinks, a symbol of existential unfairness, living proof that no good deed goes unpunished. Umpires exist, after all, only to ensure that the greatest American game is played fairly, and for this selfless endeavor they are universally reviled.
I ended up thinking of them as kind of a cult operating in plain sight, a characterization that umpires themselves have no problem with. In fact, I found it occasionally startling to recognize how fierce and ingrained this attitude is.
"That's pretty close," Doug Harvey told me when I tried out on him my professional-umpires-as-remote-island-inhabitants theory. But it's not exactly true that few outsiders had ever visited the island, he said; no outsiders had ever visited. "You can't know what it's like to be a major league umpire unless you were a major league umpire."
I interviewed Harvey at his home in central California; the car in the driveway featured vanity plates saying NL UMP. At seventy-six he still had the full head of white hair that distinguished him on the playing field, where he worked five World Series and six All-Star games, and where his nickname, bestowed by the Chicago sportswriter Jerome Holtzman, was God.
A big man, over six feet tall, Harvey seemed robust, if not the commanding physical specimen he used to be. He'd had throat cancer and looked like a healthy survivor, someone who'd lost weight and put it back on, though maybe not where it had been.
He was known, even among self-admiring umpires, as an egotist, which is perhaps why he said to me more than once that he does not have a big ego, but he shares part of his pride with his colleagues.
"I got cancer in 1997," he said, speaking in a gravelly, authoritative whisper. "And when I went to see the doctor, I asked him, 'What's my chance of survival?' and he said thirty percent. Seven out of ten people die in the first ten months after they discover it. It's called vellecular cancer, cancer of the vellecula, where the tongue attaches to the throat, and it's caused specifically by the chewing of tobacco.
"I said, 'Thirty percent? Fuck that. Don't worry about it, I'll beat it.' Six weeks later, I was sixty pounds lighter. I went from 205 to 148 in six weeks, during radiation. It ulcerated my esophagus, and they had to drill a hole in my stomach below the breastbone.
"When I went back to the doctor, I said to him, 'I told you I'd beat it.' And he said, 'What made you so sure?' And I said, 'Well, because you said the odds were thirty percent, and that didn't sound bad to me.' I said, 'Every day for thirty years I went out on the field with three other gentlemen to umpire a ball game, and there were sixty thousand raving idiots in the stands who all thought they could umpire better than we could, and two ball clubs that didn't care if we lived or died. So I knew I could beat the cancer.'"
As I was leaving, Harvey took out a pad on which he said he was keeping notes for a book, and he read to me a quotation that he had copied from David McCullough's popular Revolutionary War history, 1776.
"'When asked what he was fighting for, General Washington, in writing to General Thomas, said the object was "neither glory nor extent of territory, but a defense of all that is dear and valuable in life."'
"He must have been an umpire," Harvey said. "That's what umpiring is about."
This country has maybe one hundred thousand amateur baseball umpires. I've had umpires tell me it's a lot more than that, but a hundred thousand is the estimate of the Amateur Baseball Umpires' Association, a group of (you would think) the most avid of them, which claims between sixteen hundred and nineteen hundred members, depending on the year.
In the phrase "amateur baseball umpires," "amateur" modifies "baseball." Most people who umpire get paid for it, with the fees variable from place to place, league to league, and level to level, regulated by local associations. Some even make a modest living at it, usually young people such as Jim Grillo, a cheerful, round-faced Brooklynite who was a twenty-one-year-old classmate of mine in umpire school, a guy who'd been dreaming of being an umpire at least since he was eleven, when he went trick-or-treating dressed as one for Halloween.
Jim wanted to work in professional baseball but acknowledged that he needed to improve his mobility and to lose about twenty-five pounds. In the meantime, he said, he'd continue doing what he'd done the previous couple of years, working high school and junior college games around the outer boroughs of New York and Nassau County on Long Island, earning maybe $60 or $80 a game, sometimes ten or twelve games a week, from April through October. It was enough to get by on, though of course he was living in his parents' basement.
For the most part, though, these "amateurs" are the mailmen and schoolteachers, the store clerks and factory managers, the midlevel executives and gardeners, the salesmen and lifeguards, ordinary citizens whose recreational life is built around officiating amateur baseball, the men of all adult ages (and women, too, though generally younger women) who call balls and strikes for the local Little League, Pony League, Babe Ruth League, Dizzy Dean League, Stan Musial League, and adult community league; for high school games at the freshman, junior varsity, and varsity level; for independently sponsored travel squads; for junior college and NCAA games; for women's and men's fast-pitch — and even slow-pitch — softball tournaments.
They're a remarkable subculture, people who often spend two or three evenings on the ball field during the workweek, not to mention a tripleheader or two on the weekends. They subscribe to Referee magazine, their cars double as parking-lot locker rooms, and they count their number of annual games in the two hundreds or even three hundreds. Just to mention one of them, before the first game I ever umpired myself, in Tallahassee, I met Ken Hayes, a fifty-nine-year-old accountant for the Florida Department of Corrections, who had been umpiring locally for more than thirty years.
"I had a boy on the field the other day, and I realized I'd had his great-grandfather, too," Hayes told me. A couple of years ago, he said, he had a heart attack in the middle of a game. He turned red and overheated, he said, then blanched with exhaustion and went cold.
"I had an angioplasty on a Thursday, and I was back on the field on the following Monday," Hayes said proudly.
I don't have that sort of ardor, but it's arguably a pretty good quality if you want to spend your recreational life as an amateur umpire. Oddly enough, though, the process of becoming a professional umpire is in many ways about stripping that fervor away and looking at the game and your role in it with the opposite emotion, dispassion. The everydayness of professional umpiring, the centrality of a daily ball game in your life, the relentless travel, the persistent haggling on the field with players and managers, the constant harassment of fans, and the harsh and largely unsympathetic scrutiny from the baseball establishment, not to mention the tension attendant to the keen vigilance required for high-stakes pro ball — these are the tribulations that separate the umpire who umpires for the romance and recreation of it and the umpire who umpires for a living.
"People say, 'Gee, you get to travel to all those cities,' or they say, 'Gee, you get to meet all the players,'" Tim Tschida, a major league crew chief, said to me outside a Manhattan hotel before heading to Shea Stadium. We'd been talking about how "glamorous" the job is. He rolled his eyes. "Yeah," he said. "Get to."
"People say to me all the time, 'Do you love your job?'" Mike Everitt, a major leaguer since 1999, said to me at the 2007 World Series. "I tell them no. I like it. I don't love it."
John Hirschbeck put it bluntly.
"Umpiring isn't our life," he said. "It's our job."
Imagine the following want ad:
"If you like having every close decision you make criticized, if you like doing your job surrounded by thousands of people ready to blame you for mistakes other people make, every one of them believing they can do your job better than you can, and if you don't mind the only response you get for a job done absolutely perfectly being silence, then maybe you would like being an umpire."
This is the job description written by Ken Kaiser, who worked for more than two decades in the big leagues, in his autobiography, Planet of the Umps.
Who would volunteer for this duty? And why?
By now I've asked two dozen umpires this, and there is no consensus. Many umpires use the word "calling" to describe their profession — "It's just like being called to the ministry, as far as I'm concerned," said Jim Evans, though that is perhaps to give the job a gravity that is hard to justify outside the church of baseball.
For most umpires, the answer has something to do with loving the game, though not the way most fans understand that love; the first thing that umpiring does, every umpire says without hesitation, is drum the fan out of you. And it's true, they don't root. (I believe this.) Rather, there's something almost soldierly in the way umpires speak of their task — "centurions of the game" is the phrase Tim Timmons, one major leaguer, used with me — a task they define as the defense of an ideal.
"They don't hire us for our good looks," Jeff Nelson, another big leaguer, said. "It's because we have experience. We know how the game should be played. We know the right way to play the game."
They also spoke of being challenged, having to perform under pressure. A third veteran big leaguer, Fieldin Culbreth, described to me a specific reward, a moment of exhilaration of the sort that anyone would look for in professional life, one in which he stood out, staked a claim against shouting doubters, and was vindicated. His favorite times on the field, Culbreth said, came when he made a close call against the home team and the entire stadium was on his case.
"I've had calls, I knew I was right, but everybody in the park was quite certain I was wrong," Culbreth said. "I'm walking back to my position, thinking to myself, 'All you people just kicked the shit out of that call, and you're booing me!' How ironic. I'm the one who's right, and nobody's capable of knowing it but me. It's a weird part of me, I know, but I get a kick out of it."
Not until I got on the field myself, however, did I think I got closest to the thing that makes umpires do what they do. When I graduated from umpire school, I asked the instructors, minor league umpires all, what quality of baseball my skills were suited to, and they suggested I begin at the Babe Ruth League level, ages thirteen to fifteen. I did that, and I went on to work — in Tallahassee, Florida, and around New York City — at the Little League, high school, and adult levels as well.
I worked a couple of dozen games altogether, and they were all stressful. I didn't sleep the night before my first time calling balls and strikes — or my second. The games were also physically demanding; anyone who thinks umpiring is not a strenuous enterprise — at least for a man in his fifties with bad knees — is simply wrong. You want to know the truth? I didn't like it. You wouldn't believe the aggravation.
Even so, I worked enough to understand that something connects the lowliest amateur umpire with the big leaguer behind the plate for a playoff game. One play in particular stands out as a revelation about the nature of umpiring, its tightrope walk between the exercise of authority and the exercise of power, and the thing that makes it both alluring and difficult for the people who do it.
I was in Tallahassee, behind the plate in a community-league game for fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds. The game was tight in the middle innings; two were out and two men were on base. The batter hit a hard line drive over the third baseman's head that was clearly curving toward foul territory. I reacted precisely as I had been taught, pulling off my mask as I came out from behind the plate, circling the catcher on the third-base side, and running a few steps up the line. I got as far as I could until I needed to stop so as to be stationary to make the call — like a camera, your eyes get a clearer picture of a play if they're still — and straddled the line.
What happened next I experienced as one of those brief action sequences in life when time seems to slow down and your impressions are so vivid that you can order them. In my mind's eye I can still see the base runner from second heading for third and rounding it; I can still see the third-base coach, an adult, waving his arm in a windmill fashion to tell the runner to keep going; I can still hear the cacophony of the two hundred or so parents and friends in the stands, screaming in excitement.
It's amazing, actually, how much you can take in even as you are focusing on one thing, in this case the flight of the line drive as it settled to the ground, about halfway between third base and the outfield fence. I had a close call to make, but not a difficult one. I saw the landing clearly.
For an instant after the ball hit the ground, it seemed that a silence visited the field, as though everyone had taken a breath at once. And though the base runners and fielders kept moving and the parents in the stands kept exercising their parental interests, there was an interim beat in the action, a hiccup of waiting, as everyone turned instinctively to look at me. The third-base coach was staring into my eyes, I swear.
I extended my arms, threw my hands above my head and slightly in front of me, and bellowed the call: "Foul!" Abruptly, time began again, with half the crowd groaning, the other half sighing in relief. The base runners returned to their bases, the batter to the batter's box. I replaced my mask and resumed my stance behind the catcher, thrilled with my own competence and control, and it was easy, right then, to project myself and that moment into a grander scene — Yankee Stadium, say, during the World Series. It was a feeling of hubris and joy, a moment of great satisfaction for me.
Later, much later, it would dawn on me how dangerous that satisfaction can be, that the feeling is the one that umpires both crave and can't afford.
"This is my game," I was thinking. "My game."
Copyright © 2009 by Bruce Weber
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