As They See 'Em: A Fan's Travels in the Land of Umpires
Back in 1988, in an attempt to make a little extra money during graduate school at UC Berkeley, I tried out to be an umpire for intramural softball. We were given a brief instruction on what to do and a mock game was set up as a tryout.
Bruce Weber, a New York Times reporter, had a bit more success when he visited the Jim Evans Umpire School back in 2005 and he ended up writing an interesting book about the lives of umpires, both minor and major leaguers, in his As They See 'Em: A Fan's Travels in the Land of Umpires (Simon and Schuster, $26).
Starting with the bizarre world of umpire school (one student's employer told him "they have a school for that?"), where prospective umpires are put through drill after drill to get them to see a game as an umpire does, instead of as a fan. Weber also has some interesting stories about how umpires are drilled in how to argue with managers and players, and even more importantly, how to take off their mask without having their cap fall off. The latter is extremely important it turns out, although if more umpires start using the hockey style masks, that arcane art may disappear.
Like players, umpires are taught where to position themselves and how to anticipate plays. The most common time you will see an umpire out of position is when a player does something completely unexpected, such as throwing to the wrong base. After all, if the player shouldn't throw to a certain place, why should they be in position to cover a situation caused by a player's mental error.
As Weber points out, umpires are part of baseball that has no constituency that likes it. Players and managers don't like umpires, and umpires like to call players "rats." Front offices don't like umpires. Even the Commissioner's Office, which employs umpires, really doesn't like them. Former Commissioner Fay Vincent says that teams view umpires like they were bases, just pieces of equipment that you have to have to play the game.
One of the hardest things Weber faced in writing his book was getting people to talk to him. Players and managers generally didn't want to speak to him because they feared payback from umpires. Even Earl Weaver, long out of the game, wouldn't speak to Weber about umpires. Umpires didn't want to speak too much out of turn because they feared for their job security.
Umpires who graduate at the top of their classes at one of the two umpire schools (Harry Wendlestedt operates the other one), are given jobs in Rookie or Short-season A leagues as parts of two-man crews who drive hundreds of miles between cities and stay in motels that often appear as if they have hourly rates. MLB views minor league umpiring as "seasonal work" so the pay is low, sometimes around $800 per month. It's a job you have to love somewhat because most people could make better wages at McDonald's.
For the privileged few who make it to the majors (there are 68 full-time MLB umpires), the job becomes even more tense. Every call is scrutinized and there is nothing positive that an umpire can do. They can only screw up.
Since an MLB umpire's job is so coveted, Weber could only get a few umpires to speak to him on the record and even some were not entirely forthcoming. The disastrous mass resignation plan of 1999 has left deep wounds among the corps of umpires. Interestingly, Weber points out that even though umpires were no longer separated by league at the time, the battle lines in that dispute split along AL-NL lines, with the AL umpires (who long felt that they were below the NL in the pecking order) taking the opportunity to assert leadership in a new union.
I found the best parts of the book when Weber goes into some detail about the mechanics of umpiring. It's one part of baseball that few people seem to care about, unless they think an umpire screwed up. Then people are experts on the matter.
For example, when there is a bunt play going on and the defense puts on "the wheel" play, watch the umpires. They don't move. They have to watch the bases. But if there is a ball hit down the left- or rightfield lines, the umpires will wheel around, while the infielders will generally stay by their bases to make a play on a runner or the batter-runner. (If you want to be an umpire, learn to say "batter-runner," "ball-strike indicator," and don't let anyone call you "Blue.") Umpires also have responsibilities to make sure that all the runners touch their bases and it's a subtle skill that they pick up over time.
Weber also gets umpires to explain how pitchers like Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine get seemingly wider strike zones than other pitchers. Briefly, it's because those pitchers have such good control that they can keep placing the ball further and further on the corner of the strike zone. And then they are able to work inside and outside the edge until the outside edge of the strike zone gets wider because of the umpire's perception of where the pitches go. Maddux and Glavine in a sense have earned bigger strike zones because of their skill, and not just because of their reputation.
One thing that did surprise me is how open umpires were to technological improvements in the game. Replay review of home runs was welcomed because the umpires know how difficult some parks were for making those calls. It's likely that in 2009, umpires will err on the side of calling a ball in play rather than a home run because it is simpler to remedy that call with replay rather than the other way around.
The final chapter of the book includes interviews with umpires who have made some of the most controversial calls in recent history: Larry Barnett (who didn't call interference on Ed Armbrister in the 1975 World Series, despite Carlton Fisk's protestations), Doug Eddings (of the 2005 ALCS call involving A.J. Pierzynski and Josh Paul and the dropped third strike), Richie Garcia (of Jeffrey Maier fame), Tim McClelland (who was the umpire for the George Brett Pine Tar Game and The Did Matt Holliday Touch The Plate Game), and Don Denkinger (1985 World Series Game 6, bottom of the 9th).
Each umpire gets a chance to explain what they did and didn't see or what they did or didn't do. Denkinger freely admits blowing the call on Jorge Orta, but explains how it came about. But that will likely not satisfy Cardinals fans. Some of them still want blood 24 years after the fact.
Weber wants fans to have a greater appreciation for the work that umpires do. The umpires are far from a perfect lot. They are profane. They are sexist (the few female umpires who have been in the minors were treated horribly). They aren't there to make the fans or players happy. They are at games to keep them under control. It's a job that not many people have the ability or temperament for. But those that do it, do care about doing their jobs well. Nevertheless, I predict plenty more complaining about umpires this year from just about everybody. It's one of baseball's constants.
From the benches, bleak with people, there went up a muffled roar,
- From "Casey at the Bat" by Ernest Lawrence Thayer, 1888