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Books | Sports

August 2, 2009

Among Baseball's Men in Black

New York Times writer Bruce Weber explored umpires' lonely, misunderstood world.

Joseph Ax

In 1975, the Red Sox—then 57 years into their championship drought—were tied with the Big Red Machine at one game apiece in the World Series and tied 5-5 in the 10th inning of Game Three. In the bottom of the inning, César Gerónimo singled for the Reds, and the next hitter, Ed Armbrister, laid down a bunt in front of the plate.

Bruce Weber. Photo by Joyce Ravid.
"What umpires do is, generally speaking, the biggest secret in baseball."

Bruce Weber. Photo by Joyce Ravid.

Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk jumped up and fielded the ball, while Armbrister—attempting to avoid interfering with Fisk—did not run up the first-base line but stopped after a step or two, thereby getting in Fisk's way anyway. Home-plate umpire Larry Barnett chose not to call interference, Fisk's throw to second sailed into center field, and Gerónimo advanced to third and eventually scored the winning run. The TV announcers— Curt Gowdy and Tony Kubek—savaged Barnett for his non-call. The Reds would go on to win the series in seven, and the moment became lore in Boston, where Barnett was blamed for decades for the latest Red Sox disappointment.

Of course, as Bruce Weber points out in his book As They See 'Em: A Fan's Travels in the Land of Umpires, Barnett was right. Umpires have always treated collisions around the plate differently, and the inadvertent contact had not prevented Fisk from gathering the ball and having a clear throw to second. (Indeed, the rulebook would subsequently reflect this, stating that contact between hitters and catchers should generally be ignored.) But the controversy would pressure baseball to review how it chose umpires for the World Series, an insult that Barnett—who received death threats—never forgave.

That Barnett made the right call but was nevertheless raked over the coals by announcers and writers paid to know the game inside and out—and then was left twisting in the wind by Major League Baseball—is illustrative of the job that umpires face every day. Weber's account of his journey to the land of umpires captures the fascinating "cult" of major-league umpires, a group of men who do their job in plain sight yet are barely understood. And Weber himself knows what it is to hold a game in his hands—in writing the book, he attended umpire school, became a professional man in blue, hit the minor-league circuit and even called a pair of spring-training intrasquad major-league games.

Fans are quick to express their opinions of umpires, but ask them what the second-base ump should do when a man is on first and the batter rips a line drive down the left-field line, and you'll often draw a blank stare. As Weber, a New York Times obituary writer and former theater critic for the newspaper, says in describing the rigorous training umpires undergo, "It's remarkable to realize that you can be a lifelong baseball fan and not know the first thing about umpiring—literally the first thing." (The home-plate umpire, for instance, does not say, "Play ball!" to start a game, but merely, "Play!") Indeed, few people evince any curiosity at all about how umpires perform their jobs. When Weber spoke with Hall-of-Famer Robin Yount, who served as a first-base coach in Arizona for a couple of years, Yount confessed that he argued a lot of calls at first base only to learn later that he was wrong virtually every time. Weber wonders whether Yount ever asked the umpires how they saw it better than he did. His shoulder-shrugging response: "No, I never did."

Weber's book does much to explain what it is that drives these men to work in an atmosphere so profoundly hostile. Despite a congenital suspicion of writers that comes from constant criticism and a healthy sense of martyrdom, many umpires—one-third of the men who worked in the majors between 2006 and 2008—eventually spoke with Weber. Many umpires involved in famous calls, even blown calls, like Don Denkinger, did as well. They emerge as a group characterized by contradictions—they are on the field and yet can never win, they demand respect and yet shun attention—and defined by their conviction that the world does not appreciate them properly.

In the following interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, Weber spoke with Gelf Magazine about his experiences behind the mask and about the people he met along the way.

Gelf Magazine: Umpires are almost universally derided, but your book seems sympathetic to their plight. Do you think it's fair to say that your book is a defense of umpires, and did you expect that to be the case when you started this project?

Bruce Weber: Yeah, I think I did expect to be on that side. I don't know that I would call it a "defense" of umpires. Overall, it is sympathetic. But sympathy is a relative term here, since the default attitude towards umpires is loathing. So anything that would serve to deflect that loathing or mitigate it could probably be thought of as a defense of umpires.
I also think I took a reasonably objective look at it. I did expect it to be sympathetic when I started, because my presumption going in is that the more you learn about anything, the more sense it makes. The more you learn about any human enterprise, in fact, the more human it becomes. One of the chapters in the book makes the point that one of the reasons that umpires are loathed so much is that nobody ever writes about them, and no one knows anything about them. It's very easy to maintain disgust with them if you don't have to consider them human at all.

Gelf Magazine: As you write, not a lot has been written about umpires because they are generally uninterested in opening up to writers.

Bruce Weber: I think that's the case. But that's also a function of the fact that they're generally misunderstood and disliked. It's the experience of most umpires that when anyone comes along to write about them, the result is that the umpires get criticized. They get enough criticism without asking for it, so I think it's reasonable that they're a little suspicious when someone comes along hoping to get the inside scoop.

Gelf Magazine: Early in the book, you compare yourself to a sociologist dispatched to an isolated world to report back on its strange, unknown inhabitants. Is there one aspect of umpiring the average fan just doesn't understand that struck you more than anything else?

Bruce Weber: That it is in fact a craft, that it requires training and experience to do it well. It's certainly one of the things that no fan whom I've ever met appreciates. Listen, I was one of them. The whole reason I started to write the book is that I went on assignment from the Times to umpire school, and I thought, "Jesus, I don't know any of this stuff, and I've been watching baseball for 40 years." And I'm a pretty good fan. After spending two days at umpire school, I thought, this is incredibly interesting and surprising, and if I'm surprised by it, a lot of other people will probably be surprised by it as well, and that's turned out to be the case.
What umpires do is, generally speaking, the biggest secret in baseball. Everything else, writers write about ad nauseum, and announcers talk about ad nauseum. It's interesting to me, having written this book, how often the announcers presume to know what the umpires and doing and thinking, and how often they're wrong.

Gelf Magazine: Did you miss out on anything because umpires knew you were writing this book?

Bruce Weber: Sure. It happens all the time now that when I run into these umpires, they'll tell me all sorts of stuff they wouldn't tell me for the book. "This guy's an asshole; that guy said this to me." A lot of it is how they don't get along with other umpires.

Gelf Magazine: One of the things that people always discuss with umpires is the strike zone. In the book, you point out that umpires do take some discretion with the strike zone, but you argue that it's a necessary part of the job.

Bruce Weber: The strike zone has some human discretion built into it. If you read the definition of the strike zone as it is in the rulebook right now, it's preposterous. The lower limit is defined as the "hollow below the knee." Do you know what that is? Stand up and tell me if there's a hollow below your knee. There's a hollow behind your knee, but below? And the top of the strike zone is defined as the midway point between "the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants," so you can legitimately change the strike zone by yanking up your shorts.
That's the current rule, but that rule has been rewritten, I think, eight times since 1849. So the sense that the strike zone has been fixed and is always fixed, that it's not illusory, is not true.
The other thing about the strike zone is that it's temporal. It's measured at the time the batter prepares to swing at a pitched ball, which is usually interpreted as when he strides forward. If you've been in a severe crouch, your strike zone as you step towards the ball will grow. If you've been standing erect and you step towards the pitch, your strike zone will contract. These are things that an umpire is supposed to take into consideration—not only that a strike zone exists in space, but that it exists in a moment in time.
Given those things, and given the fact that the strike zone is invisible, and given that the ball can be moving towards you at 100 miles an hour , it's no surprise at all that there is a little give-and-take at the edges of the zone. This is also the case because umpires take different stances. They will often look at a pitch from different positions behind the plate. The height of the umpire affects his ability to look at a pitch. All of these things have minuscule effects on the way an umpire will perceive a strike zone. But when you're talking about arguing over balls and strikes, you're only talking about minuscule effects.
My point would be that the discretion that umpires presume to have and which I'm perfectly happy to grant them—I know many other people are not—is actually built into the job, and built into the strike zone.

Gelf Magazine: Well, there are people out there who argue that QuesTec or Pitch F/X would be a better way to call balls and strikes than human beings.

Bruce Weber: And I think some of those people work for major-league baseball.
I've had this argument with many, many fans. I would never underestimate the ability of technology to do anything. Certainly, they ought to be able to figure out how to let technology call balls and strikes if they want to, even if it means putting sensors in the baseball and sensors on player's uniforms. My question is, why would you want to? Why would you want to remove from the game some of the most fascinating relationships on the field? There's the relationship between the umpire and pitcher, who are negotiating the terms of the strike zone throughout the game, is one of the most interesting parts of the game.
And there's the relationship between the umpire and the catcher, who is trying to give the umpire not only a good look at every pitch but one that makes it seem as though the ball is closer to the strike zone that it actually is. That cat-and-mouse game that the umpires and catchers play—you want to take that away from the game?
Then there's the back-and-forth between the hitter and the umpire, when the guy's been yapping at the ump about the strike zone all game long from the dugout, and he comes up to the plate. "You're a little wide today, Joe. Pull it in." And the guy is saying, "Just get up there and hit. You do your job, and I'll do mine." You want to take that away from the game? I don't. I like that stuff. I think it's fascinating.
And I think bad calls are fascinating. You get the best umpires you possibly can, and you throw them out there. You let them do what they do to the best of their ability. It's the same as groundskeepers—they do the best job they can do on field, but every now and then there's a pebble on the infield, and a groundball hits the pebble, and it bounces over the shortstop's head, and the winning run scores.

Gelf Magazine: At the same time, you don't have any problem with instant replay for home runs.

Bruce Weber: I don't, because the umpires themselves don't. I don't like it personally. I would just as soon have the umpires call the game. We managed to do without it for 150 years. But from what the umpires have told me, I can get behind them, because they say, "We get those calls wrong a lot, because they're too far away, and we're not in the right position. The rest of the time, we're fine. But we're trying to make those boundary calls from 200 feet away. And we're often moving, we're often running." The first-base umpire is running out to right-field to try and look at a pole-bender, and it's his call, but he didn't even have the best angle on it. It's often the second-base umpire who would have the best angle on it, but he's even farther away, and he's watching the baserunners, because the first-base umpire is running out in the outfield. The other thing is that those boundary calls are often game-changing calls, more often than balls and strikes.

Gelf Magazine: You take a fairly dim view of QuesTec, right?

Bruce Weber: I wouldn't want to characterize it that way. I think that it has done its job. The reason that I take a dim view of it is that it really wasn't supposed to improve the umpiring, it was supposed to improve the perception of umpiring.

Gelf Magazine: You compare that to the quixotic quest of a man named Grant Secrist, who spent years trying to convince baseball to use a simulator system he had designed to help umpires improve.

Bruce Weber: The idea is that baseball might actually want to make the umpires better by giving them these simulators, which would allow them to practice their craft when they're not actually working games, which QuesTec doesn't do.
QuesTec is kind of a Pavlovian tool: You call a narrower strike zone, or you get a bad grade. As it turns out, it hasn't been an awful thing for the game, which is why I don't want you to think that my view of QuesTec is entirely dim.
By the end of the 1990s, the strike zone started to resemble something seriously other than what it was supposed to be. There were really egregious examples of terrible, terrible strike zones, where either the hitters or the pitchers were at a terrible disadvantage. One of the points I make in the book is that the strike zone is like the fulcrum of a seesaw—it really is the thing you adjust in order to make sure the offense and the defense are on a level playing field. During the 1990s, the seesaw was out of whack, and QuesTec helped bring it back, that's for sure.

Gelf Magazine: Late in the book, when you describe your experience umpiring major-league intrasquad games, you mention that your boyhood hero Dave Righetti brought you baseballs before a game because he was one of the pitching coaches. The people who become umpires grew up as big baseball fans. Do you think any of them are still fans of the game—not teams, necessarily, but the game itself? Or does it become more of a job?

Bruce Weber: I think both things are true. I think they still love baseball. They love it enough to protect it. But like a lot of people who have been in jobs for a long time, there's a certain cynicism and a certain sourness that bleeds into some of these guys. You know, "Fuck it, it's only baseball"—that kind of attitude. In the same way that I might say, "Fuck it, it's only the newspaper," about my job after 25 years. But I think they really admire and love the game. It's why they got into it. The game on the field is something they all really do want to protect. The thing that makes them cynical is off-the-field stuff: dealing with the owners, the perpetual hostility they get from the television broadcasts, newspaper coverage, and the fans—the unfairness with which they perceive themselves to be treated, some of it rightly so, some of it not.

Gelf Magazine: Are players more understanding than fans are?

Bruce Weber: No. I think generally speaking, the players don't like the umpires, and the umpires don't like the players. Obviously, it's a game that's played and officiated by human beings, and individual relationships are what they are. But generally speaking, they speak disparagingly of each other.
With veteran players and veteran umpires, those are the people you'll see joking at home plate from time to time. It's like any form of human endeavor. You're basically colleagues with these people for years and years. You get to know how to talk to them, and as you get to know how to talk to them, you get to enjoy talking to them.
One of the things that I maybe haven't said enough in interviews, and it's easy to forget, is that these are all people on the field. What goes on on the field is often determined not by the laws of baseball but by the laws of human interaction.

Gelf Magazine: Like what?

Bruce Weber: How they might argue, how they might discuss something. Derek Jeter, who has known John Hirschbeck for 12 years, says, "Come on, John, gimme that outside pitch." Hirschbeck, who might not take that from someone he doesn't know, might turn to Jeter and say, "Shut up and hit."
People always ask, What is the magic word? What gets you thrown out? And there are some general rules. But it seems to me that when Bobby Cox comes out to argue with Ed Montague—I mean, both of these guys have been around for 30 years. They've probably had the same argument 30 times. Each guy pretty much knows what the other guy is going to say, and Cox knows exactly what to say in order to get thrown out, and Montague knows exactly whether Cox wants to get thrown out. So much of what's going on in that argument at home plate is informed by their personal history.

Gelf Magazine: Why on earth do umpires want this job? They slog through the minors, underpaid and underappreciated, in order to spend their lives getting yelled at. You admit you couldn't do it, right?

Bruce Weber: I don't even want to do the amateur games anymore. Here's what I think happens—when somebody makes a decision to go to umpire school and try to become a professional umpire, he's usually just a very young man, 19, 21, 22. It's a time when very few people have a good idea of what they want to do, and at that point, being on a baseball field as a job seems like a pretty cool thing to do and a pretty romantic thing to do. And when they get their jobs in the lower minor leagues, and they're driving around the country with other guys and staying in cheap hotels and umpiring baseball games and having adventures, that's also kind of cool, until they get to be a certain age.
By the time they get to their mid-20s, and they've been doing it for four or five years, and they know a lot of other people who have gone on to to do many other more lucrative things, and they have girlfriends or even wives who are nagging them about being away all the time, about not making any money, and they get into the 500th argument with a coach who calls them a stupid motherfucker, and they're staying at the same Days Inn that they've stayed in 600 times before—I think at that point they begin to question why they're doing this. The nobility of what they're doing—that a professional baseball game and its integrity is something that is really worth guarding, and something that they can take a substantial amount of pride in—that either kicks in or it doesn't. If it does, they go on, and if it doesn't, they quit and do something else.

Gelf Magazine: Is there a certain type of person who is more likely to stick with it? Maybe they possess a certain stubbornness?

Bruce Weber: People call it different things: self-confidence, self-esteem. Stubbornness might be another word for it. I think there's a quality that umpires have in spades that many other people don't, and that is the ability to wake up in the morning, knowing you're going to make hundreds of decisions, many of which are going to be unpopular and that you're going to be held accountable for, and that's OK with you. The kind of person who becomes an umpire relishes that, relishes being the decision-maker and doesn't mind at all if he has to take the heat for all of those decisions.

Gelf Magazine: Do you find yourself watching games differently now?

Bruce Weber: I do keep an eye on the umpires a lot. I'm a Yankees fan, and I do find myself still yelling at the TV like any other stupid fan when I think the umpire missed the call against the Yankees.

Gelf Magazine: You haven't stopped screaming?

Bruce Weber: I haven't stopped. I feel slightly ashamed afterward, but I haven't stopped. I guess I haven't set aside my fan's prerogative, and I hope not to.
I don't spend a lot of time watching the umpires specifically. You can't really do it on TV except for the home-plate umpire, because on TV they don't show the umpires very often. When I go to a game, though, I set aside an inning or two to watch the umpires. One of the reasons that I don't do that the entire game is that if you watch the umpires, you miss the game.
That's one of the cool things about the umpires—they're really playing a game of their own out there.

Joseph Ax

Joseph Ax is a reporter for Reuters in New York.

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Joseph Ax is a reporter for Reuters in New York.

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