Bruce Weber is also the author, with the dancer Savion Glover, of Savion! My Life in Tap.
Note: There is language in this excerpt that some readers may find offensive.
Men Behind a Mask
My favorite umpire is a dead one.
— Johnny Evers
"Strike three!" and I jump.
I'm in a big slump.
I'm down in the dump,
Can't get over this hump.
You cross-eyed old ump,
You're as blind as a stump.
Made me look like a chump,
You horse's rump!
— Charles Ghigna,
aka Father Goose
Okay, one more thing about taking off a mask: 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. Baseball, after all, is a sport where everything — everything else, anyway — seems to be under scrutiny all the time, with millions of people gleaning it for new info and insight. Every major league game is televised, as well as many in the minor leagues, and highlights are replayed nationally and nightly. Statistics continue to be invented and historical tidbits unearthed, and both are so voluminous and variously interpretable that a whole academic clan — the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) — is devoted to them. Reporters, broadcasters, and bloggers exhaust daily stores of news, opinion, analysis, and trivia, and of course literary and faux-literary types have been waxing eloquent, semi-eloquent, and sub-eloquent on the grand subject of baseball for several generations.
All of this has led to a deep pool of common lore and an extraordinary literacy about the game among a wide audience of fans, but for some reason the details of the umpiring craft and the personalities of the men who pursue it remain obscure. Indeed, umpires may conduct their business in public and in plain sight, but most fans can't tell you anything about them except that, to express it benignly, they occasionally err, or that, a little less benignly, they are performing an easy job incompetently. Actually, ask a fan at the ballpark what he knows about umpires — I've done this a lot — and the most frequent response is something like "They fucking suck."
Many of these same people could tell you in an instant what the second baseman is supposed to do, say, with two outs and a man on first when the batter laces one down the line between the third baseman and the third-base bag.
He covers second, of course. In case the left fielder throws there.
But what does the second-base umpire do?
The answer is that as soon as the batter touches first — actually, in umpire parlance, he's known as the batter-runner, a designation he takes on as soon as he hits the ball and leaves the batter's box — the second-base umpire positions himself on the infield grass between first and second, where he waits for the play to develop. He is, of course, responsible for a play on the batter-runner at second.
The first-base umpire, meanwhile, has gone to cover home plate for a possible play there, because the home plate umpire has rushed up to cover third for a possible play there, because the third-base umpire has chased after the ball into the left-field corner to make sure no spectator leaning over the rail has interfered with play or the ball hasn't gotten caught under the fence or something else unexpected hasn't happened. So the second-base umpire is also responsible for a play at first, in the event that the batter-runner makes the turn, retreats, and the throw comes across the diamond; he must also be alert for the possibility of a rundown.
Didn't know any of that? That isn't so surprising. Many people who make their living in baseball don't either. On opening day at Shea Stadium in 2006, for example, on a play identical to the one described above, an umpire's incorrect call helped the Mets beat the Washington Nationals.
With the Mets ahead by a run in the eighth inning, the Nationals' Alfonso Soriano tried to score from first on a double to left and was seemingly tagged out by Paul Lo Duca, the Mets catcher. There was no argument or even a discussion. Lo Duca, however, had dropped the ball, a fact that was confirmed on a videotape replay but had eluded just about everyone in the park, including the umpires.
Umpires make mistakes, of course; that's not the point. (In this case, it was actually understandable. Lo Duca's body had shielded the drop from just about every pair of human eyes in the stadium, and the video replay from only one of four different cameras revealed it.) But when the game was over and members of the press who had seen the decisive replay went to talk to the home plate umpire, Rick Reed, about his mistake, they had to be told that Reed hadn't made the call. The umpires had rotated on the play, properly, and the call at the plate had been made by Tim Tschida, the first-base umpire.
About a month later in Milwaukee I spoke with Robin Yount, the Hall of Fame shortstop and outfielder who was then the bench coach for the Brewers. Yount recalled that in the two seasons he spent as a first-base coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks, he often disagreed with umpires on close plays at first, but on viewing the replay, it almost always turned out he was wrong. It was funny, Yount acknowledged, how your point of view can affect your vision and your decision-making.
"I'd never looked at the game from that angle before," Yount told me, meaning from the vicinity of the first-base bag, and he confessed the perspective threw him off. "I'd see the play differently from the umpire, but then I'd go in the clubhouse and watch the tape and I'd be surprised that almost all the time they were right."
I asked Yount if he'd ever spoken to umpires about why that is, about what they do to see the play properly.
"No," he said. "I never did."
It's often said that the best umpire is the one you never notice, and though that's an arguable point, it is certainly true that umpires are baseball's invisible men. Players are often celebrities, and so are managers, broadcasters, and even some coaches, pointed at on the street, hounded for autographs and pictures. Even lesser lights who play the game can be locally famous in the cities where they play. But umpires are popularly known neither by their names nor their faces, not even by their reputations. I've walked the streets of several American cities with major league umpires, eaten with them in dozens of restaurants, and never once has a stranger recognized any of them. Even at the ballpark, I rarely witnessed anyone ask an umpire to sign a ball or a scorecard, and elsewhere I never saw it happen. Eight umpires have earned places in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. But who can name them? Can you name one? Not even Bill Klem?
Excerpted from As They See 'Em: A Fan's Travels in the Land of Umpires by Bruce Weber. Copyright © 2009 by Bruce Weber. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a division of Simon and Schuster, Inc.