Throwing Baseball Analogies from the Hot Seat

Alex Chadwick talks to Jeff Chamberlain, a former New York state prosecutor and current semi-professional baseball umpire, about the baseball analogies Supreme Court Chief Justice nominee John Roberts made in his prepared remarks this week to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Finally today, two of America's pastimes, baseball and the law. On Monday on the first day of his confirmation hearings, Supreme Court chief justice nominee John Roberts compared judges to baseball umpires. In remarks to the Senate Judiciary Committee, here's what he said.

Judge JOHN ROBERTS (Supreme Court Nominee): Judges are like umpires. Umpires don't make the rules; they apply them. The role of an umpire and a judge is critical. They make sure everybody plays by the rules, but it is a limited role. Nobody ever went to a ball game to see the umpire.

CHADWICK: We're joined now by a semiprofessional baseball umpire who's also a former New York state prosecutor, Jeff Chamberlain, on the phone from Albany, New York.

Jeff, welcome to the program.

Mr. JEFF CHAMBERLAIN (Former Prosecutor): Thank you.

CHADWICK: Arcane rules, highly paid players, judgments that leave onlookers baffled. Do you agree that umpires are like judges?

Mr. CHAMBERLAIN: Like judges, yes. Not exact, but similar enough so that the analogy resonates pretty well.

CHADWICK: And how is that they're alike?

Mr. CHAMBERLAIN: Well, they're alike in the sense that they don't, or at least aren't supposed to have, a personal stake in the outcome. They do--as Judge Roberts says, they don't make the rules; they apply the rules to particular cases or controversies, whether on a baseball field or in a courtroom. They certainly bring points of view, but if they recognize that, they're supposed to compensate for them to apply the rules or the laws fair and square as they're written.

CHADWICK: And they have to call the close ones, don't they?

Mr. CHAMBERLAIN: Sure. Either judges or umpires--probably 90 percent of the time, they don't need either one. It's only the 10 percent that are close or are important that the participants, either in a lawsuit or a baseball game, couldn't pretty much call their own plays.

CHADWICK: Before you become an umpire, do you have to go before some kind of certification board like the Senate Judiciary Committee and, you know, answer a bunch of questions on what exactly is your interpretation of the strike zone?

Mr. CHAMBERLAIN: No, not strictly speaking. At the amateur level, typically, you have to pass muster. You have to go try out in front of experienced umpires and the umpire officials of whatever league you're going to work.

CHADWICK: So they get a chance to see you in action before--that's not like being a judge. I mean, if you're going up to be a judge, you don't disclose what you might do.

Mr. CHAMBERLAIN: Well, umpires don't disclose what they might do. The tryouts are designed to show that they have a basic skills set that, you know, they know where they're supposed to be and what to look at and the difference between a ball and a strike and when it's appropriate to call one or the other.

CHADWICK: Here's another kind of similarity, I think, between judges and umpires, or so I imagine anyway. There must be moments in a game when you have ardent partisans on both sides and something happens that's a pretty difficult call to make. And there you are, the focus of attention, you have to make the decision, just as in a court of law, the judge has to make a decision between parties who both fiercely believe that they're right.

Mr. CHAMBERLAIN: Yes. And that's, I suppose, a quibble with something that Judge Roberts said. He's right, of course, that nobody goes to a ball game to look at the umpire, but when you have to make that kind of call, you're in the spotlight and people do look at you and it does result in what umpires call situations and what the rest of the world calls arguments. You know, one side thinks that guy was safe at second and I called him out, and there's going to be the manager coming off the bench and the players waving their arms. And how the umpire reacts to that is part of the job.

CHADWICK: Former New York state prosecutor and current semiprofessional baseball umpire Jeff Chamberlain calling them like he sees them.

Jeff, thank you.

Mr. CHAMBERLAIN: You're welcome.

CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from slate.com. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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