A Writer Enters The 'Land of Umpires' To understand what it takes to be a professional umpire, journalist Bruce Weber became one himself. His adventures with fans, players and other umps are described in his book, As They See 'Em.

A Writer Enters The 'Land of Umpires'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.

Baseball is a game where imperfection is the norm. No team wins every game. A pitcher who wins two-thirds of his starts is a star, and a player who gets a hit a third of the time can win a batting title.

But there's one guy on the field who we expect to perform with perfection every day: the umpire. He has to discern which of 300 pitches, thrown at blazing speed, are balls and strikes, and make split-second calls on close plays, all the while enduring abuse from players, managers and especially fans.

New York Times writer Bruce Weber says the experience has made umpires an usually isolated and circumscribed group, like the inhabitants of a remote country that few people have ever visited.

To understand their world, Weber went to umpiring school himself, called games and interviewed dozens of present and former umps, as well as players, managers and baseball executives. The result is his book, "As They See 'Em: A Fan's Travels In The Land Of Umpires." It's now available in paperback. I spoke to Bruce Weber last April, when the book was published.

Bruce Weber, welcome to FRESH AIR. For your journey into the world of umpiring, of course you talked to lots and lots of umpires, big league, minor league, at all levels, but you also went to umpiring school, and there, you note, learned that a lot of things that look easy and routine to people watching the game actually isn't so easy and routine and among the simplest things like taking your mask off. What's hard about that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRUCE WEBER (Author, "As They See 'Em: A Fan's Travels In The Land Of Umpires"): Well, actually taking it off is not so hard. It's keeping your hat on that's hard. The umpire wears a hat under his mask, and it has a little bill on it, and you have to clear the bill before you pull it off, and there is actually a lesson in umpire school in this.

And the reason you have such a lesson is so that you don't end up looking like a jerk when your hat comes off when you're trying to call a play, or if it tips or - you don't want it tipping in your eyes.

The umpire is a figure of authority on the field, and he is in such a tough spot most of the time that anything that he does that might bring ridicule upon him is something to be avoided, and that's the whole reason of learning to take your mask off without upsetting your hat.

DAVIES: So for example, ball's hit to left field, you have to jump out in front of the plate or go to a base and be ready to make the call.

Mr. WEBER: Correct.

DAVIES: You pull your mask off, and instead, you've got this cap hanging at a cock-eyed angle over your eye. Not what you want, right?

Mr. WEBER: Correct, or if it falls off and lands on the baseline, and you've got this stripe of lime on your hat that you won't be able to get off for the rest of the game.

DAVIES: You know, people who watch the game a lot know that players rotate positions. They know that a pitcher, when a ball's hit to the outfield, will run to backup third or backup home.

But I don't know that a lot of people realize that the umpires are doing the same thing, that when there is a play at the plate, it's actually not the home-plate umpire making the call, it's the guy from first base because everybody's rotated.

Mr. WEBER: Well in that particular circumstance, yes. I mean, they don't rotate on every play. The thing that I think most people don't get about umpiring is that learning to be the home-plate umpire is in many ways a lot like learning to be a catcher, or learning to be a first-base umpire is a lot like learning to be a first baseman.

Any time a ball is hit, any time there is a play, you have responsibilities. You have to be able to read the play and react with baseball instincts and get to the place that you need to be in order to do what you need to do. It's the same for an umpire as it is for a fielder.

DAVIES: And it doesn't necessarily mean following the ball. It means getting into a position where you will see the play as it unfolds. So you have to anticipate the play, right?

Mr. WEBER: That's correct. That's correct. I mean, in fact, one of the things that - one of the reasons that ballplayers don't necessarily make good umpires is that the instincts turn out to be different.

A player's instinct is generally to run towards the ball. You're taught that as a player from, you know, when you're - when you first play Little League. But an umpire almost never runs toward the ball as though he's going to make a play on it. He's running toward the place he needs to be in order to make the call. Those are two different things.

DAVIES: Let's take one example. It happens a dozen times in a game, ground ball to an infielder, third baseman, shortstop. They throw it across the diamond, and these guys run fast. The batter crosses the base right about the time as the ball gets there. Now where does that first-base umpire need to be to hear and see what he needs to to make that call accurately?

Mr. WEBER: Well, if there's nobody on base when the ball is hit, the first-base umpire is lined up about - along the right-field line, about 15 feet behind the first baseman.

When the ball is hit to an infielder, he races into the infield and tries to assess from where the throw to first is going to come, and he sets himself up at a 90-degree angle to the anticipated throw, about 15 feet from the bag.

At that point, he stares at the bag, listens for the ball hitting in the fielder's glove. That's the chain of events that an umpire goes through.

DAVIES: All right, so when the ball hits the glove, it's either pop, step, which is to say he's out, or it's step, pop, in which the runner is safe, right?

Mr. WEBER: Correct.

DAVIES: Right, right. What happens when an umpire has to make a call like on the basis - on a base and they just can't see it, and they're just out of position and they just don't know?

Mr. WEBER: Well, it happens frequently - well maybe. I don't want to say it happens frequently. It happens from time to time. You just make the call, you've got a 50 percent chance of getting it right. You make the call, and you sell it as if you had seen it.

There is - there really is no alternative, you know, it's - and if you blow it, you blow it. But admitting that you have - admitting that you can't see it is not an alternative because once you do that you've completely lost your authority in the game.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. WEBER: And every decision from then on is open for question.

DAVIES: Nobody's happy then.

Mr. WEBER: Right.

DAVIES: But can you look for help, can you look at another ump and say did you get it? I mean...

Mr. WEBER: In certain situations you can. In certain situations, even if you didn't see it, even if you could you wouldn't. I mean if it's just, say, a call at first base say on a pick-off throw and, you know, you just didn't see it, and everybody's yelling, get some help, get some help, get some help. You won't do it because if - what you're saying is I didn't do my job. I can't do my job. I need some help.

There are certain situations in which you - there's a legitimate reason for your not being able to see the, you know, see - to have the proper angle, say, on a spectator interference on a foul popup, or something in which another umpire might have a better angle, in which case you can ask for help, or another umpire might say, you know what, I had a better angle. I saw it this way. That does happen from time to time.

DAVIES: When you get behind the plate and have to call balls and strikes, what about just seeing a ball coming at you at 80 or 90 miles an hour - these guys throw hard, and you're right, you know, you're right in the path of their target.

Mr. WEBER: You do place an awful lot of trust in the catcher, who is, after all, a guy who might not like you very much. And it is something that you need to get over - the fear that you might get hit with the ball.

One of the ways in which I was taught this at umpire school, was Jim Evans, what was - who ran the school that I attended and was a major league umpire for 28 years - was watching me one day in the cage as I was practicing calling balls and strikes, and he said you're flinching.

You know, I was just calling pitches from a pitching machine, and there was a catcher in front of me, and he wasn't throwing very hard. The machine wasn't throwing very hard, but Jim said look, you're flinching. The ball's coming in, and you're flinching.

Here's how we're going to cure you of that, and he took a basket of baseballs and took me aside. He said look, you have to learn to trust your equipment, and from a distance of about four or five feet, he started throwing baseballs at me, hard, hitting me in the mask - bang, bang, bang - and they were glancing off in all directions.

By the time he got to, you know, the 12th or 15th ball, I was beginning to absorb the idea that, you know what, these things are not going to hit me in the eye, and I had stopped flinching, and I was cured.

DAVIES: Bruce Weber's book is called "As They See 'Em: A Fan's Travels in the Land of Umpires." We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with New York Times reporter Bruce Weber. He's a lifelong baseball fan who's written a book about the world of umpiring. It's called "As They See 'Em."

In other sports, when a football referee signals a touchdown, it looks like any other football referee signaling a touchdown. His hands go up. Umpires, you note, each have a signature strike call, a certain way of yelling strike and extending that arm.

Mr. WEBER: Yes.

DAVIES: This is something they kind of take some pride in and kind of develop and make their own?

Mr. WEBER: I think so. There is such a thing as umpire vanity. I have been in locker rooms where these guys have been practicing their calls in front of a mirror.

In the minor leagues especially, they try out different things, and they comment on each other like judges at a fashion show, you know. That was - you know, I noticed you went to the pistol shot as a strike call.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEBER: Oh yeah, yeah. How did it look? Oh, you know, not too bad.

DAVIES: And what's the pistol shot?

Mr. WEBER: The pistol shot is you feign shooting a pistol, bang. You know, you shoot out your right hand from the elbow with a finger pointing out, bang.

DAVIES: Right, and then the sounds aren't uniform, either. Each has their own way of calling a strike, right?

Mr. WEBER: That's right.

DAVIES: Now, I'm going to - I don't know if you feel comfortable doing this, but could I ask you to, like, maybe back off the mic just a little bit and give us your strike call?

Mr. WEBER: Sure, sure.

Mr. WEBER: (Shouting) Strike.

DAVIES: All right. Now let's say it's a third strike. A curve ball drops in, and the batter freezes. He's out.

Mr. WEBER: (Shouting) Strike three.

DAVIES: Oh yeah, that takes me to the ballpark.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: All right, let me do one more. Now you're on the bases. There's - a runner breaks for second. It's a steal. It's a very close play. You call him out. What does it sound like?

Mr. WEBER: (Shouting) Out.

DAVIES: And what are you doing while you're saying that?

Mr. WEBER: Pumping down with my fist at the runner, and you pump - when it's a really close play, when it's a really close play, you want to be demonstrative because you want to sell the call. You want to let everybody know look, I know it was a close play, but I saw it. Don't argue with me.

DAVIES: Right, and then maybe you turn on your heel and walk away, right?

Mr. WEBER: Exactly.

DAVIES: Except when somebody argues, and that brings up a whole other great subject in baseball. You know, it's the one game where, except for on balls and strikes, you're allowed to run onto the field and get in the umpire's face.

Mr. WEBER: Yeah, it's the only sport where non-participants are actually allowed on the field of play.

DAVIES: Did they teach you in umpire school how to handle an argument, and...?

Mr. WEBER: Oh yeah, I mean, it's very much a part of umpire school. In fact, there's a whole kind of slice of umpire school that reminds me of acting school. One of the things that they - they set up plays for you that are virtually impossible to call, that no matter what you call, there's going to be an argument.

So you'll make the call, and one of the instructors posing as a manager or coach will come on the field to object to the call. The idea is they want to see how you, as an umpire, are going to handle this kind of situation, which happens all the time in the, you know, in both the minor leagues and the major leagues. And these instructors are generally using the kinds of arguments that they themselves hear, because they themselves are minor league umpires.

DAVIES: Yeah, it's angry and profane, I assume.

Mr. WEBER: It is, and manipulative, and you know, if you're going to make that kind of call, you're going to die here in single-A. You think you're going to get promoted? Forget it. You can't make a call like that - that kind of stuff.

DAVIES: And how are you taught to respond? I mean, what's a good way of handling the ump's end of an argument?

Mr. WEBER: Well, the thing about umpires and arguments is that an umpire goes against his instincts as a human being. Most people, they get in an argument, and they try to win it, but an umpire's job is not to win the argument, it's to end the argument.

If the guy just wants to come out and yell and scream, you fold your arms, and you let him yell and scream a little bit, and then you say okay, okay, you've had your say. That's enough. If he keeps going - you know, you sort of have to read your opponent.

If he starts kicking dirt on you, well you know, get off the dirt and onto the grass where there isn't any dirt to kick. If he wants to go nose to nose with you and start yelling and screaming, don't let him do it if he's chewing tobacco.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEBER: Don't let him get his - don't let him get the bill of his cap underneath the bill of yours because as he bobs his head, he'll be knocking you in the forehead with it. I mean, these are - and in the end, don't do things like bait him. Don't try to get the last word in. Don't insult him. You know, don't do anything that is going to perpetuate the argument.

Now this is all easier said than done. When a guy is calling your mother all kinds of different names and questioning your ethnicity and your heritage and your manhood and all the other things, all the other really important issues that come up in an argument like that, it's kind of hard to keep your head and remember that really - and forget that what you really want to do is punch this guy in the nose.

DAVIES: Well, just as arguing is part of the game, so is tossing a manager or a player out of the game, and I'm sure they also gave you practice at ejecting somebody. How do you know when to give somebody the heave-ho?

Mr. WEBER: Well, there are certain guidelines for this. There are certain explicit guidelines. In fact, there are 13 explicit reasons that you are allowed to throw somebody out of the game, and you know, some of them are pretty self-evident.

I mean, if somebody throws equipment out of the dugout, if you slam your helmet down in evident displeasure with an umpire's call, if you make contact with an umpire or spit at an umpire, those sorts of things.

DAVIES: Now what about profanity? I mean, can they...?

Mr. WEBER: Well, you can use all the profanity you want, as long as you don't make it personal. You know, as one umpire said to me, people always want to know what the magic word is. Is it, you know, is horse-bleep, is it mother-bleep, and no it's not. It's none of those words. The magic word is you.

So you can say that was a horse-bleep call, but you can't say you're horse-bleep.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Mr. WEBER: If you know what I mean. I'm speaking in code.

DAVIES: No, it's clear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Right, right. It's the ad hominem attack that will get you run, as they say. That's why I run him. You'll hear that expression.

Mr. WEBER: That's right.

DAVIES: What's the right way to run somebody, to get them out of the game?

Mr. WEBER: As demonstratively and authoritatively as possible. You know, you're taught to throw your right arm over your head and say something like - you're out of here, or that's it, you're done, or enough, goodbye - something like that.

DAVIES: Yelling at the ballpark is a part of the tradition of going to a ballgame. Can you think of some of the more memorable things you've heard from hecklers of umpires?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEBER: Well, let's see. One that I just heard last season - you know, the problem is most of them are...


Mr. WEBER: ...most of them are dirty.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Well, if you can clean them up then do so and if we can't, you know...

Mr. WEBER: You know...

DAVIES: ...it'll be our little secret.

Mr. WEBER: You know, bend over and use your good eye.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Oh gosh. Right.

Mr. WEBER: You know, it's usually it's that level. But to be honest with you, most of the - and this is I think one of the great shames of baseball. And baseball fans should be ashamed of themselves for this, which is that the imagination of the fans and their abuse to the umpires is sorely lacking.

I mean it mostly it's just, hey poke a hole in the mask, or you're blind you bum, or you stink. And most - one of the things that umpires say is that they never hear it anymore because they've heard everything 10,000 times and that they only notice when they've heard something that they haven't heard before, which is only maybe once or twice a season.

DAVIES: Well, Bruce Weber thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. WEBER: You are very welcome, I enjoyed it.

DAVIES: Bruce Weber's book about the world of umpiring is called "As They See 'Em." Here's a memorable argument on the diamond from the film "Bull Durham." Catcher Crash Davis, played by Kevin Costner, thinks the ump has missed a call at home plate.

(Soundbite of film, "Bull Durham")

(Soundbite of baseball game)

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As Umpire) Safe. That's it.

Mr. KEVIN COSTNER (Actor): (As Crash Davis) No, no, I got him. Oh, I got him. I didn't miss him. He still ain't touched the plate. Oh (censored), (censored) call.

Unidentified Man: (As Umpire) Did you call me a (censored)?

Mr. COSTNER: (As Davis) No, I didn't. (Censored).

Unidentified Man: (As Umpire) You can't call me that.

Mr. COSTNER: (As Davis) Well, you can't run me for that. Well, you missed the tag, buddy.

Unidentified Man: (As Umpire) You just spit on me.

Mr. COSTNER: (As Davis) I did not spit on you.

Unidentified Man: (As Umpire) (Unintelligible). You're pushing it, buddy. You're pushing it. Do you want me run you? I'll run you.

Mr. COSTNER: (As Davis) Well, you want me to call you a (censored)?

Unidentified Man: (As Umpire) You called me a (censored), and you're out of here.

Mr. COSTNER: (As Davis) (Censored).

Unidentified Man: (As Umpire) You're outta here.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Kevin Costner bringing it, in the classic baseball film "Bull Durham." You can read the first chapter of Bruce Weber's book, "As They See 'Em," on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. Coming up, David Edelstein on "Date Night," the new film with Tina Fey and Steve Carell. This is FRESH AIR.

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