As baseball season gets back into full swing, one writer goes behind the mask to learn what it takes to be a big-league umpire.
BASEBALL IS A GAME of information. Fans who want to can drown themselves in statistics on just about anyone and anything associated with Americas favorite pastime, whether its a players earned run average, a managers winning percentage, or the depths of a team owners pockets. But the only people tied to the sport who remain mysterious are the ones who have arguably the greatest effect on a games outcome: the umpires.
For the new book As They See Em: A Fans Travels in the Land of Umpires (Scribner, $26), author Bruce Weber found his way inside this small, traditionally closed baseball subculture. The New York Times reporters first step was to enroll in umpire school, where he quickly realized that nothing about the job is as simple as it looks from the stadium seats. For example, learning the right way to flip off a face mask in order to get an unobstructed view of a play takes months of practice; moving quickly to find the best angle for making a call requires the agility of a ballet dancer. Plus, exercising the mental toughness required for the job is just as challenging. Weber explains that to maintain authority over an emotionally charged game, umpires must remain confident theyve made the correct call and convince everyone else of the same by avoiding telltale signs like flinching.
Baseball, I know, needs people who can not only make snap decisions, but live with them, something most people will do only when theres no other choice, writes Weber. Come to think of it, the world in general needs people who accept responsibility so easily and so readily. We should be thankful for them.
Umpires must train for years, sometimes decades, to even have a shot at calling games in the major league. But its not just the pro-level guys who have it rough: Two umpires must cover the entire field in minor-league games (as opposed to the four who share the responsibility in the majors), which forces them to make extremely difficult decisions in front of thousands of partisan -- and vocal -- fans. Umpires endure harsh travel schedules and collect relatively low paychecks, at least when compared with those of the players they work beside.
And whereas the wholesomeness of the sport and of the professionals who play it has been tarnished in recent years, thanks to steroid scandals and disputes over sky-high salaries, umpires have remained stalwarts of honor. Weber writes: I never saw any umpire do anything that made me question his on-the-field integrity. It bears acknowledging that in 130 years [of professional baseball], only one major-league umpire has ever been accused of professional dishonesty, and that was in 1882.
For the book, Weber interviewed dozens of umpires, as well as players, coaches, and managers, who all offered insight into the challenges umpires face and the lack of recognition they may receive, even for a job well done. Robin Yount was an All- Star player for the Milwaukee Brewers in the 1970s and 80s who later coached first base for the Arizona Diamondbacks for several years. He told Weber that when he first started coaching, he would often disagree with a call at the bag: Id never looked at the game from that angle before. But then, Id go in the clubhouse and watch the tape, and Id be surprised that almost all the time, they were right.
Casual sports fans and statistic-spouting devotees alike will be intrigued by this well-crafted and tirelessly researched ode to baseball and to the men who call it.
A celebration of great opening lines in literature.
When I was 21, I could throw a baseball 92 miles an hour. That led to a strange courtship between my left arm and a series of pencil-mustached, overweight, middle-aged men.
-- Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor League Misfit (Viking Adult, $26) by Matt McCarthy