The men (and occasional woman) behind the plate.
Apr 13, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 29 • By JOHN C. CHALBERG
As They See 'Em
Baseball fans beware: A New York Times theater critic has written one fascinating baseball book. But be forewarned: Read it, and you may never watch a ball game in quite the same way again. Digest it, and you're likely to catch yourself following the umpire instead of the flight of the ball or the fielder chasing it. Take it to heart, and you'll find yourself thinking about, perhaps even caring about, umpires.
Agree with it, and you may wind up mistaking a baseball game for a play. Leave it to a theater critic to draw an analogy between these two art forms. But Bruce Weber is not alone. It seems that the veteran pitcher David Cone and the veteran umpire Tim McClelland agree with him. Both feature characters, suspense, and resolution, with the umpire often playing a crucial dramatic role.
Yes, Weber has thought a good deal about umpires--perhaps too much. What's more, he's come to care about umpires--perhaps too much. What's worse, we learn that umpires secretly want to be cared about--certainly too much.
Taking a page from the late George Plimpton, Weber decided to become an umpire in order to write about him--and, very occasionally, her. How better to explain the highs and lows of umpire school than to be a student umpire? How better to detail the ins and outs of an umpire's daily life than to live the life of an umpire on the road? And how better to follow the highs and lows, the ins and outs of a baseball before it thuds into the catcher's mitt than to be the man in blue crouched right behind this endlessly repeated drama?
Just don't call the umpire "blue." That term, we learn, is reserved for amateurs, and Weber's umpires run the gamut from eager apprentice pro to major league veteran. But no matter their status or standing, many umpires seem to complain, in the Rodney Dangerfield vein, that they get no respect. The umpire as victim? Leave it to a journalist to find one more aggrieved group in our land, and this particular collection of victims turns out to be "unusually isolated and circumscribed." Outsiders who are wary of outsiders, umpires represent no one but themselves. "Universally reviled" for doing nothing more than making sure that the "greatest American game is played fairly," the umpire's "plight," as Weber inelegantly puts it, "genuinely stinks."
Yet if Weber cares about his beleaguered umpires, team managers don't. As Jim Leyland of the Detroit Tigers puts it, the umpire is the poor sap who "never plays a home game." Not that managers were anxious to talk with Weber about umpires. They weren't. Nor, for that matter, were the umpires themselves. During his excursion into umpire land, Weber found that their "collective reticence" was matched only by their "collective defiance." But that defiance has generally been of the silent sort, as umpires have yet to master the art of victimhood. And no wonder. In "umpire nation" Weber discovers a society of "rock-solid traditions" and a place "buried deep in the conservative middle-American heart."
Not that politics drives this story. But Weber is troubled by the fact that there have been only six black umpires in the history of major league baseball. Equally unsettling to him is the treatment accorded the occasional female umpire by her male counterparts. Nevertheless, the biggest issue for Weber is the treatment that all umpires have received at the hands (and feet) of that fearsome entity Organized Baseball. Here Weber agrees with ex-commissioner Fay Vincent: The owners, according to Vincent, regard umpires as the equivalent of bases. They are a "necessary expense" that no one in authority need "pay much attention to."
Weber also suggests that team owners revel in kicking around umpires and their union because they have been so thoroughly kicked around for so long by the players and their union. All of which leads the author to find one more reason to pity the poor umps since they, too, have been kicked around by a union--namely their own. In a chapter simply titled "The 22," Weber recounts the "umpire cataclysm" of 1999, or union chief Richie Phillips's infamous mass resignation strategy that backfired, costing a number of veterans their jobs.
Of course, Organized Baseball thought that it was finally getting rid of some incompetent umpires, but Weber begs to differ. Which raises a larger question: Just how competent are these guys? Weber's judgment is that umpires do an amazingly impressive job under amazingly difficult circumstances.