The man was kneeling in front of the boy so he could be face to face and nod sympathetically as the kid, still in full Little League uniform cried his heart out. I tried to walk by quickly, not wanting to intrude on the scene that was taking place in a dark corner of the park, no doubt chosen so the embarrassment of the tears could be hidden from the other players who were still out on the park's ballfields. As I passed, though, I heard the man say, "You know, if you strike out seven out of every ten at bats, you're in the Hall of Fame."
This line, said to distraught kids for decades now, is meant to illustrate the difficulty of baseball, a game perceived as so impossible that failure is acceptable, and much more common than success. The legendary hitter has likely made more outs than hit home runs; the pitcher who passes the 300 win mark of immortality has also probably lost 200 games. In most jobs, that kind of failure rate will get you fired, but in baseball it means that you're better than almost anyone else in your profession.
The only place in baseball, though, where failure is not tolerated and perfection is expected is the umpiring of each game. As Bruce Weber points out in his book As They See 'Em: A Fan's Travels in the Land of Umpires, the only time umpires really are noticed is when they fail; the dozens of tiny perfections in every game go unnoticed.
Arguing with the umpires is a time-honored tradition.
Weber, a reporter for the New York Times, mixes stories of his own experience learning to be an umpire with those of the men who do it for a living (and they're all men--his chapter on the one woman trying to make it in the business is a catalogue of misery; she's treated about as well as an eight year old girl who has the nerve to step into a treehouse belonging to a bunch of eight year old boys). One might say the lucky men who do it for a living, but lucky doesn't feel quite right. There are very few major league umpiring jobs available and those who have them hold onto them literally until death; numbers show that the odds of making it to the majors as a player are better than getting a job as an umpire. The umpires are incredibly well paid, especially for a job that is pretty much only a seven month deal. So any one of them who gets that rare slot in the majors is lucky to have defeated the odds and lucky to make that money, but the job itself is a miserable grind. As more than a few of the officials note, they went into the job because of a fantasy of getting paid to watch baseball--the minor leaguers and the students Weber meets at umpire school call it, "chasing the dream"--but nothing kills fandom like actually working every game. Yet they still do it, and this has a lot to do with the personality of the men who are attracted to umpiring.
To understand the men, though, you have to appreciate the difficulty of the job and how that plays into attracting a certain type of person. In short, it's impossible. Umpires are constantly making judgment calls, and that means everyone around them is constantly questioning their judgment--and their eyesight. The problme, of course, is that what looks one way to an umpire down on the field, level with the players, looks different to someone in the grandstand or someone watching TV. The addition of an endless supply of TV cameras, HD TVs, and highlight shows has been particularly tough for umpires--now any fan at home can see a play from a million different angles at various speeds, close up, on a crystal clear HD 54 inch screen. And if you look at anything long enough, and slow it down enough, it will become, rather than clearer, foggier, and more confusing. Eventually, the fan at home will begin to see what he or she wants to see, which isn't necessarily what was seen by the umpire who, you remember, generally gets one look from one place at real-time speed. No wonder fans and umpires rarely agree.
It's not like umpires are just out standing there watching, though. As Weber learns at umpire school, every movement they make on a play is choreographed, with each umpire running to specific positions. Footwork is and positioning is crucial. Don't move the wrong way, don't be in the wrong place, and above all, look authoritative. Weber details the minutiae umpires are taught to enforce their authority--a tremendous amount of serious time at the school is spent on teaching how a plate umpire should flip his mask off to observe a play without also knocking his cap off. An umpire without his cap is thought to look silly, and umpires don't ever, ever want to look silly.
Learning the strike zone is another skill that looks simple to a fan, but is daunting to put into practice. It's a boundary that changes with every player, and an umpire's ability to adjust his eyes to the appropriate zone for a six foot five player right after a five foot eleven player is something that comes only with practice. Maintaining consistency throughout a game requires a wearying amount of focus. The variety of pitches faced by batters and umpires, especially breaking balls, is another eye-burning skill. Being able to judge whether a pitch with a lot of movement on it has crossed in or out of the strike zone can be dizzying; one umpire described facing Mariano Rivera's cutter as "like being in traffic and watching a car change lanes without signalling." No matter how many times you see it, it's jolting.
Then there's the rule book, which umpires are supposed to know inside out (and which some, no doubt, know better than others). Weber's book includes a quiz. Here's a question from it:
No outs, runner on first. A hot grounder is smashed up the middle. The shortstop fields the ball but throws it wildly trying to retire R1 approaching second, and the ball rolls into the first base dugout just after R1 has rounded second and the B-R has touched first. Place the runners.
A) Both runners score.
B) R1 scores; B-R is awarded third.
C) R1 scores; B-R is awarded second.
D) R1 is awarded third; B-R is awarded second.
The answer is D. Here's the explanation:
When the first play by an infielder on a batted ball is a throw that goes out of play, the batter and all runners are awarded two bases from their position at the time the pitcher itched the ball--not at the time the fielder threw it.
I don't know about you, but the question alone gave me a headache. I gave up on even trying to make guesses on the quiz questions and just skipped to the answers.
With all that to deal with--the complexity of the rules, the difficulty of constant observation, the scrutiny and scorn of players, fans, and media--you might come out of Weber's book with some sympathy for umpires. I didn't. Respect, yes, but sympathy, no. That was because of the men in blue themselves. How can I explain this?
I think in every high school class there's at least one kid who isn't the most popular, the best-looking, the smartest, or most interesting, but who has one skill: he doesn't mind--in fact he likes being the asshole. The kid who will uphold a rule even when it doesn't make sense, and who smiles at the other kid who is saying, "But that's not fair!" The kid who gets a kick out of watching someone else being put down. The kid who knows that not being popular, good looking, smart, or interesting matters when you have some kind of power. These kids take the job of hall monitor, or security, or teacher's assistant. They like to watch others squirm while they hold out some kind of threat. I'm sure I'm not the only one who knew kids like this. And I remember thinking about one kid in particular, "He's going to be a cop." And lo and behold, he did. How do I know? Because he gave me a speeding ticket a few years later when I was going at a speed that wasn't far over the limit, in an area that almost everyone sped through. Needless to say, he smirked as he handed me the ticket. These are the kinds of people who tend to become umpires, the kind who like having authority and like having the last word. They don't dwell on whether that word is right or wrong--it's just their word, and that's final. They need to feel respected and love feeling that everyone has to listen to them. They believe that anything that threatens their standing as the ultimate authority basically threatens themselves, the game, and basically the American way. One of the best ways to understand their mindset is Weber's revelation that umpires generally like the newly instituted instant-replay because they believe it will just confirm that they were right, but intensely dislike the league's desire for umpires to huddle up and discuss unclear or difficult plays because they think that will make it seem like an umpire is unsure or doubtful, or that they don't know what they're doing. Weber describes them as men who think in black and white, and don't question a great deal. This is summed up by the umpire who was at the plate during an incredibly close play between the Padres and Rockies in the 2007 NLCS. Fans and media angrily discussed for days whether the right call had been made, but the umpire simply said, "I saw what I saw and I called what I saw."
A group of umpires ready to declare that the rain is falling up.
Reluctantly, though, as much as I feel uneasy around people who are so sure of everything, who see every question in black and white, and never question themselves, I understand there is a need for them in this world. The world needs people who are willing to just say yes or no, and more importantly, take responsibility for what they say. You may not like what an umpire says, but you have to feel some respect--even when it drives you crazy--for their willingness to stand by their word and brave the fallout. That's not easy. I wouldn't want to have dinner with any of the umpires described in this book (and I'm sure the feeling would be mutual), but I can--to some degree--respect what they're trying to do.
Weber is a good guide through the umpiring world. He does a nice job of detailing the thorny umpire labor dispute in 1999 and the history behind it (this may have been my favorite section of the book--I just love that kind of thing). He often talks about how difficult it is to penetrate the umpire inner-circle and get them to talk, but still manages to get an awful lot of stories and interesting quotes from the umpires who do open up. He is thankfully self-aware of his own abilities and shortcomings--he doesn't have any delusions of grandeur, and although he describes a few moments of bliss when getting a call right immediately and with clarity, he also admits that after spending a lot of time umpiring, he doesn't like the job. Which is fine, because it would be a waste of a different type of observational skills if he decided to quit reporting and go full time as an umpire.
Every year brings a deluge of new baseball books, but this is such a different look at the game, though, that it really stands out from the crowd. I can't say it's amongst my favorites (surely you know what would be on that list), mostly because I didn't particularly enjoy the company of the men in the pages. But I appreciate it and am glad I read it.