Catchers and home-plate umpires are almost certainly the oddest of all sport's odd couples. Crouching and sweating together beneath layers of padding and suffering like bruises from foul tips and curves in the dirt, they play a game within a game, one in which other players are seldom involved. The catcher acts as his team's diplomat, his words usually as guarded and as subtly delivered as his signs to the pitcher. The umpire is an autocrat, often congenial, sometimes unyielding. However, the peace between the diplomat and the benevolent despot is tenuous and often destroyed. When this happens, their masks fly, and what began as a discussion inaudible to virtually everyone else in the park becomes as much of a show as an Ali weigh-in. That's exactly what happened one day late last season when Umpire Don Denkinger miscalled the first pitch of a game.
Red Sox Catcher Carlton Fisk caught that pitch, a fastball, after it crossed the middle of the plate.
"Ball one," said Denkinger.
Fisk, outraged and astounded, leaped straight up, hitting Denkinger under the chin with his catcher's helmet. "How in hell can you call that a ball?" he screamed.
April 10, 1978
"Take it easy! Take it easy!" Denkinger said.
"You're in for a bleep day if you keep calling pitches like that," said Fisk.
"It's the first pitch. What do you want to do? Hang me?"
"The first pitch. If I let you get away with that, the entire afternoon will be awful."
"So I blew it," said Denkinger. "Relax. I know I missed it."
"You sure as hell did miss it. And I'm jumping on you simply to wake you up."
Rarely does a catcher greet the umpire with such an outburst. The early innings are a period when players become acquainted with the umpire's strike zone and the tempo of his calls. Denkinger was flabbergasted by Fisk's eruption, and that was precisely what Fisk intended. He wanted to startle Denkinger and he did it by abrogating the unspoken rules of home-plate conduct. By quickly throwing the ball back to the pitcher, by not turning around, by not jumping up, the catcher obeys these rules. For his part, an umpire will have an easier time of it if he answers a catcher's questions, which is child's play compared to the alternative—jawing with a discontented pitcher 50 or 60 feet away.
"The umpire is not a machine. He is not a computer and he is not a robot," says Dodger Catcher Steve Yeager, whose six seasons have taught him the value of a gentle approach. "The umpire is human and entitled to a few mistakes." No matter how firmly he believes that, Yeager, like other catchers, cannot let umps' mistakes go entirely unchallenged, because he is literally caught in the middle, his face toward the pitcher, his back brushing against the umpire. It is his deftness at public relations—his ability to satisfy his pitcher's need for an advocate while not enraging the ump—that maintains harmonious working conditions for all. The tactics and tone he employs can be as violent as Fisk's outburst, which was tantamount to rebellion, or as subdued and inventive as those used by former Dodger Tommy Haller in 1971.
Umpire Bruce Froemming was a rookie then. Haller had spent 11 seasons behind the plate, and he had an umpire in the family—brother Bill in the American League. For five innings Haller asked Froemming about every close pitch, not showing him up but testing his judgment. Finally he popped the question.
"Bruce, what's your last name?"
"Spell it," demanded Haller.
"That's with one 'I'?"
"Yep," replied the unsuspecting ump.
"That's exactly how you've called the game all night."
Froemming still chuckles about the incident, and aficionados of umpire-catcher repartee consider it a classic. It was a perfect tension breaker during a game in which Haller had been doing what umpires like least—carping about ball and strike calls.
"We are paid to call the close ones," says American Leaguer Marty Spring-stead, "not the ones a guy can see from the third deck." And it is those decisions that rile a pitcher, whose motion has left him off balance and without a good view of the pitch. If he needs the strike and the call is a ball, nothing will persuade him that the umpire was right. A few catchers, Yeager among them, help out the ump by signaling to their pitchers, telling him where the pitch was. "That saves the umpire wear and tear," says Yeager. "If I sit there doing nothing while my pitcher yells and screams, all that does is rile the dugouts and the fans and get them on the umpire's back." For similar reasons, Thurman Munson of the Yankees spends a lot of time gesturing to his manager, Billy Martin, whom he describes as "having umpires down his throat."
In some circumstances catchers will even side with the umpire to keep the peace. San Francisco Catcher Marc Hill does that when he is catching for John Montefusco, who, Umpire Billy Williams says, "wants everything to be a strike." As the Count stares at the umpire, Hill either hollers, "Hey, it was inside," or tells the ump, "Don't pay attention to him, he's crazy anyway."
All pitchers, flaky or otherwise, feel persecuted by umpires. The successful umpire—the one nobody notices—is supposed to handle gripes while still controlling the game. "For me to be able to run a game smoothly, the catcher must throw the ball back before he asks me anything," says American Leaguer Steve Palermo. "Naturally, he will say something on close pitches, because he is looking through tinted glasses. As someone once said, 'It ain't necessarily so, but he wants it to be.' "
Palermo's crew chief, Nestor Chylak, a 24-year veteran, says, "A catcher has the right to ask me on any call, but I get upset when I know he is 100% wrong. Then he is putting the monkey on my back. I don't mind a challenge. If he questions it nice, he'll get an honest answer."
Umpires and catchers both demand honesty. However, each has an additional request. Catchers ask for consistency from umpires—"Call the pitch the same in the ninth as in the first." Umpires demand fairness—"Don't wait for a tense moment in the game to challenge me on a pitch." An umpire prefers a catcher who quizzes him early and tosses around harmless phrases like "Stay with that pitch" and "Don't give up on it." The catcher who complains only when he desperately needs a favorable call is disdainfully referred to by umpires as a "situation catcher."
"He is the one who puts the hangman's noose around our necks," says Springstead. "He is the one we dislike tremendously, and the one we don't forget." The situation catcher, according to umps, is the one who quarrels even though the umpire's strike zone is the same as it was earlier in the game when the catcher made no comment. "Often you'd think the whole game is played in the ninth inning," says Chylak. "I call a consistent game for eight innings, and then all of a sudden a catcher needs the pitch and he starts climbing all over me."
Equally unpopular is a catcher who holds the baseball while jawing with the umpire. "If he gets rid of it, that's fine," says Palermo. "All the attention reverts to the pitcher. What goes on between me and the catcher is not even noticed." By holding the ball a catcher invites a hasty end to peaceful negotiations. "If he holds it. he gets the dugout riled," says Froemming. "Instead of throwing it back and then saying, 'Bruce, I think the ball caught the corner,' he has now told everybody that he thinks I missed the pitch."
Such incidents occur in almost every game. Chalk it up to the human element, to the fact that an umpire cannot be infallible or even completely consistent. And a catcher, though he may try, can never be totally objective. Keeping their relationship cool is further complicated by the fact that, from the moment the umpires step on the field, the animosity of the fans is apparent from the boos that are heard from the stands. It is difficult for a catcher, particularly the one for the home team, to resist the temptation of bringing his allies in the stands into play in his relationship with the ump.
Although the fans' taunts are often irritating, umpires are much more concerned about the players' reactions. "I want the players to say, 'Here they come,' instead of 'Holy Toledo, it's not them again,' " says Chylak.
No matter what the greeting, the home-plate umpire—an assignment an ump draws every fourth game—must familiarize himself during the warmups with the starting pitchers' tempos and repertoires. "Chylak is particularly loose for those eight pitches," says Boston Catcher Fred Kendall. "Instead of standing away from the plate or behind me, as the others do, he stands at the plate like a hitter."
Regardless of his viewpoint, each home-plate umpire searches for clues. If a highballer is working on a sinker or breaking ball, the ump wants to know. The umpires swap information in their locker room before the game, but the best source is the catcher. It often helps both sides if the receiver shares what he knows with the umpire.
"At San Diego I caught Randy Jones," says Kendall. "The first thing I told the umpires was that Randy keeps the ball low. He throws that way all game, so the ump might as well get used to calling it. They like me telling them, because it helps them stay with the pitch."
But there are times when clues are better left undiscovered. Palermo found that out one day in Boston when he listened to Fisk ramble on about "a real good sinkerball." They were watching Bob Stanley warm up.
"It was early in the season and I figured that Fisk had caught him in spring training," says Palermo, who had never seen Stanley pitch. "His pitches did more tricks than a spinning top, but Stanley never threw a sinker."
Idle chatter between umpire and catcher consumes the rest of the time before the game begins. It is the kind of talk overheard in hotel elevators and lobbies, but it is crucial to a good working relationship because it is the start of a dialogue that should last the whole game. As Yeager says, "Once we lose our track of communication, we've lost a major battle."
If a battle does ensue, it is likely to be triggered by an argument about the strike zone. "There are games when my strike zone may seem a bit different from the last time these teams saw me," says Spring-stead. "If a catcher asks me early if I'm planning to stay with a particular pitch, I tell him, 'Well, I have so far.' Usually that's good enough for him."
If the umpire's definition of the strike zone does not cause a catcher and his pitcher to complain, the tempo of the umpire's calls often will. Every umpire develops a rhythm. It is like a metronome activated on the first pitch. The pitch smacks the mitt—boom!—and the call is made. This is not as easy as it sounds. When Nolan Ryan and his fastball are matched against Wilbur Wood and his knuckler, the adjustment an umpire must make every half inning is like the one a dancer makes in switching from the Charleston to a waltz.
"In the first half of an inning the ball is on top of me in a flash," says Spring-stead of Ryan's pitching. "After three outs I'm thinking bing, bing, bing. Along comes Wood, his knuckler taking its sweet time drifting up there. I get anxious and I tend to lean into the plate, which is bad because it means my head is moving and I'm not keeping a firm vision of the strike zone. I can't allow that to happen. It's a tremendous adjustment, but I must make it."
And when a reliever comes in, the umpire suddenly finds himself dancing to still another tune. During a game at Minnesota, Jim Shellenback came out of the bullpen while Rich Garcia was working the plate. Garcia had no idea what to expect because it was Shellenback's first appearance of the season. "His catcher, Butch Wynegar, told me nothing," says Garcia. "Roy White of the Yankees came to bat, and all of a sudden along comes a palmball. It was high, then—boom!—it dropped, causing me to delay my call for a fraction of a second. Because I did something different, it threw White off. He turned to me with a suspicious look, like he was asking whether I really knew where the strike zone was.
"Geez, I didn't know he threw a palm-ball," Garcia said to Wynegar.
"I guess I should have told you," Wynegar said.
No one has to tell an umpire when he misses a call, he knows he has erred just as surely as a player knows when he has mishandled a grounder. It is just that the ump has many more chances to blow one. As the Specialized Umpire Training Center handbook says, "An infielder must play 32 games of errorless fielding to have as many opportunities as an umpire has in one game of calling balls and strikes." And it is not as easy for an umpire to redeem himself, because a player can make up for a mistake either at the plate or in the field. If an umpire attempts to balance out a bad decision by altering his calls on future pitches, he sacrifices his objectivity—and, inevitably, his control of the game. The ump is far better off when he forgets about the miscall.
Johnny Bench says, "It's rare that an umpire says, 'I missed that one,' but when he does I don't say another word. What else can a man admit? It's when an umpire doesn't acknowledge the error that I feel like I'm butting my head against a wall."
Not all catchers agree with Bench, but, then again, no two catchers respond to a blown call in the same manner. Some acknowledge an umpire's mistake with a quick "ooooh" or "aaaah." Yeager usually lets out a sharp grunt, which veteran umpires know is his most derisive expression. However, in last season's third playoff game between the Dodgers and Phillies, Umpire Harry Wendelstedt "missed a call" that Philadelphia parlayed into three runs when Los Angeles Pitcher Burt Hooton, rattled by Wendelstedt's call, walked four batters in a row. In that case Yeager replaced his grunt with, "Harry, it was a good pitch." In light of the importance of the game, that was a mild remark. "There was no need to make a big commotion about it," says Yeager. "It was just one pitch, and it was the third inning. If it had been the ninth, I might have screamed. Even that probably wouldn't have done any good, because the umpires know my personality and know what I do."
A catcher may also gauge his response by who is standing behind him. Munson offers a gruff "No it wasn't" when Ron Luciano, whom he doesn't get along with, calls a close pitch a ball. But when Chylak makes a similar call, Munson tones down his tactics. "If I say to Nestor, 'Damn it, you blew it,' I am likely to rub him the wrong way," says Munson. "I simply tell him, 'You missed it,' and Nestor, who has a lot of confidence in himself, says, 'I didn't.' If I think he blew it very badly, I'll say, 'Nestor, I'm telling you the truth.' "
As Garcia found out, debates at home plate can sometimes involve both catchers. Just such a round-table discussion occurred last September during the opener of a three-game series at Yankee Stadium, with the second-place Red Sox trailing the Yankees by three games. Garcia had the plate assignment. Munson and Fisk, arch rivals, were catching. The Sox were behind 4-2 in the seventh inning when Rick Burleson, representing the tying run, came to the plate. Garcia's strike-three call ended the threat, and Burleson argued with him.
When Fisk came out to warm up his pitcher for the bottom half of the inning, he interrogated Garcia, who in turn asked Fisk if he thought the ball had dipped.
"Yeah, I thought it was low," said Fisk. "It looked like a slider."
"Yeah, it was."
"It looked like it broke out of the strike zone," said Fisk.
"It might have."
"Perhaps you called it before it broke."
In the top of the eighth it was Munson's turn to get into the discussion.
Said Garcia, "That strike I called on Burleson. It might have been low. It was a slider and it sunk."
"That pitch didn't sink. Guidry doesn't even have a slider," Munson said.
Truth is, New York Pitcher Ron Guidry has a pretty good slider, but Garcia did not expect Munson to agree. All he wanted the Yankee catcher to know was that the pitch was a ball, and it would remain one for the rest of the game. Yes, he had called it a strike. No, he would not do so again.
When diplomacy fails, an umpire has another tactic he can use to try to cool off a seething catcher—brushing off the plate whether it needs it or not. This puts the antagonists face to face, instead of back to front and it lets them do some heavy jawing without making their disagreement all that apparent to everyone in the park. Vic Voltaggio, an American League rookie umpire last season, once used the maneuver in the first inning when the plate did not need a brushing off as badly as Oakland Catcher Jeff Newman needed a talking to. A's Pitcher Rick Langford was already in trouble, and, in trying to calm down Langford, Newman had put the blame for the pitcher's inability to throw strikes on Voltaggio.
"We're not going to battle for nine innings," Voltaggio told Newman as he bent down to sweep the plate. "You might as well curse me out now, and I'll unload you. Otherwise, we're going to play this game."
The tactic worked, preventing a first-inning rhubarb without embarrassing either party. Newman lasted the game, and Langford found his stride and went on to win in extra innings.
The fact that Voltaggio did not unload Newman is hardly surprising. Very few catchers are ejected. In 1977 only five American Leaguers (Ray Fosse of Cleveland, Darrell Porter of Kansas City, Charlie Moore of Milwaukee, Manny Sanguillen of Oakland and Munson) were thrown out for offenses ranging from loudmouthing to fighting. The National League had nine ejections—Houston's Joe Ferguson, Cincinnati's Bill Plummer and Philadelphia's Tim McCarver leading the league with two apiece. The previous season only one major league catcher, Fosse, was ejected, for the unpardonable offense of angrily bumping an ump.
Normally there is very little physical contact, even by accident, between catchers and umpires. The Crawford family—father Shag, who retired in 1975, and son Jerry, who now works in the National League—is an exception. In the Crawford style, the umpire rests a hand between a catcher's hip and rib cage. "It keeps him under control," says the younger Crawford, "and it lets me know where he is going. I ask the catcher if it bothers him, and only Jerry Grote has complained." But as all National League umpires attest, grousing is part of Grote's game.
Where and how an umpire positions himself depends on what type of protector he wears. All National Leaguers must use one that is worn inside the uniform shirt, while American Leaguers can choose between the inside pad and the balloon protector, which is worn outside the uniform. (Those who favor the pad say it is less cumbersome than the balloon, which the umpire must prop up with his hands before each pitch. Those who use the balloon feel it gives better protection.) An insider positions his head in what is called the slot, the gap on the inside corner of the plate between the catcher's head and the batter's shoulder.
"If my slot isn't there, I adjust," says American Leaguer Jim Evans. "All the catchers are right-handed, so when a lefty is at bat and the sign is given for an inside pitch, the catcher wants to avoid moving his glove across his body and catching the ball backhanded. Instead, he slides his body over to block the ball and field it squarely. By doing this he also narrows my slot, which forces me to move with him to get a full view of the pitch."
Outsiders call balls and strikes by looking straight over the catcher's head—if the receiver is squatting directly behind the plate. The catcher may move to set an outside or inside target or to field a pitch, but a balloon ump should never budge from his original position.
"When a catcher slides over I have to look over his ear or shoulder even though I'm accustomed to working over his head," says Springstead. "It throws me off, but it doesn't happen a lot."
It is important to umpires that the catcher stay low. If he obscures any portion of the plate from the ump's view he risks having the strike zone shrink, because there is an umpire's axiom that says, "If I can't see it, I'm not going to call it a strike."
Oriole Catcher Elrod Hendricks is 6'1" and long-legged. "I can steal pitches by getting down real low," he says. "By steal, I mean I get strikes called on pitches that other catchers my height may not get even though the pitches really were strikes. That's because a lot of tall catchers block the umpire's vision."
Stealing pitches is as integral a part of Hendricks'—or any other catcher's—game as stealing second base is of Lou Brock's. By positioning himself on the outside corner, for example, the home-team catcher sets up a situation in which the umpires' judgment—and courage—are pitted against the crowd's reaction.
If the pitch is outside, if the umpire sees it miss, if the hitter doesn't swing, but if the catcher doesn't budge, fans assume it was a strike. And if the catcher wants to "get cute" he can hold the ball there for the entire ball park to judge.
"I can't cheat and give him a strike," says Springstead. "The pitch is out of the strike zone, exactly where the catcher wanted it. in hopes that the batter would swing. But the batter didn't swing, and I'm not going to call a strike. I can't let the catcher use the 30,000 people in the stands to intimidate me."
The setup to steal outside pitches falls apart when the pitcher unintentionally throws a strike on the inside. "Then the catcher reaches across the plate, and there isn't anyone in the park who thinks it was a strike, when it was," says National Leaguer Paul Runge. "Sure, catchers try to cheat, but it's nothing personal against umpires."
To prevent being misled, an umpire must keep a level head. "Once I start moving my head I lose perspective," says Springstead. "The toughest one to call is the one right at my eyes. My tendency is to flinch. If I do, there is no way I can call the pitch correctly."
"Umpires don't have lights that blink on to give them an automatic strike zone," says Yeager. So on every pitch the umpire must mentally redefine the zone and defend it against attacks from the catcher. For the system to work the catcher must also remain as still as a rock. "If I constantly jump up and down or move from side to side, I'm not giving the umpire his best look," says Yeager. "So I have no right to disagree with his call."
For the most part, in recent seasons conciliation has replaced confrontation behind the plate. "I don't want to get into arguments with umpires," says Munson. "I need them when I'm hitting. I need them when I'm catching. But I can't let my pitcher and manager down by letting a bad call go by and not saying anything. I don't bitch just to bitch."
In the days when there were Boston Braves and Brooklyn Dodgers, tradition has it that umpires would cut off a catcher by saying, "You think that was bad. Wait until you see this one." When the next pitch flew across the plate, the umpire would get his revenge: "Ball two!"
Says Garcia, "They got away with it simply because there was no television, no cameras and no instant replay. I can't imagine that happening today."
Electronic surveillance may curtail heavy-handed behavior by umps but it cannot prevent grudges from arising. Take the case of Larry Barnett and Fisk. Since the third game of the 1975 World Series, the two have been about as friendly as John Dean and Richard Nixon. That night 40 million TV viewers watched as Barnett didn't call interference on Reds pinch hitter Ed Armbrister after Armbrister had collided with Fisk on a bunt play. Fisk's subsequent overthrow of second base allowed the eventual winning run to move into scoring position.
"Ever since that game our relationship has been strained," says Barnett. "If I didn't say that, I'd be lying. Fisk says hello, I say hello, and we limit it to that."
Keeping the conversation to greetings is not always that simple. Last September, Fisk and Barnett were together again. First Barnett called Fisk out on a 2-2 pitch that Fisk thought was inside. Then, when Boston was in the field, Barnett made another call that Fisk felt was incorrect. An argument ensued.
"I'll tell you one thing," Barnett said to Fisk. "You open your mouth once more and I'll run you."
"That's the way you are," Fisk said. "Just because you wear a blue uniform you think you have the right to command the game whether you're right or wrong. You can't think you are calling the game right. You just can't."
"I'll give you one more chance. Either get back in the game or you're gone."
At that moment Red Sox Manager Don Zimmer arrived on the scene.
"I don't want you getting tossed," he told Fisk.
"Zimmy, I'm keeping him," said Barnett.
"That's real nice, Larry," said Fisk. "You're really doing me a great big favor. But why don't you try calling the pitches correctly."
Fisk survived the nine innings. So did the Red Sox, beating Detroit 6-2.
Barnett and Fisk are not alone in their mutual animosity. Froemming cannot forget a game in 1973 when the irascible Grote, then catching for the Mets, let a fastball get by him that almost hit the hot-tempered Froemming in the throat. Because they had spent the three previous innings in a non-stop argument, Froemming accused Grote of intentionally moving aside in hope that the pitch would hit the umpire.
"Are you going to throw me out?" snapped Grote.
Mets Manager Yogi Berra charged from the dugout.
"He made no attempt to stop that pitch," Froemming told Berra. The umpire's accusation was tough to prove and he knew it. Grote remained in the game.
Aside from catchers who gripe, steal pitches and sometimes miss them, an umpire must contend with bellyaching batters. Catchers can be the worst of the lot, because they are more attuned to an umpire's strike zone and his frame of mind than other hitters. One umpire, Jim Evans, classifies hitters as follows:
"There's the alibier, the guy who tries to put the monkey on my back. Then there is the phony beefer, the guy with the superstar complex who thinks if he doesn't swing, it can't be a strike. And there's the legitimate beefer. He sincerely believes he is right. I never mind an argument from him."
According to umpires, worst of all is the two-strike-zone catcher, who sees one strike zone while working behind the plate and another, smaller version while standing alongside it.
"Joe Ferguson hardly ever questions me when he's catching," says Dick Stello. "But when he's a hitter, he has a wholly different strike zone, one that's so small I can't call a strike on him."
Once when Umpire Paul Runge called Bench out on strikes he heard about it for the rest of the game. Seems that Bench was going for his 1,000th RBI. When the third strike was called, with a man in scoring position, Bench disagreed. Walking back to the dugout, he complained.
"I came out to catch, and we talked some more," says Bench. "Runge was ready to throw me out. I caught a pitch he called a ball. I held it there to show him that it was the same as the pitch he struck me out on."
"Don't show me up," the umpire said.
"If I were trying to show you up, I sure would've said more when I walked away."
It was the sixth inning.
In the ninth Bench was still around. Runge leaned over as the game neared its end and left Bench with these parting words: "Before you go, good luck in the All-Star Game."