I want your handson your knees, thumbs inside, head up, elbows locked, feet straight. Keep yourshoulders square to the base, body aggressively forward.
"Put your armup like you're going to shake hands. Then get it up here...out in front, abovethe shoulder. Now snap it! And the words are 'He's out!' Not 'You're out!' But'He's out!' All the time. 'He's out!' "
American Leagueumpire Joe Brinkman, who was the crew chief in last year's controversial"pine tar" game, was standing along the leftfield foul line on a LittleLeague diamond in St. Petersburg, Fla. He spat a stream of tobacco juice intothe grass and resumed his lesson. "On the safe call, get your hands up infront, then move them out, parallel to the ground, then back together and down.Four steps. Up, out, together and down. And I don't want any of that 'Safe,safe, safe' crap like Luciano did. The word is 'Safe!' That's it: 'Safe!' Andget your———arms out so the fan in the 40th row can see you."
Umpiring 101 hadbegun. The 120 aspiring umps, huddled around Brinkman in rapt attention, hadpaid about $1,000 apiece to enroll in what resembled five weeks of basictraining. The students would sleep in barracks, eat mess-hall chow and doenough drills and calls to qualify for a good-conduct medal. "It has to bethis way," said Triple A umpire and school instructor Larry Reveal."It's the only way to compare people." Only 13 of the 120 would behired by the minor leagues and become long-range candidates for the majors.Seven more would be put on a reserve list.
March 12, 1984
The Joe BrinkmanUmpire Schools in St. Pete and San Bernardino, Calif., and a similar one run byNational League umpire Harry Wendelstedt in Daytona Beach, Fla. are the onlyroutes into the profession. Pass the class, you're safe. If not, you're out. Noarguments. Each year 30 to 35 new umps, about one-tenth the number who attendthe schools, earn assignments to the rookie leagues.
But why wouldanyone aspire to work in such a thankless profession? "We're crazy,"says American League umpire and Brinkman instructor Nick Bremigan. True, but inSt. Pete, from Jan. 29 through last Sunday, Emmett Ash-ford's philosophy, notinsanity, seemed to apply. In 1951, at age 36, Ashford, who would breakbaseball's color line for umps in 1965, left a secure civil-service job in L.A.for a life of balls and strikes. Asked why, he replied, "How many men go totheir graves without ever doing what's in their hearts?"
So it was forKeith Jones, 20, from Guntersville, Ala., who this winter attended Brinkman'sschool. "My dad umpired in our town for 35 years," he said. "He'staught me everything I know. I'd like to make it for him."
For LanceJohnson, 22, an Arizona State senior, it was a shot at "a glamour position.Everybody at the game looks up to you," he said. "You're a statussymbol. I wouldn't mind being seen that way."
Of course,Johnson was talking about being a major league umpire, but for an ump, evenmore than for a player, the road from the rookie leagues to the bigs is usuallya long one. The average minor league apprenticeship lasts eight years. Only 1%of those who umpire in the bushes ever reach the majors. The rest wash out intumbleweed towns, having endured too many fleabag motels, lousy meals, abusivefans and bouts of loneliness. Brinkman remembers sleeping in his car during hisminor league days, giving out the telephone number of a nearby booth to anyonewho needed to reach him. "And I used to split breakfast with mypartner," he said.
Times are betternow, but not much. Minor league pay begins at $1,300 a month for six months'work, plus hotel expenses. In Triple A the base pay is $1,900, and the umps get$48 a day for room and board. "All you can say about the minors," saidReveal, "is if you make the majors, what's behind you was worthit."
Brinkman'sFlorida school attracted an assortment of candidates. Most were in their early20s or 30s, though there was also 60-year-old Silvio Morreale of Poughkeepsie,N.Y., who said he'd come south "to fulfill a dream." Only eightstudents had no previous experience; the rest had worked in games from LittleLeague through major college. Twelve were back for a second try, thoughBrinkman, 39, stressed ties would go to first-year students. "They'velearned the system in five weeks," said Brinkman, "the others have had10."
One of thesecond-year crowd was Steve Kunsey, 22, from Portland, Conn. He'd taken strikeone in 1983. "The pressure got to me," said Kunsey. "I'd go to bedat night thinking if I don't make it I'll kill myself. My priorities were outof order." This time Kunsey came closer, making the reserve list.
Another returneehad waited 13 years between classes. In 1971 Jim Mitchell, then 23, attendedthe school, then known as the Umpires Specialization Course, and won its awardas the top prospect, rating ahead of future major league umpires Eric Gregg,Dave Pallone and Lanny Harris. Mitchell jumped to Double A in two years andtasted Triple A in four. But then he made a bad call off the field. "When Igot married between my first and second years in the minors, I thought my wifeunderstood what baseball life was like," said Mitchell. "It didn't turnout that way." He was divorced in 1975, but, he said, "I wasn't able towalk away from the marriage and stay in baseball." Instead, he dropped outof the game, went back home to Ohio, enrolled at Miami University andeventually moved to Las Vegas, where he owns a restaurant. "My mom'srunning it now," he said.
One hopes her"running" was better than Mitchell's was in St. Pete. "I don't knowif he's Cadillacking it or what," said one instructor watching Mitchellarrive late for a play at first base. "He'll have to be twice as good asanyone else here to make it," said another. Mitchell wasn't.
More than half ofBrinkman's 12 instructors have had major league experience, so they knew whatto look for as they strode through drill lines, barking out orders."Straighten that leg!" "Bend that knee!" They wanted men whofit their own self-image: confident, aggressive, indomitable. Men withpresence. Men of self-control and integrity. "We scrutinize," saidAmerican League ump Drew Coble. "We're looking for guys who can handlethemselves. We may have to work with them someday."
"I want a guywho doesn't repeat the same mistakes," said American Leaguer Dan Morrison."I want a guy who stands out with his consistency."
Graylin Carltonstood out, if only because he was one of two blacks at the school. That's ashocking statistic perhaps, but it's typical of professional ball, which hasjust four blacks among its 228 umpires—two in the National League, two in theminor leagues. Carlton, 24, from Weaverville, N.C., introduced himself asKnuckles. "My mom used to call me Knucklehead," he said. "I used tofight a lot." Knuckles knew he was in one now and had come prepared. He'dsaved for three years to scrape up the tuition, working in greenhouses andbagging groceries while umping five, six, sometimes seven games a day.
Carlton majoredin voice and music at tiny Mars Hill (N.C.) College, where he sang in the choirand ran the intramural program. "A lot of blacks don't become umpiresbecause they can't afford to take the chance," he said. "They look atTV and see no black umpires in the American League and say, 'What the hell, Ican't make it.' I know they're watching me. I'm small [5'8"], so that addsmore pressure. But I want to get to the major leagues. I don't feel there areenough black umpires up there. I want to set a pattern for other blacks tofollow. You have to start somewhere."
But, for all hisdetermination, Carlton didn't make it. Brinkman felt he wasn't fluid in hismovements or quick enough in making the tough calls. Simply, Carlton hadn'tmastered The System: the inclusive code word for proper positioning, style,mechanics and timing. Try to beat The System—that is, free-lance, not followdirections—and you fail.
No detail was toosmall, no movement too mundane to be covered. One morning Triple A umpire SteveRippley did a monologue on how to take off the mask. "It's hand tomask," he said, "not mask to hand. You want to keep your head up incase anything happens." And there was a lesson on how an umpire should makethe call on the simple throw from third to first with nobody on, nobody out.Students learned where to stand before the pitch is made (eight to 10 feetbehind the first baseman in foul territory); where to move once the ball is hit(15 to 18 feet into fair ground, perpendicular to the throw); how to make thecall ("Watch the foot and listen for the sound," said Morrison."It's the only way to call it"); and how to "sell it." SaidRippley, "It's an act. If it's close, you've got to make them believeyou're right."
The basics alsoincluded lessons on how to set up behind the catcher when calling balls andstrikes: Put your head just above the catcher's, instructed Brinkman, because"you want to see what the catcher sees"; place one foot between thebatter and catcher, because "you want to work the inside of the plate."But, most important, the head must be stationary. "Follow the pitch withyour eyes, not your head," said Brinkman.
Studentsregularly broke into two groups of 60 for morning and afternoon sessionslasting two hours each. The five-week camp included 150 hours of on-fieldinstruction and 75 more in the classroom—where the candidates took 13 writtentests—under the direction of Bremigan, a 10-year American League veteran. Thefirst day he'd melted the ice by chatting about the universal language ofsport. "A lot of ballplayers can't say hello without swearing," hebegan.
"How do youknow when to throw a guy out?" asked a student.
"Well, whatit boils down to is this," Bremigan said. "If he swears at you, callsyou a blankety-blank, you dump him. Now, if he swears around you, says that wasthe worst blankety-blank call he's ever seen—which you hear all the timebecause every call you'll ever make is the worst blankety-blank call they'veever seen—then you can dump him or not."
Bremigan also hada couple of special devices for keeping the class's attention: a plastic,dime-store model of an F-16 fighter, and a bike horn. Ask a stupid question andBremigan would sound a honk! honk! or he'd bounce off the podium and buzz theplane around the student's head. The class joined in the razzing by yelling"Zoom, zoom, zoom" at every opportunity. One such occasion occurredwhen a student wanted to know if a batter is out if a fielder catches a foulball in a box of popcorn.
"What was theanswer on that one?" Coble said later.
"He didn'tdeserve a blanking answer," said Bremigan. "I planed him."
As the days woreon, the subject matter became more complex, the on-field situations morearcane, involving dead-ball advancement, interference, appeal plays, balks,swipe tags, pickoffs, bunts—and time plays. "Half the people watchingbaseball can't tell you what a time play is," said Brinkman. "Theythink it's a play that starts at 2:30 or something."
Actually a timeplay is one of the most difficult calls in the game. Here's a time-playsituation: bases loaded, one out and a sacrifice fly is hit to left. "Youhave to understand," lectured Brinkman, "that when the catch is made,that's two outs. So the home-plate umpire must watch to see that the third-baserunner doesn't leave early, then decide if, on a play where the runner istagging from second, the runner from third scores before or after a third outwas made."
And then therewas the razzing. "That's a horseblank call," said Bremigan as a studentblew one at first base.
"Let the playhappen," screamed Morrison as a student made a quick draw on an out call atfirst.
And if a studentchose to sulk? Coble would say, "Sonny, walk with your blanking headup."
As one insultblended into another, self-confidence cracked like a broken bat. One studentquit the first day, two more the first week; all told, 12 dropped out. Theremight have been even more casualties had Morreale not been around to dispenseencouragement. Twice inducted into local halls of fame for service to kids andcommunity, he has coached youth league and semipro ball for 41 years, winning23 championships, and has umpired for 43 years. "A lot of these kids wantedto go home the first night," he said. "They were glad they talked tome. I gave them courage. I told them, 'You can't give up—too many people do.'Maybe this school needs an oldtimer for inspiration. Even if I don't do great,they see me on the field. That's what young people need today."
Jim Pfeifer, 23,needed to look sharp. Behind the home-plate screen American League umpire VicVoltaggio was grading Pfeifer's balls-and-strikes performance during a localhigh school's intrasquad scrimmage, one of five such game evaluations all thestudents received. Pfeifer is an Iowa farm boy and four-sport athlete with twoyears of high school and college umping experience. Five minutes after Pfeifer,who bears a disarming likeness to American League umpire Ken Kaiser, checkedin, he was "Kaise" to the teachers and was being given instruction onhow to imitate his double's stoop-shouldered walk. "They want me to do itat the banquet they're having at the end of school," said Pfeifer.
Voltaggio likedPfeifer's work. He rated Pfeifer strongly for voice, field presence, timing,communicating with partner and stance. He thought Pfeifer needed to anticipateplays better. "But the kid looks pretty good," said Voltaggio. Not goodenough, however, to be one of the 13 who made it.
But Johnson was.A 6-foot-tall 185-pounder, he grew up just a couple of cornfields away fromPfeifer in Fairfield. He'd umped almost six years of high school and youthleague baseball in Iowa and Arizona before he decided to heed the suggestion ofa fellow umpire. "He said my size was good and that I should take thesemester off and try it," explained Johnson. And as the weeks progressed,Johnson's experience and presence paid off. "Everybody likes him, he's oneof our top five right now," said Brinkman after the third week of school."He'd have to fall dead on his face to miss." Johnson didn't. He'llmost likely be calling balls and strikes in the Florida Gulf Coast League thissummer.
Anothersuccessful candidate was Jim Ayers, 25, of Anoka, Minn. Although he had just afew years of Little League and semi-pro experience, he attended the school atthe suggestion of his football coach at the University of Minnesota at Morris.After a day of working on the field and in the classroom, Ayers would trudgeout to a diamond and call imaginary situations. One evening, in total darkness,he and three other students could be heard practicing their calls on theinfield, bellowing safes and outs into the night.
The differencebetween those who made it and the seven candidates who were put on standby wastheir ability to maintain order without "getting an attitude." When thescreaming starts and, as the umps say, "it's time to circle thewagons," some guys run for cover and others grab the reins. "If anumpire stares at the ground or looks over the shoulder of the guy he's arguingwith, he's whipped," said Morrison. "We want a guy who can handlehimself, explain his call, not duck and go away."
It was clear fromthe start that Matthew Lofchie, 30, wouldn't make the final cut. He'd come toSt. Pete with only one year of Little League experience. "An outlaw leagueat that," said Lofchie. He wore a dirty red windbreaker and baggy khakipants the first day and quickly became the butt of private jokes and the targetof Bremigan's F-16. Last summer he'd hot-walked horses at Saratoga and thendelivered messages by bike in the dead of winter in New York. He said he wasdrawn to the school by umpire Bill Kinnamon's comments in a book titled The Menin Blue. "The men here are strong, resilient types with high moralfiber," he said. "I'd like to be like them."
It was not to be.But there Lofchie was, smiling broadly one evening, buying drinks for hisinstructors.
"What's theoccasion?" asked Reveal.
"The guyselected me barracks rep tonight," smiled Lofchie. "Can you believeit?"
Reveal lifted hisglass in acknowledgment. "Congratulations, Matthew," he said.
So, in many ways,losers are winners. Boys grow up, slouchers walk taller. They throw theirchests out, heads up, knowing that back home, in their local league, they'll bethe best. "It's 'He's out!' Not 'You're out!' " they say.
"This placeis like boot camp," says one graduate of Brinkman's school. "It's atest of yourself. But it makes you a better person, whether it's on the fieldor on the street."
That's a qualityeven a manager would approve of.