Embarrassment.Injury. Blunt force trauma. Estate planning. The mind quickly accelerates thepossibility and the amplitude of catastrophe when you are standing on theinfield grass, as I am, 75 feet in front of Boston Red Sox slugger MannyRamirez while he bats with a runner on first base. No infielder ever would beso foolish to put himself this close to the potential harm of a Ramirez linedrive, not even armed with world-class hand-eye coordination, a fielder's gloveand a protective cup--all of which, as I am most acutely aware, I do notpossess at this moment. ¬∂ I am a major league umpire--for one day anyway, March23, working a spring training matinee between the Red Sox and the BaltimoreOrioles in Fort Myers, Fla. Leaving the observational safety of sportswriting,I have been granted permission by Major League Baseball to experience thepressure, the difficulty and the thanklessness of risking life, limb and publichumiliation in front of thousands of people conditioned to dislike you. I amassigned the same spring rotation as my full-time brethren:
three innings atthird base, followed by three at second and three at first.
The baseball wehold dear is a benign, leisurely sport, a "noncontact" pursuit in whichwe cherish its sweetly proportioned empty spaces. The interlude betweenpitches. The flanks in the alignment of fielders. The 90 feet between bases.The flight of a thrown or batted baseball offers elegant interruption to thespatial symmetry.
Working from theinterior of the infield, however, reveals the power and speed of the game. It'sthe difference between observing a funnel cloud from a safe distance on theground and flying a research plane into the vortex of a tornado. "I tellall the young umpires that come up from the minors, 'Expect a close play everytime,'" says Tim Tschida, 46, my crew chief who is working home plate thisgame. "[The play's] only routine here after it's over. That ball threesteps to the right of the shortstop? They don't get to that ball in the minorsand here they might throw the guy out. Middle infielders get to more balls upthe middle that minor leaguers would never get to--and not only get to them,but turn them into double plays. I tell the young guys, 'Don't give up onanything.'"
My proximity toRamirez, who is poised in that familiar asplike, coiled stance, is gripping,but the responsibilities of the job rattle around in my head, like marblestumbling in a dryer. I've got to keep watch on the Orioles' pitcher, ErikBedard, for a possible balk, the Sasquatch of rules violations for itsdifficulty to observe. (I've already missed one by Boston starter CurtSchilling, but so, too, did the rest of the crew.) I must make all calls atsecond base, which is over my right shoulder (including a stolen base attemptor a force play, which is the most commonly missed call by umpires), andpossibly at third base if the umpire there, Brian O'Nora, leaves his post totrack a ball hit to the outfield.
I must also knowthe rule book and the grounds rules with absolute certainty, a weakness of mineexposed during a mild argument the previous half inning with Bostonrightfielder J.D. Drew (who had no clue he was pleading his case to asportswriter until I told him the next day). And one more thought--the motherof all marbles. Being an umpire is like being a jet pilot, a skydiver or asword swallower: You're expected to be perfect every time, and if you do screwup it's obvious to everyone. Nothing less than flawless is acceptable. I mustget it right.
"God knows ifyou don't have the mental aptitude for this, you'd ask, 'What are youdoing?'" says Fieldin Culbreth, another crew member. "If you're right,nobody's coming in and patting you on the back. If there are 10 close plays andyou get 10 exactly right, they're booing you anyway. The only people who willsay, 'Good job' are the other three guys in the [locker] room with you. Theteams aren't going to say, 'Hell of a job.' ESPN's not going to say, 'Watchthis umpire!' Here's the difference: The players are trying to make a play toget on SportsCenter. We're trying our damnedest to stay off it."
I trained long(O.K., two days with Tschida and Culbreth) and hard (kicking back watchinggames in the Florida sun) for this gig. Ominously, the most important advicegiven to me by the umpires was to avoid utter disaster. My Umpire 101 syllabuslooked like this:
1. Don't blow outthe knee of Baltimore shortstop Miguel Tejada by watching the flight of apop-up near the third base line.
The fielder, whois also looking up, is likely to plow into the umpire, whose proper course ofaction is to first look for and avoid the fielders. "You getting hurt isone thing," Culbreth says. "The player getting hurt? Now there's aproblem."
2. Beware of ballsthat explode.
That's umpireterminology for what happens when you try to track a ball as it passes directlyover your head, causing you to lose sight of it.
3. Don't chasedown a batted or thrown ball; that's the players' job.
Don't laugh; it'shappened. Former major leaguer Ron LeFlore flunked umpire school in 1988 forhis instinctive reaction to play the ball like the outfielder he once wasrather than getting into proper position.
4. Don't get spunaround by line drives hit directly at you; you'll fall on your butt or, worse,get pegged there.
Culbreth recallsthe time that no sooner had he remarked that he had never seen Jeromy Burnitzhit a line drive than Burnitz nailed first base umpire Terry Craft in theposterior. "It went up one side of his [butt] and down the other,"Culbreth says.
5. Make sure yourfly is zipped.
Basically, the jobcomes down to this: If I can quit worrying long enough about wiping out Tejada,about baseballs that either explode, tempt me to field them or put me on mycan, and about keeping my pants on properly, then all I need to do is nailevery single call. Great.
"Umpiring is agift," says ump Tim Timmons, 39, who also assisted in my training,"like the hitter who has the skill to hit that 90-mph slider or the pitcherwho can do things with a baseball no human being should be able to do. Thoseare real gifts, and so is umpiring. You can't teach instincts."
Major leagueumpires are, in fact, closer to perfect than you might imagine. There were167,341 at bats last season over 2,429 games. According to the 2006"Umpiring Year in Review," a report put together by MLB officials, themen in blue made only 100 incorrect calls, excluding balls and strikes (and inthat discipline they were judged to be 94.9% accurate). Not once did a clubprotest a game. (A protest can be filed only if a team believes umpiresmisapplied the rules.)
For the privilegeof having to be perfect, umpires spend about 200 days a year on the road, hearthe same lousy jokes in every ballpark about their eyesight or familialheritage, and routinely get second-guessed by critics watching repeatedsuperslow, frame-by-frame replays in high definition from multiple cameraangles. Yet major league umpiring jobs (of which there are 68) open up thesedays about as infrequently as those on the Supreme Court. What kind of personwould love a job in which you get noticed only for your mistakes?
"I've alwayssaid there's no player, no fan, no manager and no umpire who could ever be ashard on me as I'll be," says Culbreth. "The fans can boo and throwstuff, and managers can scream and holler and get ejected, and they'll neverget to me like I will. The part that bothers me the most is people think wemiss a call, change our clothes, get in a station wagon, go have a cheeseburgerand go home. That's just not how it is. If people knew how much we cared ...they wouldn't be able to comprehend how much it bothers us to find out that weare wrong."
"You'reexpected to be perfect the day you start, and then improve."
--Ed Vargo, NLumpire supervisor, 1985
Schilling andBedard are throwing so well that my three innings at third base pass withoutincident. The best action I get is a conversation with Boston third basemanMike Lowell about April weather, and a Manny-being-Manny moment when, asRamirez runs to leftfield, he looks at me with wild-eyed glee and chortles,"Heeeey! Que pasa?!" I get no appeal calls on check swings bylefthanded batters, an especially tricky call for umpires because the rule bookis not explicit about what exactly constitutes a swing.
Says Culbreth,laughing, "Just remember, if it's David Ortiz, he didn't [swing]. Trust me.After you say he did, he'll tell you. He'll faint. If I could hit with hischeck swings I might have gotten drafted."
According to MajorLeague Baseball's review, in 2006 umpires missed a call in the field only onceevery 12.2 games. Force plays (43 mistakes), tag plays (14) and steals (12)were the only categories in which umpires missed 10 or more calls the entireseason. Video replay, however, is just around baseball's corner, at least in alimited scope. Baseball is studying the possibility of using it to assist inmaking home run calls--fair or foul, and whether or not the ball cleared thewall or designated home run line. Such calls have been made more difficult bymodern ballpark designs, which put fans, architectural elements and billboardscloser to the action.
"If we don'taddress this, there will be a major controversy and that's how replay gets inthe door," Tschida says. "Last year our crew in the first month hadfive home run calls where we had to get together [to discuss them]. I wasthinking, Are we snakebit? So I started keeping track. We had 43 home runswhere the ball came back on the field. It's not supposed to happen, but ithappens when nonbaseball people are designing fields."
I have thepleasure of calling a clean, no-doubt home run by Red Sox catcher Jason Varitekin the fifth, but it's during those middle innings, when I am stationed atsecond base, that the inner game of umpiring becomes dangerous. The second baseumpire is the lead dancer of the four-man ballet. I must run into the outfieldon balls hit from gap to gap with nobody on base, with the third base umpirerotating to second and the home plate ump rotating to third. "Once youleave, don't stop," Culbreth instructs.
However, in thefourth, I am positioned in the interior infield because there's a runner atfirst base--"Once in, always in" is the rule with runners on--and Imake the mistake of chasing a ball hit into the right centerfield gap by theOrioles' Jay Gibbons. It's a blunder most fans would never notice, butunderstanding the umpires' pursuit of perfection, it rankles me. Indeed, I'mlater told that umpire supervisor Marty Springstead, watching the game from thepress box, exclaimed, "Uh-oh, too many umpires in the outfield."
The next batter,Kevin Millar, also drives a double into the same gap. The ball rolls to a stopat the bottom of the fence and is returned to the infield by centerfielder WilyMo Pe√±a. That play will prompt Drew, after the inning ends, to stop next to meon his way to the dugout.
Drew lifts hisarms out to his sides and says to me, "Hey, what's the rule on the ballthat wedges under the fence?"
I can tell he'svery serious and mistakes me for an actual umpire. This is not good.
"Uh, did it gounder the fence at all?" I ask in an attempt to avoid his question."Because if it goes under the fence it's a dead ball even if he fishes itout."
"No," Drewsays, more impassioned this time. "The ball got stuck between the bottom ofthe fence and the ground. What's the ruling?"
"The ball's inplay unless it goes completely under the fence," I reply, in fullfilibuster mode as I return to the under-the-fence diversion.
"No, not underthe fence," Drew says again, more confused than annoyed about not getting adirect answer from an umpire. "What's the ground rule here on a ball stuckunder the fence?"
I've tap-dancedlong enough for Culbreth to rescue me as he joins us from his station at firstbase. I haven't been this happy to see an umpire since Leslie Nielsen in TheNaked Gun. Culbreth explains that the ball's in play as long as Pe√±a chooses toplay it; if the ball's wedged, Pe√±a can raise his hand to signal a stuck ball.Then the ruling is an automatic double and two bases to any base runner.
"Yeah," Isay to Drew, suddenly summoning an authoritative tone with a straight face."Tell him next time to just raise his hand and we'll stop theplay."
I made sure tofind Drew the next morning at a Red Sox workout.
"That wasyou?" he says in amazement. "I came back into the dugout after that andlooked at the list [of umpires]. I knew the other three guys, but they didn'thave you on it. So I figured you were some Double A umpire they called up toreplace somebody."
There's moretrouble in the fifth, the same kind of trouble, like the undertow of the ocean,that mostly goes unseen. Baltimore's Corey Patterson whistles a line drive atCulbreth, the kind of missile that can put an umpire embarrassingly on his buttor whack him there.
Any hitter willtell you that late-breaking pitches are hardest to hit because it is impossiblefor the eyes to track a thrown ball and see it the last four or five feet.Culbreth is challenged by the same limitation. He can track the ball--it'sheading right for his ankles--but because of its speed and proximity to hisbody he can't see it just as it hits the ground. He's got to make a call.Quickly.
"Fairball!" he shouts, and signals so, deftly staying off his butt. Pattersonraces into second with a double as the runner at first, Paul Bako, advances tothird.
Schilling pitchesout of the jam, but only after he gets away with his covert balk. Stepping offthe mound to get a new signal from Varitek, Schilling, a righthander, moved hisleft foot slightly back, which technically begins his delivery. Tschida seessomething amiss, but in the moment he processes the information, he grants arequest for time from Varitek. ("Oh, I balked," Schilling will say thenext day.)
After the inning,Culbreth still is thinking about Patterson's line drive. "That one I don'tfeel great about," he tells me. (Amazingly, according to the MLB report,umpires missed a total of three fair-foul calls all of last season.) "Ithink I got it right, but sometimes you feel less than great about it."
"I thought youhad it right," I tell him. "Was there chalk?"
"No, it didn'thit chalk," he says, "but here's the thing: If you ever have some doubtin your mind, you're better off calling it fair than foul. That's because, ifanother umpire had a better look and comes in and says, 'No, I had it foul,'then you can just return the base runner and the batter continues to hit. Butonce you call it foul, everybody stops; so if another umpire has it fair, whatcan you do? You can't just make up where everybody goes."
"You had itright," I tell him.
Says Schilling,"It was foul by three or four feet. Wasn't even close."
"We're lookingright down the line from the dugout," reliever Mike Timlin says. "Itwas foul."
Culbreth getsanother adventure straight out of the Umpiring 101 syllabus: a foul pop-up intoa swirling wind that confuses Millar, the Orioles' first baseman. Culbreth istrying to stay out of the way of Millar, who is circling wildly, as if dizzy.Culbreth is doing his best to zig whenever Millar zags. It's a comedic andungraceful pas de deux, the punch line coming when the ball plops on thewarning track closer to Culbreth than to Millar. Second baseman Brian Robertslooks at me and we both are laughing. So, too, is Tejada, who yells, "Hey,Kevin, I can't wait to see that on bloopers!" Millar, who otherwise spendshis time at first base yelling mock insults to his former Red Sox teammates asthey hit, or trying to bait me into making appeal calls from second base onridiculously meager check swings, has to laugh himself.
"Ioccasionally get birthday cards from fans. But it's often the same message:They hope it's my last."
--Al Forman, NLumpire, 1961
Here it comes: aclose call I will have to make at first base that will impact the game. Boston,trailing 2--1, has runners at first and second with no outs in the seventh whenLowell hits a grounder to second base. Baltimore will try to turn a doubleplay, so I position myself for the call. The throw from Tejada to Millarbounces into the first baseman's glove. It's a close play, but I have Lowellout, the bang of the ball hitting the glove barely preceding the bang of thefoot upon the bag. (The umpires' adage is that a blind man could umpire atfirst base.) The rally is virtually snuffed by the call. Suddenly there's thisswell of noise from the Red Sox crowd, a strange mix of excitement andapoplexy.
Is it directed atLowell? At me? I thought I had it right, but for one anxious moment, I'm notsure. Did I blow it that badly? No, wait. I flush the doubt. Lowell was out.I'm pretty sure of it. That plaintive groan is the sound of disappointedpartisanship. Major league umps are tone deaf to such noise.
"They'rebiased," Culbreth says of fans. "The only time you might hear somethingis if it's really original, which almost never happens. I still remember onetime when I was in Double A. There was this middle-aged lady. She must havebeen in her 50s, pushing 60. She gets up and she yells at me, 'Why don't youpull down your pants, bend over and try your good eye.' Nothing's original. Butthat was."
Says Tschida,"There was one time years ago when I bought a patent leather belt andthought it looked just great. Well, I wear it in Yankee Stadium for the firsttime, and those people know how to wait so that you can hear them. This oneguy, a real New Yorker, gets up and yells, 'Hey, Tschida. How can you make acall like dat wearin' a patent leathah belt like dat? And hey, what accessoriescame with dat?' As soon as the game was over, I go in the locker room, rip offthe belt and throw it in the garbage."
Boston ties thegame in the last of the eighth. It is only spring training, but I'm struck bythe buzz in the crowd, the effort by both teams to win the game--to preservethe tie, Baltimore intentionally walks Ortiz, who spits epithets all the way tofirst--and it hits me smack in the gut: I am umpiring first base in a game inwhich the Red Sox and the Orioles are tied at 2 headed to the ninth. Good Lord,if this is Fort Myers, what must the late innings of a World Series game feellike?
The real umpireswant the responsibility of the big call. It's what drove them through one ofthe two feeder umpire schools to professional baseball (94% of the studentsdon't even graduate to the next step, a recommendation to an evaluationcourse), through the minor leagues (earning between $1,800 and $3,400 a month)and earning that big league job with the $87,859 starting salary, thefirst-class air travel, the four weeks of in-season vacation and the $363.48per diem for food and lodging. Me? I'm praying neither the baseball nor my headexplodes.
"This is my22nd year," Tschida says. "When I'm 55 that will be my 30th, and if Ifeel good I'll keep going. I'll do it as long as I can. Few people in this jobjust retire when retirement age hits. Mostly, we do it until it becomesphysically difficult to do it. Until we can't."
I know, especiallydeployed at first base, I could very well be involved in the outcome of a bigleague game. "If it goes extra innings," O'Nora tells me, "we don'trotate. You stay at first."
I remind myself ofwhat O'Nora told me in the middle innings, when I was so eager to make a callI'd give the out signal as quickly as a fly ball thwacked into an outfielder'sglove: Don't hurry. It's nothing until you call it. Even a big leagueoutfielder might drop a ball, and you wouldn't look too sharp with your fist inthe air and the ball on the ground. Slow down the game. It's exactly what thebetter players do as the tension builds.
It's the bottom ofthe ninth, and Boston's Alex Ochoa lifts a routine fly ball to centerfield.Just as I sneak a peek to watch the catch before I make sure Ochoa touchesfirst base, Orioles centerfielder Adam Stern, fighting wind and sun, flat dropsthe ball. O'Nora, cooly patient, gives the no-catch call. Ochoa reaches secondbase. He advances to third on a groundout to second base--my last call, an easyone--and scores the winning run on a single by Kevin Cash through a drawn-ininfield.
The four of us,the umpires, depart the field through the same tunnel as the Orioles at the farend of the visiting dugout. It's been a good day. I did not disable anyballplayers. I stayed off my butt. My fly is up. Our dressing room is on theright, the Orioles' clubhouse directly across the narrow hallway on the left.As I walk into our room I hear a short, loud crash from the Baltimoreclubhouse, followed by an even louder shout of "F---!"
Not two secondslater, the first words out of Tschida's mouth are these, softly: "I thinkSchilling balked." His face is riddled with disappointment. "We getpaid to see that," he says. "I didn't see that. We will OpeningDay."
Tomorrow isanother day, another game. Tomorrow they'll be perfect.
More outtakes from Tom Verducci's return to the majorleagues.
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