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A New York Times reporter describes the perspectives he gained into the game of baseball while attending umpire training school and umpiring games firsthand, in an insider fan's account that also draws on the experiences of dozens of professional umpires. 40,000 first printing.
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Bruce Weber, a reporter for the New York Times, began his career in publishing as a fiction editor at Esquire. His first piece for the Times was a profile of Raymond Carver for the Sunday magazine in 1983, and he has been on staff at the newspaper since 1986 as an editor, metro reporter, national cultural correspondent, theater columnist and theater critic, among other things. His writing about baseball includes three cover stories for the Times Magazine (for whom he has also profiled E. L. Doctorow, Martin Cruz Smith, the Harvard Admissions Department, the New York Public Library and Cher) and he has regularly contributed first-person essays and participatory features to the paper. These include accounts of several bicycle journeys (from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City and from San Francisco to New York City, among them); of a walk the length of Broadway, from Yonkers to the Battery; of canoeing down the Hudson; of skating on all of New York City's skating rinks and of batting in all of New York City's batting cages.
He has written for Sports Illustrated, Sport, Esquire, Manhattan Inc., Vogue, Mademoiselle, Redbook, Harpers' Bazaar, the Hartford Courant and the St. Petersburg Times. He is the author, with the dancer Savion Glover, of Savion! My Life in Tap (William Morrow, 2000), and the editor of Look Who's Talking: An Anthology of Voices in the Modern American Short Story (Washington Square Press, 1986).Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Land of Umpires
Where do you find such a man: A man involved in a game who has the authority of a sea captain, the discretion of a judge, the strength of an athlete, the eye of a hunter, the courage of a soldier, the patience of a saint and the stoicism to withstand the abuse of the grandstand, the tension of an extra-inning game, the invective of a player and the pain of a foul tip in the throat? He must be a tough character, with endurance and the ability to keep his temper and self-control, he must be unimpeachably honest, courteous, impartial, and firm, and he must compel respect from everyone!
-- Branch Rickey
Just about the first thing they teach you at umpire school is how to yank your mask off without upsetting your hat. Umpires place great stock in their appearance, and if you're trying to make a call or follow a play with your hat askew or caught in your mask straps or -- the worst -- spilled in the dirt, you look foolish, inept, exactly the image you don't want the ballplayers, the managers and coaches, or the fans to have of you.
Like everything else in umpiring, or at least in umpire instruction, the method for removing the mask is reasoned and precise. You keep your head straight, your eyes forward, and move your hand to your mask, not the other way around. The only reason you remove your mask in the first place is to watch a play on the field, and you never want to turn your eyes down, away from the play, even for a moment. There's no worse feeling, umpires will tell you, than looking up from an instant's distraction, seeing the ball on the ground, and not knowing how it got there.
Anyway, you grab the mask with your left hand, wrapping your thumb, forefinger, and middle finger around it at seven o'clock. You don't use your whole hand. You can't, really, because your ball-andstrike indicator is also in the left hand, held snug against the palm by the ring finger and the pinkie. So with the three available fingers, in one swift motion you pull the mask straight out from your face to clear the bill of your cap, then straight up and off. You don't toss it aside; the catcher is the only one who ever throws a mask. If you have to come out from behind the plate and run to a spot to make a call, if you have to hold up your arms to signal foul, even if you have to use your left hand and pump hard with your elbow to sell the call that a ball was touched in fair territory, you hold your mask tight.
This is all, of course, rudimentary, something a professional umpire will do with muscle memory and a shrug, the way a concertmaster will toss off a warm-up arpeggio. But the reward is real. When you do it right, with the casual adroitness that approximates instinct, it looks both graceful and aggressive, leaving you, the plate umpire, properly possessed of the authority and dignity of your office.
Naturally, for a beginner it is a harder trick to perform than it sounds, and for me, a fifty-two-year-old student umpire, it was the first of many skills that looked simple and proved annoyingly resistant to mastery. During school drills, I'd get it right a couple of times, then let my concentration slip, undoubtedly because of something else to focus on. I'd come out from behind the plate to follow the path of an outfield fly ball or to straddle the third-base line to judge a line drive fair or foul, pull off the mask, and my hat would end up on the ground -- usually smack-dab on the baseline so it was marked with a telltale streak of lime -- or merely jostled and tipped crooked, the bill off-center like a rapper's, or tipped forward and shading my eyes. How you can pull your mask upward and have your hat tip forward I don't know, but that it is possible I am a witness. It wasn't until school was done and I went out on the field to work an actual game and my frustration continued that I solved the problem for good (or thought I did) -- by buying a hat with a narrower brim. Who knew different-size baseball-cap brims even existed?
It turns out that an ordinary baseball cap has a brim about 3 1?4 inches wide, with eight seams sewn into it. The brim of a base umpire's cap is a little narrower, maybe 3 inches and six seams wide, and the brim of an ordinary plate umpire's hat, which is what we were issued in school, is narrower still, 2 1?2 inches and four seams. The gradations downward continue until you get to a kind of skullcap with a 1 1?2-inch brim that looks like an appetizer portion of cantaloupe. Umpires call this version the beanie, and when you remove your mask, it makes you look like a refugee from the nineteenth century. But I liked the eccentricity of it and bought one.
Umpires, however, cannot afford eccentricity. Later I would discover a scene in the popular film A League of Their Own in which the actor Tom Hanks, playing a manager, accosts an umpire wearing the beanie. "Did anyone ever tell you you look like a penis with that little hat on?" he says. But I wasn't aware of this at the time, and the first game I wore it, I noticed the teenaged players giggling at me behind their hands. Whenever I made a call one of them didn't care for, he rolled his eyes and gave me a look -- what a geek!
Immediately after the game, I went back to the store and bought a hat with a two-inch brim, and when I came back the next day to work a game in the same league, I held much more authority in the eyes of the players. Or so it seemed to me, which is really all that mattered.
At this point perhaps you are thinking, okay, taking the mask off, enough already. This is far too much detail about a mundane thing. And that's correct, except that the process I just described is a perfect analog of learning to be an umpire. You master the fundamentals, you cast them off when they don't serve, and in the end you accommodate yourself to the game and its participants. It turns out you're not alone out there. It only feels that way.
The impetus for this book was a visit I made in January 2005 to the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring in Kissimmee, Florida, in order to write a story for the New York Times, where I work as a reporter. I thought it would be a lark, a chance to talk baseball rules and baseball trivia -- I'm the kind of baseball fan who has never gotten over his boyhood obsession, who reads the sports page before the front page and pores over box scores as though they were hieroglyphic finds -- not to mention a chance to wear short sleeves in midwinter.
But what I found there in three days of observing -- the whole course of instruction runs five weeks -- was weird and intriguing, an amalgam of strict vocational schooling in subject matter as concrete as auto mechanics and behavioral instruction as delicate and interpretative as you'll find in any acting workshop. Moreover, virtually everything I saw was new to me.
The experience persuaded me to write two more stories for the paper that year about umpiring. For one, I went on the road with a crew of Double A umpires, three young men locked together for a season, traveling long distances in a van packed with their belongings through Texas, Missouri, Kansas, and Arkansas. For the other, I met in major league ballparks and four-star hotels with Bruce Froemming, then the senior umpire in the major leagues.
I came away from these three stories convinced that a land of umpires exists, that it has citizens, laws, and a culture, and that it is exotic enough -- both in the context of baseball and the context of, well, the known world -- to warrant further exploring. Indeed, the presumption of this book is that professional umpires are an unusually isolated and circumscribed group, sort of like the inhabitants of a remote country that few people have ever visited, and that I am the sociologist who was dispatched to send back word of what life is like there.
I spent just about all of 2006 and 2007 and part of 2008 in the land of umpires, beginning when I went back to the Evans academy and enrolled as a student in the five-week program. From then on I went where the tales of professional umpires took me, sort of like a ball bouncing erratically across a pebble-strewn infield. It wasn't a comprehensive investigation, but for the most part it was a lot of fun.
Among other places, my travels took me to Cocoa, Florida, where a team of former professional umpires was evaluating umpire-school graduates for jobs in the minor leagues; to Cedar City, Utah, where a former air force engineer, Grant Secrist, was keeping alive his quest to create a simulator, akin to the one used by fighter pilots, to train major league umpires in calling balls and strikes; to the exurbs of Phoenix, Arizona, and the farm country of Ohio, homes of two former umpires -- Don Denkinger and Larry Barnett, respectively -- who made two of the most controversial calls in World Series history; to southern Connecticut to visit with the candid ex-commissioner of baseball, Fay Vincent; and to central California, where Doug Harvey, the legendary National League umpire who narrowly missed being the ninth umpire inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2007, waxed formidable and egocentric about what it takes to make it in the major leagues.
I spent several weeks with minor league umpires in places like Boise, Idaho; Huntsville, Alabama; Omaha, Nebraska; Bowie, Maryland; Des Moines, Iowa; Fresno, California; Trenton, New Jersey; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; and Portland, Maine, getting to know some of the young men (and one young woman) who were willing, remarkably, to put up with endless indignities -- rotten pay, long road trips, mediocre hotels, cramped locker rooms, not to mention the utter thanklessness of the umpiring task -- for up to a decade or more in pursuit of the unlikely possibility of a major league job opportunity.
To talk to major league umpires, I went to spring training in Florida in 2006 and Arizona in 2006 and 2007. I went to the 2006 All-Star weekend in Pittsburgh and over two seasons spent regular-season seri...
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