I'm introducing a new feature on The Centennial Soapbox tonight. I have recently read a few sports books that may be interesting to the fans of FanNation, and I'm going to tell you about them in the coming months of the summer. This is the first of my Soapbox Book Review blogs. In the future, you can expect reviews of Cobb by Al Stump, Blood Feud by Adrian Dater, The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn, and The Umpire Strikes Back by Ron Luciano (if I can find it), as well as 'Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming and 3rd Down and a War to Go, both by Terry Frei. There may be others as I continue my journey into sports prose.
Leading off this series is a tremendously informative and entertaining book about umpires. The book was released earlier this year, and you can find it in hard-cover editions in book stores all over. It is entitled As They See 'Em: A Fan's Travels in the Land of Umpires. Written by NY Times reporter Bruce Weber, As They See 'Em is one of the best works of literary art that you will ever find concerning sports.
I've often wondered what the driving force behind writing a book is for the author. Stephen King didn't just wake up with a pen in his hand one day, and Bruce Weber didn't just decide to write about umpires without some sort of stimulus. After reading the book, I sent an e-mail to Mr. Weber to thank him for his work and let him know that I enjoyed it. He responded, and said, "Thanks, Will. That was a nice letter to get. The book was, in many ways, for fans like you, die-hard fans that can still be surprised by the game." I thought that this was an interesting response. It's sometimes hard to understand that authors don't write for themselves; rather, they write for their audience. His response has made me appreciate authors, whether they write books, write for the newspaper, or anything in between, for the effort that they put in for their audience. Many of you know that I like to blog. It's strange, though. As much as I enjoy it, I've found it's much more enjoyable when my audience, you, enjoys what I have to write. That thought had never occured to me before concerning those that are paid for what they type.
Umpires have always been people of interest to me. It's a thankless life to live; in many ways, the umpire is much like the author. (I suppose that this is true about officials in all sports, and is not limited to just baseball.) Generally speaking, you'll never hear about an umpire if he completes the simple task of being perfect on the diamond. They are essentially faceless. If they don't do a perfect job (a "horsesh*t" job, as the book will tell you is the widely accepted term in baseball), then they are terrible at their job, and you don't want to ever see him working a game involving your team. Similarly, if an author writes a good book or article, most people won't even really know who he is. If his work is to a lesser standard (horsesh*t, perhaps?), then you will automatically know that you don't want to read anymore of his work. Perfection is not simply what umpires and authors strive for, it is what is expected of them.
There are two professional umpiring schools that are recognized as acceptable training facilities by Major League Baseball. Both are in Florida, both run five week courses, and both are run by former professional umpires. One is run by Jim Evans; the other was founded by Harry Wendelstedt, and he runs it along with his son, Hunter Wendelstedt. Generally speaking, there isn't much of a difference between the two schools, though Weber says that graduates from each school think less of graduates from the other school. Mechanically, there are some subtle differences. For example, there are two stances that an umpire will use for calling balls and strikes. The Evans academy teaches "the crouch", where the umpire stands with his feet shoulder-width, or perhaps a little wider, left foot placed with its toes at the heel of the right foot. The umpire waits until the pitch is about to be thrown, and then crouches to where his chin is level with the top of the catcher's mask. The Wendelstedt school, on the other hand, teaches "the scissors" as well as the crouch. Few umpires utilize the scissors today. When a right-handed hitter is up, the umpire will place his left foot forward. When a left-handed hitter is up, the umpire will place his right foot forward. He will almost kneel (only one MLB umpire, Gerry Davis I believe, still calls balls and strikes with his knee on the ground) with his other foot back, in "the slot" between the batter and the catcher. Rather than looking over the catcher, he looks around the catcher.
In researching for the book, Weber attended the course at the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring. He then spent 3 years umpiring games in the 2-man umpiring system (which is employed at the Little League, high school, college, and Single A and Rookie Ball levels; AA, AAA, and amateur tournament games use the 3-man system; MLB uses the 4-man and 6-man systems), as well as travelling the country interviewing and observing minor-league and MLB umpires about the life. Umpiring in the minor leagues is a tremendously awful job, as you will find out. Pay is awful, they have to provide their own cars to travel to games in different cities, and they stay in 2-bit hotels to save money, often working with a partner that they don't know, and always working with a partner that they are competing with for advancement in professional baseball. They are supervised by the Professional Baseball Umpire Corporation (PBUC, or "peabuck", as it is referred to) up through AA ball. AAA umpires are supervised and evaluated by MLB. It can be a rather quick ascension to AAA (which pays between $20,000 and $40,000 annually), but umpires can be stuck there for a long time. There are only 68 MLB umpiring positions available, and jobs rarely come open. MLB umpires are sort of like Supreme Court justices; once they get a job, they are essentially there as long as they want to be.
Once an umpire reaches the Major League level, his life is much better. It's not any easier, but they travel on airplanes, they make more money (the most senior umpires make upwards of $400,000/year), and they stay in nicer hotels. According to Weber, umpires are what you would think of as midwestern, conservative type people. They are all clean-shaven, have tightly groomed haircuts, and they aren't too quick to offer anything up to a reporter. Their keep their thoughts very guarded, making it especially amazing that Weber was able to interview close to 50 MLB umpires for the book. He also notes that umpires do enjoy nightlife; one former umpire is quoted in the book as saying, "I didn't have to drink every night as an umpire, but I did." They have a "me against the world" attitude, which is inherent to the position. Generally speaking, Baseball doesn't think highly of umpires. Players, coaches, managers, owners, fans, and the MLB offices are always looking at what umpires do wrong rather than the fact that they are right 99.9% of the time. The book says that Baseball thinks of umpires in the same way that it thinks of the bases on the field - they are a necessity in order for the game to be played, but they aren't really that important, which would explain the attitude that most umpires have.
As They See 'Em takes the reader through the life of an umpire, starting in professional umpiring school, going through the PBUC evaluation, umpiring in the minor leagues, and finally making it to the Big Leagues in the chapter "Living the Dream, Such As It Is". It is full of tremendous details about the mass MLB umpire resignation of 1999 that umpires haven't fully recovered from, the travels of some of those umpires back to the Major Leagues (MLB umpire Tom Hallion went back to working A-ball after resigning and finally got back to the Majors in 2007), the struggle, and eventual dismissal in 2006, of the last female professional umpire, and the growth of an umpire as he goes through the hoops of trying to make it to the Majors. It is very explicit in many details of umpire mechanics that you may never think of (such as a home-plate umpire removing his mask to see a play). It is simply a tremendous account of the "Land of Umpires", as the title would suggest.
Suggesting that a fan should be a little easier on an umpire is a dicey notion, so I'm not going to say that. I will say this, though - read the book. It may change some of your opinions. By and large, unless you've experienced umpiring, you're probably wrong in many of your criticisms. I like to razz the officials as much as the next guy. I'm a little more in-depth than most, as I like to try and get to "know" the umpires to know what I can expect when they work a Rockies game. Brian Runge is notoriously slow with his ball-strike calls. I'm not thrilled with the work of Derryle Cousins or Mike Everrit. In my opinion, the best crew this year is that of Gary Darling (Crew Chief; has never worked a World Series), Paul Emmel, Bill Hohn (who has never worked a World Series in 21 years as an umpire), and Bruce Dreckman. Incidentally, this crew was in Denver for the Rockies/Mariners series shortly after I read As They See 'Em, and I noticed that both Emmel and Hohn use "the scissors", while Dreckman and Darling both use "the crouch". I had to smile as I noticed that. If you ever want a little help becoming a more informed baseball fan, I suggest picking up a copy of As They See 'Em: A Fan's Travels in the Land of Umpires.