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You're My Boy, Blue
2007-03-30 11:48
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

Tom Verducci has a wonderful piece in the current issue of SI about his experience working as an umpire during a spring training game between the Red Sox and Orioles last week.  The good folks at SI.com saw fit to posting it on the web.  Verducci also has a follow-up column, filled with insights, also at SI.com.  The best part of Verducci's experiment is that is illustrates just how difficult umpiring is, and how seriously the men in blue take their profession.  It also drives home just how good major league players are.  

From the magazine article:

The baseball we hold dear is a benign, leisurely sport, a "noncontact" pursuit in which we cherish its sweetly proportioned empty spaces. The interlude between pitches. The flanks in the alignment of fielders. The 90 feet between bases. The flight of a thrown or batted baseball offers elegant interruption to the spatial symmetry.

Working from the interior of the infield, however, reveals the power and speed of the game. It's the difference between observing a funnel cloud from a safe distance on the ground and flying a research plane into the vortex of a tornado. "I tell all the young umpires that come up from the minors, 'Expect a close play every time,'" says Tim Tschida, 46, my crew chief who is working home plate this game. "[The play's] only routine here after it's over. That ball three steps to the right of the shortstop? They don't get to that ball in the minors and here they might throw the guy out. Middle infielders get to more balls up the 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 on anything.'"

From the on-line column:

Star players don't get their own strike zone.

Said umpire Sam Holbrook, "When I was a rookie umpire in '98 in the National League, we had interleague play down in Florida. Wade Boggs comes to bat, and the pitcher throws it 92 miles an hour right down the gut. I call it a strike.

"Wade steps back and starts to turn around. I'm thinking, What's he possibly going to bitch about? He says, 'Sam, do me a favor. Can you check that ball. I think it's got a little smudge mark.'

"'Sure,' I say. The guy throws it in. I look at it and there's this tiny dot about that big [a quarter-inch] that he saw on a baseball going 92 miles an hour. I said, 'Holy smokes.' It just shows you how good the really good ones are."

Said Culbreth, "It's a myth, this idea that, 'Do you give Wade Boggs pitches? Because it looks like you do.' No. Wade Boggs takes pitches because he knows what they are.

"It's like Greg Maddux. It's not that we're giving him that outside pitch. It's that he never stops throwing out there. If a guy throws a hundred pitches out there and another guy throws 10, it's always going to appear that this guy is getting the outside."

My father used to ask me what the hardest position in baseball was.  I would say, "Catcher?"  He shook his head.  "Shortstop?"  No.  "The umpire."  I always thought that was funny coming from my dad, who loved to defy authority.  On the other hand, he also had an appreciation for order and rules (maybe he only liked to buck the rules he didn't like).  The film director Bernardo Bertolucci used to say he'd never work with a film editor if the editor ever won an award for cutting one of his films.  Good editing means that you don't notice it.  Same as umpiring: you only notice when they screw up. 

Now, I love to curse at umps as much as the next guy, especially the arrogant ones, but after reading Verducci's story, I will remember not only how hard their jobs are, but how well they perform them. 

Comments
2007-03-30 12:30:11
1.   Jim Dean
Wonderful.

(But where are the wrestling strippers?)

2007-03-30 13:01:51
2.   Sliced Bread
"When the game is over," fellow umpire Fieldin Culbreth said, "it's not like you just forget about it and go on your way. It stays with you. After night games I usually don't go to sleep until one, two in the morning, because you're still energized."

I wonder if I encountered Culbreth back in my NY night owl days, er, nights.

Maybe 14 years ago, late one night I was in PJ Clarke's, or Elaine's or some other East Side gin and cigar saloon, (pretty sure it was Clarke's) and the bartender tipped me that a nearby table of guys was the umpiring crew at that night's Mets or Yankees game (don't remember which).

I caught some of their conversation. They were indeed still buzzing about the game. I couldn't discern what play they were discussing, whether it was a bang-bang play at 1B, but apparently it was a close call involving a runner that they got right.

Actually, it sounded like a fairly routine, inconsequential play but they kept going over it, as if convincing themselves that it was still the right call.

The indiscreet bartender must have revealed the identity of the umpires to this other wiseguy who came over to their table and conspicuously dropped a $20 on the floor.

One of the umps, a chubby fellow who looked like he could have been a nephew of Don Zimmer's, chuckled at the wiseguy, and asked about the Jackson he dropped near his feet.
"Heh, what? Thought we'd take your money?"

"No," the wiseguy shoots back. "checkin' if you'd see it." Then, for effect, the wiseguy closes his eyes and starts feeling around like he's blind.

The umps groaned, and told the wiseguy where he should deposit his cash, but they had a good sense of humor about it.

Even at 2am, with a table full of beers, it ain't easy bein' blue.

2007-03-30 13:06:16
3.   rbj
Pitchers make mistakes all game, as do hitters, and it is all part of the game. But let an ump blow just one call -- and there's hell to pay.
2007-03-30 13:06:19
4.   Chyll Will
I think many people take for granted how quick MLB players are. It's not as obvious as with watching NBA players, but when you actually see it live, it's a helluva difference. What got my buddy in Atlanta into baseball was actually going to Turner Field the first time, and the first thing he told me about his experience was, "Boy, those guys are quick!"

I recorded a Pepsi commercial with Ken Griffey Jr and Sammy Sosa, where Griffey's at bat waiting for the pitch, and when the pitcher throws, everything slows down in Matrix fashion. While Griffey's going over a itinerary of things in his mind as he gets bored waiting for the ball to reach him, he notices Sosa leaning over to steal his Pepsi. "Sammy, Sammy, Sammy..." he scolds, then the action returns to normal as Griffey whacks the ball into the dugout and nearly takes Sosa out. I love that because it plainly illustrates (exaggerates, but still) what it's like for a MLB player on the field, though for us it's like watching lighting flash.

Sometimes when my mind is squarely on baseball, I can picture myself doing that. But man, I don't begrudge them making Cashmoney...

2007-03-30 13:36:04
5.   standuptriple
When I was playing one of my coaches who I really respected suggested that the whole team make an attempt to "give something back". Taking his advice I ump'd a Little League 12yr season. Man. Talk about a tough job. LL parents can be really great or horrible. I gained a new perspective on the game I enjoyed so much and the next year I was more patient and took a different tone with the umps (I was a catcher and I was brought up to never be disrespectful to anyone in the first place). I'm convinced it helped my pitchers, even if it was just a pinch here and there.
2007-03-30 16:14:21
6.   rilkefan
Glavine never got the outside pitch? Is "this guy" in the anecdote just supposed to be dumb?
2007-03-30 16:31:54
7.   FirstMohican
In Glavine's game against the Dodgers in the playoffs last year his strike zone had about a 6 foot radius. I usually reserve my frustration for NBA refs, but that game was hard to watch.
2007-03-30 17:09:16
8.   wsporter
Just touched down on the left coast, Oye what a day, but saw Andy cleared waivers and is headed to SWB. Maybe he can get his stuff together down there. It's not that I'm not sold on Phelps, its just that I'm not sold on Phelps. Besides my kid likes Andy so who the hell else am I going to root for?
2007-03-30 18:51:33
9.   Bama Yankee
8 wsporter, here's a picture of Andy for your son:
http://newyork.yankees.mlb.com/images/2004/09/26/I5sMEtHI.jpg

I stumbled onto the picture recently. It is from 2004 when Andy homered in his first major league at-bat.

2007-03-30 19:36:41
10.   Shaun P
I have an awful lot of respect for the umpires. But, and this is what bugs me about them - they are about as open to being objectively analyzed as some front offices were to using statistical analysis. Yes, its a hard job - but like rilkefan says in 6, I remember watching Braves games in the mid-90s where they'd put on the overhead camera, the ball would be a foot off the plate, and the ump would call it a strike. Over and over again. Anyone else remember Eric Gregg and Game 5 of the '97 NLCS? If that was a by-the-book strike zone, I'll eat a 10 foot tall stack of Murray Chass columns soaked in syrup. I'll bet that the Braves pitchers from that '97 team would all join me.

Its one thing to have to make a bang-bang call at first base. That's tough, and I don't envy the umps. I also don't envy the crap they take on close plays. But to consistently have a strike zone that extends in both directions to the sides of the plate - which so many did for years, and some still do now - is just plain bad.

2007-03-30 19:42:39
11.   Rich
I have a problem with umpires that don't walk away from arguments, and choose to escalate it instead. No one goes to games to watch them.
2007-03-30 19:44:39
12.   Rich
8 No offense to your son, but if Eye Chart and Phelps fail, the Yankees will likely look outside the organization. Phillips isn't a major leaguer. The fact that no other team claimed him speaks volumes.
2007-03-30 20:15:20
13.   Chyll Will
12 (cough) No offense, but Manny wasn't claimed when he passed through waivers, either. That also spoke volumes, but maybe about something else. The waiver wire is used a lot of ways to manipulate the system. No one would touch Andy now because it's too early to take on utility players that aren't yet up to speed. It would have likely taken a catastrophic injury to a starter for Andy to be taken by someone else. Andy is very much liked by many in the organization, and that's probably why they didn't release him outright.
2007-03-30 20:20:15
14.   spudrph
Reminds me of an anecdote I read somewhere-a young Bill Lee is grousing about ball and strike calls while pitching to Al Kaline. The umpire supposedly tells him, "Mr. Kaline will let you know it's a strike by doubling off the centerfield wall."

I share your frustration with umpiring, though. I, too, was an LL umpire for a while, and boy, was it hard. But seriously, things like the Gregg game just blow your mind. We're not talking about pitches a few inches off the black here-I mean, to George Brett that's a ball, and to Alex Gordon that's a strike. I get that, to a certain extent.

But we've all seen games (they are few and far between, but still) where it's a full 12 inches outside. That's not a camera trick, that's not "oh, it looks different when you're behind the plate", that's not "oh, the veterans get that pitch", that's a f^&king ball. Period. To say otherwise is simply to insult the intelligence of thinking people.

2007-03-30 20:42:29
15.   Rich
13 Oh right, a player who was owed about $100 million in a then contracting market, but who happens to be one of the best hitters in MLB history is analgous to a player who no one wants for free.

Try again.

2007-03-31 19:28:33
16.   Chyll Will
No thanks, you missed the point entirely.
2007-03-31 19:33:28
17.   Bama Yankee
12 "Phillips isn't a major leaguer."

Then, who is that guy in the picture I posted in 9?

Oh wait, now I get it. You're saying that since he just got cut by the Yankees a couple of days ago that he is no longer a major leaguer. I see...

What's next? You gonna tell us that Bernie's not making the team this year and that there is no Easter Bunny?

2007-03-31 20:06:45
18.   Rich
16 That assumes you had one.

Bottom Line: Phillips isn't a major leaguer.

2007-03-31 20:08:28
19.   Rich
17 Um, it means that Phillips is AAAA player.

Reality is a bitch.

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