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Call 'em like I see 'em

Lessons learned in one game as a big league umpire

Posted: Friday March 30, 2007 11:29AM; Updated: Friday March 30, 2007 11:31AM
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SI senior writer Tom Verducci umpired a major-league exhibition game on March 23 -- and lived to tell about it.
SI senior writer Tom Verducci umpired a major-league exhibition game on March 23 -- and lived to tell about it.
Simon Bruty/SI
• SI FLASHBACK: Verducci as a Blue Jay

In the top of the eighth inning of the March 23 exhibition game between the Red Sox and Orioles, Boston first baseman Eric Hinske looked over his shoulder, saw me umpiring first base, did a double take and said, "Hey, what are you doing here?" Hinske quickly figured it out. After all, he was with Toronto in spring training 2005 when I spent a week playing for the Blue Jays.

Like my major league playing career, my umpiring career gave me a renewed respect for the difficulty of the job and the people who do it. My loose definition of "greatness" is making the difficult look easy. You may love to vent your frustrations at them, but umpires are great at what they do.

What I found most challenging was to stay sharply focused on every single pitch for three hours. There may be full innings in which you don't have a call to make, but you understand that danger -- in the form of a bang-bang play, a check swing appeal or a fair/foul call that could directly influence the outcome of the game -- always is as close as the next pitch. So when your mind wants to relax is exactly when you must be most vigilant.

"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."

The game definitely is faster at ground level than it appears on television -- pitch speed, bat speed, foot speed, you name it. And it's a step up from anything any young umpire has seen in the minors, too.

"Up here you know the game starts in the seventh inning," crew mate Tim Tschida said. "You can't be low on fuel yourself when you know you're going to see a new pitcher in the seventh, a pitcher in the eighth and a pitcher in the ninth, all of them fresh with some of the best stuff on the staff. You've got to be fresh for him."

I managed to get through the game without embarrassing myself. Actually, if success as an umpire is not getting yourself noticed, I must have succeeded.

"You umpired?'' Boston DH David Ortiz exclaimed when I told him the next day. "Get out of here! You didn't." He turned to shortstop Julio Lugo. "Did he?" Lugo smiled and nodded yes.

"Damn," Ortiz said. "I missed it. And I played!"

Here are some other observations and anecdotes about what it was like to umpire a big league game:

Curt Schilling can talk. (Surprise!) Schilling occasionally talks to himself on the mound. He rarely missed location that game, but once when he did, after he pushed a changeup high and away, he barked to himself, "Don't rush it!"

Better still, after he gave up a groundball single near second base to Paul Bako in the fifth, Schilling walked over to rookie second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who had been shading slightly toward first base, and gave him a lesson about positioning.

"If I'm throwing a fastball away to a lefty he's not going to pull it," Schilling said to me the next day. "If I miss location and he does pull it, that's my fault. But I hate like hell to give up a hit when I hit my spot and get the result that I wanted -- a groundball."


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