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The Despot and the Diplomat
Melissa Ludtke
April 10, 1978
Catchers and home-plate umpires are almost certainly the oddest of all sport's odd couples. Crouching and sweating together beneath layers of padding and suffering like bruises from foul tips and curves in the dirt, they play a game within a game, one in which other players are seldom involved. The catcher acts as his team's diplomat, his words usually as guarded and as subtly delivered as his signs to the pitcher. The umpire is an autocrat, often congenial, sometimes unyielding. However, the peace between the diplomat and the benevolent despot is tenuous and often destroyed. When this happens, their masks fly, and what began as a discussion inaudible to virtually everyone else in the park becomes as much of a show as an Ali weigh-in. That's exactly what happened one day late last season when Umpire Don Denkinger miscalled the first pitch of a game.
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April 10, 1978

The Despot And The Diplomat

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Rarely does a catcher greet the umpire with such an outburst. The early innings are a period when players become acquainted with the umpire's strike zone and the tempo of his calls. Denkinger was flabbergasted by Fisk's eruption, and that was precisely what Fisk intended. He wanted to startle Denkinger and he did it by abrogating the unspoken rules of home-plate conduct. By quickly throwing the ball back to the pitcher, by not turning around, by not jumping up, the catcher obeys these rules. For his part, an umpire will have an easier time of it if he answers a catcher's questions, which is child's play compared to the alternative—jawing with a discontented pitcher 50 or 60 feet away.

"The umpire is not a machine. He is not a computer and he is not a robot," says Dodger Catcher Steve Yeager, whose six seasons have taught him the value of a gentle approach. "The umpire is human and entitled to a few mistakes." No matter how firmly he believes that, Yeager, like other catchers, cannot let umps' mistakes go entirely unchallenged, because he is literally caught in the middle, his face toward the pitcher, his back brushing against the umpire. It is his deftness at public relations—his ability to satisfy his pitcher's need for an advocate while not enraging the ump—that maintains harmonious working conditions for all. The tactics and tone he employs can be as violent as Fisk's outburst, which was tantamount to rebellion, or as subdued and inventive as those used by former Dodger Tommy Haller in 1971.

Umpire Bruce Froemming was a rookie then. Haller had spent 11 seasons behind the plate, and he had an umpire in the family—brother Bill in the American League. For five innings Haller asked Froemming about every close pitch, not showing him up but testing his judgment. Finally he popped the question.

"Bruce, what's your last name?"


"Spell it," demanded Haller.


"That's with one 'I'?"

"Yep," replied the unsuspecting ump.

"That's exactly how you've called the game all night."

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