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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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Froemming still chuckles about the incident, and aficionados of umpire-catcher repartee consider it a classic. It was a perfect tension breaker during a game in which Haller had been doing what umpires like least—carping about ball and strike calls.

"We are paid to call the close ones," says American Leaguer Marty Spring-stead, "not the ones a guy can see from the third deck." And it is those decisions that rile a pitcher, whose motion has left him off balance and without a good view of the pitch. If he needs the strike and the call is a ball, nothing will persuade him that the umpire was right. A few catchers, Yeager among them, help out the ump by signaling to their pitchers, telling him where the pitch was. "That saves the umpire wear and tear," says Yeager. "If I sit there doing nothing while my pitcher yells and screams, all that does is rile the dugouts and the fans and get them on the umpire's back." For similar reasons, Thurman Munson of the Yankees spends a lot of time gesturing to his manager, Billy Martin, whom he describes as "having umpires down his throat."

In some circumstances catchers will even side with the umpire to keep the peace. San Francisco Catcher Marc Hill does that when he is catching for John Montefusco, who, Umpire Billy Williams says, "wants everything to be a strike." As the Count stares at the umpire, Hill either hollers, "Hey, it was inside," or tells the ump, "Don't pay attention to him, he's crazy anyway."

All pitchers, flaky or otherwise, feel persecuted by umpires. The successful umpire—the one nobody notices—is supposed to handle gripes while still controlling the game. "For me to be able to run a game smoothly, the catcher must throw the ball back before he asks me anything," says American Leaguer Steve Palermo. "Naturally, he will say something on close pitches, because he is looking through tinted glasses. As someone once said, 'It ain't necessarily so, but he wants it to be.' "

Palermo's crew chief, Nestor Chylak, a 24-year veteran, says, "A catcher has the right to ask me on any call, but I get upset when I know he is 100% wrong. Then he is putting the monkey on my back. I don't mind a challenge. If he questions it nice, he'll get an honest answer."

Umpires and catchers both demand honesty. However, each has an additional request. Catchers ask for consistency from umpires—"Call the pitch the same in the ninth as in the first." Umpires demand fairness—"Don't wait for a tense moment in the game to challenge me on a pitch." An umpire prefers a catcher who quizzes him early and tosses around harmless phrases like "Stay with that pitch" and "Don't give up on it." The catcher who complains only when he desperately needs a favorable call is disdainfully referred to by umpires as a "situation catcher."

"He is the one who puts the hangman's noose around our necks," says Springstead. "He is the one we dislike tremendously, and the one we don't forget." The situation catcher, according to umps, is the one who quarrels even though the umpire's strike zone is the same as it was earlier in the game when the catcher made no comment. "Often you'd think the whole game is played in the ninth inning," says Chylak. "I call a consistent game for eight innings, and then all of a sudden a catcher needs the pitch and he starts climbing all over me."

Equally unpopular is a catcher who holds the baseball while jawing with the umpire. "If he gets rid of it, that's fine," says Palermo. "All the attention reverts to the pitcher. What goes on between me and the catcher is not even noticed." By holding the ball a catcher invites a hasty end to peaceful negotiations. "If he holds it. he gets the dugout riled," says Froemming. "Instead of throwing it back and then saying, 'Bruce, I think the ball caught the corner,' he has now told everybody that he thinks I missed the pitch."

Such incidents occur in almost every game. Chalk it up to the human element, to the fact that an umpire cannot be infallible or even completely consistent. And a catcher, though he may try, can never be totally objective. Keeping their relationship cool is further complicated by the fact that, from the moment the umpires step on the field, the animosity of the fans is apparent from the boos that are heard from the stands. It is difficult for a catcher, particularly the one for the home team, to resist the temptation of bringing his allies in the stands into play in his relationship with the ump.

Although the fans' taunts are often irritating, umpires are much more concerned about the players' reactions. "I want the players to say, 'Here they come,' instead of 'Holy Toledo, it's not them again,' " says Chylak.

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