SI Vault
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.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
April 10, 1978

The Despot And The Diplomat

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

"Geez, I didn't know he threw a palm-ball," Garcia said to Wynegar.

"I guess I should have told you," Wynegar said.

No one has to tell an umpire when he misses a call, he knows he has erred just as surely as a player knows when he has mishandled a grounder. It is just that the ump has many more chances to blow one. As the Specialized Umpire Training Center handbook says, "An infielder must play 32 games of errorless fielding to have as many opportunities as an umpire has in one game of calling balls and strikes." And it is not as easy for an umpire to redeem himself, because a player can make up for a mistake either at the plate or in the field. If an umpire attempts to balance out a bad decision by altering his calls on future pitches, he sacrifices his objectivity—and, inevitably, his control of the game. The ump is far better off when he forgets about the miscall.

Johnny Bench says, "It's rare that an umpire says, 'I missed that one,' but when he does I don't say another word. What else can a man admit? It's when an umpire doesn't acknowledge the error that I feel like I'm butting my head against a wall."

Not all catchers agree with Bench, but, then again, no two catchers respond to a blown call in the same manner. Some acknowledge an umpire's mistake with a quick "ooooh" or "aaaah." Yeager usually lets out a sharp grunt, which veteran umpires know is his most derisive expression. However, in last season's third playoff game between the Dodgers and Phillies, Umpire Harry Wendelstedt "missed a call" that Philadelphia parlayed into three runs when Los Angeles Pitcher Burt Hooton, rattled by Wendelstedt's call, walked four batters in a row. In that case Yeager replaced his grunt with, "Harry, it was a good pitch." In light of the importance of the game, that was a mild remark. "There was no need to make a big commotion about it," says Yeager. "It was just one pitch, and it was the third inning. If it had been the ninth, I might have screamed. Even that probably wouldn't have done any good, because the umpires know my personality and know what I do."

A catcher may also gauge his response by who is standing behind him. Munson offers a gruff "No it wasn't" when Ron Luciano, whom he doesn't get along with, calls a close pitch a ball. But when Chylak makes a similar call, Munson tones down his tactics. "If I say to Nestor, 'Damn it, you blew it,' I am likely to rub him the wrong way," says Munson. "I simply tell him, 'You missed it,' and Nestor, who has a lot of confidence in himself, says, 'I didn't.' If I think he blew it very badly, I'll say, 'Nestor, I'm telling you the truth.' "

As Garcia found out, debates at home plate can sometimes involve both catchers. Just such a round-table discussion occurred last September during the opener of a three-game series at Yankee Stadium, with the second-place Red Sox trailing the Yankees by three games. Garcia had the plate assignment. Munson and Fisk, arch rivals, were catching. The Sox were behind 4-2 in the seventh inning when Rick Burleson, representing the tying run, came to the plate. Garcia's strike-three call ended the threat, and Burleson argued with him.

When Fisk came out to warm up his pitcher for the bottom half of the inning, he interrogated Garcia, who in turn asked Fisk if he thought the ball had dipped.

"Yeah, I thought it was low," said Fisk. "It looked like a slider."

"Yeah, it was."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11