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.
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April 10, 1978

The Despot And The Diplomat

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"I can't cheat and give him a strike," says Springstead. "The pitch is out of the strike zone, exactly where the catcher wanted it. in hopes that the batter would swing. But the batter didn't swing, and I'm not going to call a strike. I can't let the catcher use the 30,000 people in the stands to intimidate me."

The setup to steal outside pitches falls apart when the pitcher unintentionally throws a strike on the inside. "Then the catcher reaches across the plate, and there isn't anyone in the park who thinks it was a strike, when it was," says National Leaguer Paul Runge. "Sure, catchers try to cheat, but it's nothing personal against umpires."

To prevent being misled, an umpire must keep a level head. "Once I start moving my head I lose perspective," says Springstead. "The toughest one to call is the one right at my eyes. My tendency is to flinch. If I do, there is no way I can call the pitch correctly."

"Umpires don't have lights that blink on to give them an automatic strike zone," says Yeager. So on every pitch the umpire must mentally redefine the zone and defend it against attacks from the catcher. For the system to work the catcher must also remain as still as a rock. "If I constantly jump up and down or move from side to side, I'm not giving the umpire his best look," says Yeager. "So I have no right to disagree with his call."

For the most part, in recent seasons conciliation has replaced confrontation behind the plate. "I don't want to get into arguments with umpires," says Munson. "I need them when I'm hitting. I need them when I'm catching. But I can't let my pitcher and manager down by letting a bad call go by and not saying anything. I don't bitch just to bitch."

In the days when there were Boston Braves and Brooklyn Dodgers, tradition has it that umpires would cut off a catcher by saying, "You think that was bad. Wait until you see this one." When the next pitch flew across the plate, the umpire would get his revenge: "Ball two!"

Says Garcia, "They got away with it simply because there was no television, no cameras and no instant replay. I can't imagine that happening today."

Electronic surveillance may curtail heavy-handed behavior by umps but it cannot prevent grudges from arising. Take the case of Larry Barnett and Fisk. Since the third game of the 1975 World Series, the two have been about as friendly as John Dean and Richard Nixon. That night 40 million TV viewers watched as Barnett didn't call interference on Reds pinch hitter Ed Armbrister after Armbrister had collided with Fisk on a bunt play. Fisk's subsequent overthrow of second base allowed the eventual winning run to move into scoring position.

"Ever since that game our relationship has been strained," says Barnett. "If I didn't say that, I'd be lying. Fisk says hello, I say hello, and we limit it to that."

Keeping the conversation to greetings is not always that simple. Last September, Fisk and Barnett were together again. First Barnett called Fisk out on a 2-2 pitch that Fisk thought was inside. Then, when Boston was in the field, Barnett made another call that Fisk felt was incorrect. An argument ensued.

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