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.
Red Sox Catcher Carlton Fisk caught that pitch, a fastball, after it crossed the middle of the plate.
"Ball one," said Denkinger.
Fisk, outraged and astounded, leaped straight up, hitting Denkinger under the chin with his catcher's helmet. "How in hell can you call that a ball?" he screamed.
"Take it easy! Take it easy!" Denkinger said.
"You're in for a bleep day if you keep calling pitches like that," said Fisk.
"It's the first pitch. What do you want to do? Hang me?"
"The first pitch. If I let you get away with that, the entire afternoon will be awful."
"So I blew it," said Denkinger. "Relax. I know I missed it."
"You sure as hell did miss it. And I'm jumping on you simply to wake you up."