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For the privilege of having to be perfect, umpires spend about 200 days a year on the road, hear the same lousy jokes in every ballpark about their eyesight or familial heritage, and routinely get second-guessed by critics watching repeated superslow, frame-by-frame replays in high definition from multiple camera angles. Yet major league umpiring jobs (of which there are 68) open up these days about as infrequently as those on the Supreme Court. What kind of person would love a job in which you get noticed only for your mistakes?
"I've always said there's no player, no fan, no manager and no umpire who could ever be as hard on me as I'll be," says Culbreth. "The fans can boo and throw stuff, and managers can scream and holler and get ejected, and they'll never get to me like I will. The part that bothers me the most is people think we miss a call, change our clothes, get in a station wagon, go have a cheeseburger and go home. That's just not how it is. If people knew how much we cared ... they wouldn't be able to comprehend how much it bothers us to find out that we are wrong."
"You're expected to be perfect the day you start, and then improve."
--Ed Vargo, NL umpire supervisor, 1985
Schilling and Bedard are throwing so well that my three innings at third base pass without incident. The best action I get is a conversation with Boston third baseman Mike Lowell about April weather, and a Manny-being-Manny moment when, as Ramirez runs to leftfield, he looks at me with wild-eyed glee and chortles, "Heeeey! Que pasa?!" I get no appeal calls on check swings by lefthanded batters, an especially tricky call for umpires because the rule book is not explicit about what exactly constitutes a swing.
Says Culbreth, laughing, "Just remember, if it's David Ortiz, he didn't [swing]. Trust me. After you say he did, he'll tell you. He'll faint. If I could hit with his check swings I might have gotten drafted."
According to Major League Baseball's review, in 2006 umpires missed a call in the field only once every 12.2 games. Force plays (43 mistakes), tag plays (14) and steals (12) were the only categories in which umpires missed 10 or more calls the entire season. Video replay, however, is just around baseball's corner, at least in a limited scope. Baseball is studying the possibility of using it to assist in making home run calls--fair or foul, and whether or not the ball cleared the wall or designated home run line. Such calls have been made more difficult by modern ballpark designs, which put fans, architectural elements and billboards closer to the action.
"If we don't address this, there will be a major controversy and that's how replay gets in the door," Tschida says. "Last year our crew in the first month had five home run calls where we had to get together [to discuss them]. I was thinking, Are we snakebit? So I started keeping track. We had 43 home runs where the ball came back on the field. It's not supposed to happen, but it happens when nonbaseball people are designing fields."
I have the pleasure of calling a clean, no-doubt home run by Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek in the fifth, but it's during those middle innings, when I am stationed at second base, that the inner game of umpiring becomes dangerous. The second base umpire is the lead dancer of the four-man ballet. I must run into the outfield on balls hit from gap to gap with nobody on base, with the third base umpire rotating to second and the home plate ump rotating to third. "Once you leave, don't stop," Culbreth instructs.
However, in the fourth, I am positioned in the interior infield because there's a runner at first base--"Once in, always in" is the rule with runners on--and I make the mistake of chasing a ball hit into the right centerfield gap by the Orioles' Jay Gibbons. It's a blunder most fans would never notice, but understanding the umpires' pursuit of perfection, it rankles me. Indeed, I'm later told that umpire supervisor Marty Springstead, watching the game from the press box, exclaimed, "Uh-oh, too many umpires in the outfield."