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?
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
expected to be perfect the day you start, and then improve."
--Ed Vargo, NL
umpire supervisor, 1985
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.
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."