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My Trip to The Show (Part II)
Tom Verducci
April 02, 2007
Two springs after his cameo as a Blue Jays outfielder, SI's TOM VERDUCCI was back in the bigs, this time as an umpire for an Orioles--Red Sox game. All he had to be was perfect. (And what manager, player or fan would ever believe that?)
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April 02, 2007

My Trip To The Show (part Ii)

Two springs after his cameo as a Blue Jays outfielder, SI's TOM VERDUCCI was back in the bigs, this time as an umpire for an Orioles--Red Sox game. All he had to be was perfect. (And what manager, player or fan would ever believe that?)

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"We're looking right down the line from the dugout," reliever Mike Timlin says. "It was foul."

Culbreth gets another adventure straight out of the Umpiring 101 syllabus: a foul pop-up into a swirling wind that confuses Millar, the Orioles' first baseman. Culbreth is trying to stay out of the way of Millar, who is circling wildly, as if dizzy. Culbreth is doing his best to zig whenever Millar zags. It's a comedic and ungraceful pas de deux, the punch line coming when the ball plops on the warning track closer to Culbreth than to Millar. Second baseman Brian Roberts looks at me and we both are laughing. So, too, is Tejada, who yells, "Hey, Kevin, I can't wait to see that on bloopers!" Millar, who otherwise spends his time at first base yelling mock insults to his former Red Sox teammates as they hit, or trying to bait me into making appeal calls from second base on ridiculously meager check swings, has to laugh himself.

"I occasionally get birthday cards from fans. But it's often the same message: They hope it's my last."

--Al Forman, NL umpire, 1961

Here it comes: a close call I will have to make at first base that will impact the game. Boston, trailing 2--1, has runners at first and second with no outs in the seventh when Lowell hits a grounder to second base. Baltimore will try to turn a double play, so I position myself for the call. The throw from Tejada to Millar bounces into the first baseman's glove. It's a close play, but I have Lowell out, the bang of the ball hitting the glove barely preceding the bang of the foot upon the bag. (The umpires' adage is that a blind man could umpire at first base.) The rally is virtually snuffed by the call. Suddenly there's this swell of noise from the Red Sox crowd, a strange mix of excitement and apoplexy.

Is it directed at Lowell? At me? I thought I had it right, but for one anxious moment, I'm not sure. Did I blow it that badly? No, wait. I flush the doubt. Lowell was out. I'm pretty sure of it. That plaintive groan is the sound of disappointed partisanship. Major league umps are tone deaf to such noise.

"They're biased," Culbreth says of fans. "The only time you might hear something is if it's really original, which almost never happens. I still remember one time when I was in Double A. There was this middle-aged lady. She must have been in her 50s, pushing 60. She gets up and she yells at me, 'Why don't you pull down your pants, bend over and try your good eye.' Nothing's original. But that was."

Says Tschida, "There was one time years ago when I bought a patent leather belt and thought it looked just great. Well, I wear it in Yankee Stadium for the first time, and those people know how to wait so that you can hear them. This one guy, a real New Yorker, gets up and yells, 'Hey, Tschida. How can you make a call like dat wearin' a patent leathah belt like dat? And hey, what accessories came with dat?' As soon as the game was over, I go in the locker room, rip off the belt and throw it in the garbage."

Boston ties the game in the last of the eighth. It is only spring training, but I'm struck by the buzz in the crowd, the effort by both teams to win the game--to preserve the tie, Baltimore intentionally walks Ortiz, who spits epithets all the way to first--and it hits me smack in the gut: I am umpiring first base in a game in which the Red Sox and the Orioles are tied at 2 headed to the ninth. Good Lord, if this is Fort Myers, what must the late innings of a World Series game feel like?

The real umpires want the responsibility of the big call. It's what drove them through one of the two feeder umpire schools to professional baseball (94% of the students don't even graduate to the next step, a recommendation to an evaluation course), through the minor leagues (earning between $1,800 and $3,400 a month) and earning that big league job with the $87,859 starting salary, the first-class air travel, the four weeks of in-season vacation and the $363.48 per diem for food and lodging. Me? I'm praying neither the baseball nor my head explodes.

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