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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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Embarrassment. Injury. Blunt force trauma. Estate planning. The mind quickly accelerates the possibility and the amplitude of catastrophe when you are standing on the infield grass, as I am, 75 feet in front of Boston Red Sox slugger Manny Ramirez while he bats with a runner on first base. No infielder ever would be so foolish to put himself this close to the potential harm of a Ramirez line drive, not even armed with world-class hand-eye coordination, a fielder's glove and a protective cup--all of which, as I am most acutely aware, I do not possess at this moment. � I am a major league umpire--for one day anyway, March 23, working a spring training matinee between the Red Sox and the Baltimore Orioles in Fort Myers, Fla. Leaving the observational safety of sportswriting, I have been granted permission by Major League Baseball to experience the pressure, the difficulty and the thanklessness of risking life, limb and public humiliation in front of thousands of people conditioned to dislike you. I am assigned the same spring rotation as my full-time brethren:

three innings at third base, followed by three at second and three at first.

The baseball we hold dear is a benign, leisurely sport, a "noncontact" pursuit in which we cherish its sweetly proportioned empty spaces. The interlude between pitches. The flanks in the alignment of fielders. The 90 feet between bases. The flight of a thrown or batted baseball offers elegant interruption to the spatial symmetry.

Working from the interior of the infield, however, reveals the power and speed of the game. It's the difference between observing a funnel cloud from a safe distance on the ground and flying a research plane into the vortex of a tornado. "I tell all the young umpires that come up from the minors, 'Expect a close play every time,'" says Tim Tschida, 46, my crew chief who is working home plate this game. "[The play's] only routine here after it's over. That ball three steps to the right of the shortstop? They don't get to that ball in the minors and here they might throw the guy out. Middle infielders get to more balls up the middle that minor leaguers would never get to--and not only get to them, but turn them into double plays. I tell the young guys, 'Don't give up on anything.'"

My proximity to Ramirez, who is poised in that familiar asplike, coiled stance, is gripping, but the responsibilities of the job rattle around in my head, like marbles tumbling in a dryer. I've got to keep watch on the Orioles' pitcher, Erik Bedard, for a possible balk, the Sasquatch of rules violations for its difficulty to observe. (I've already missed one by Boston starter Curt Schilling, but so, too, did the rest of the crew.) I must make all calls at second base, which is over my right shoulder (including a stolen base attempt or a force play, which is the most commonly missed call by umpires), and possibly at third base if the umpire there, Brian O'Nora, leaves his post to track a ball hit to the outfield.

I must also know the rule book and the grounds rules with absolute certainty, a weakness of mine exposed during a mild argument the previous half inning with Boston rightfielder J.D. Drew (who had no clue he was pleading his case to a sportswriter until I told him the next day). And one more thought--the mother of all marbles. Being an umpire is like being a jet pilot, a skydiver or a sword swallower: You're expected to be perfect every time, and if you do screw up it's obvious to everyone. Nothing less than flawless is acceptable. I must get it right.

"God knows if you don't have the mental aptitude for this, you'd ask, 'What are you doing?'" says Fieldin Culbreth, another crew member. "If you're right, nobody's coming in and patting you on the back. If there are 10 close plays and you get 10 exactly right, they're booing you anyway. The only people who will say, 'Good job' are the other three guys in the [locker] room with you. The teams aren't going to say, 'Hell of a job.' ESPN's not going to say, 'Watch this umpire!' Here's the difference: The players are trying to make a play to get on SportsCenter. We're trying our damnedest to stay off it."

I trained long (O.K., two days with Tschida and Culbreth) and hard (kicking back watching games in the Florida sun) for this gig. Ominously, the most important advice given to me by the umpires was to avoid utter disaster. My Umpire 101 syllabus looked like this:

1. Don't blow out the knee of Baltimore shortstop Miguel Tejada by watching the flight of a pop-up near the third base line.

The fielder, who is also looking up, is likely to plow into the umpire, whose proper course of action is to first look for and avoid the fielders. "You getting hurt is one thing," Culbreth says. "The player getting hurt? Now there's a problem."

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