I want your hands
o n your knees, thumbs inside, head up, elbows locked, feet straight. Keep your
shoulders square to the base, body aggressively forward.
"Put your arm
up like you're going to shake hands. Then get it up here...out in front, above
the shoulder. Now snap it! And the words are 'He's out!' Not 'You're out!' But
'He's out!' All the time. 'He's out!' "
umpire Joe Brinkman, who was the crew chief in last year's controversial
"pine tar" game, was standing along the leftfield foul line on a Little
League diamond in St. Petersburg, Fla. He spat a stream of tobacco juice into
the grass and resumed his lesson. "On the safe call, get your hands up in
front, then move them out, parallel to the ground, then back together and down.
Four steps. Up, out, together and down. And I don't want any of that 'Safe,
safe, safe' crap like Luciano did. The word is 'Safe!' That's it: 'Safe!' And
get your———arms out so the fan in the 40th row can see you."
Umpiring 101 had
begun. The 120 aspiring umps, huddled around Brinkman in rapt attention, had
paid about $1,000 apiece to enroll in what resembled five weeks of basic
training. The students would sleep in barracks, eat mess-hall chow and do
enough drills and calls to qualify for a good-conduct medal. "It has to be
this way," said Triple A umpire and school instructor Larry Reveal.
"It's the only way to compare people." Only 13 of the 120 would be
hired by the minor leagues and become long-range candidates for the majors.
Seven more would be put on a reserve list.
The Joe Brinkman
Umpire Schools in St. Pete and San Bernardino, Calif., and a similar one run by
National League umpire Harry Wendelstedt in Daytona Beach, Fla. are the only
routes into the profession. Pass the class, you're safe. If not, you're out. No
arguments. Each year 30 to 35 new umps, about one-tenth the number who attend
the schools, earn assignments to the rookie leagues.
But why would
anyone aspire to work in such a thankless profession? "We're crazy,"
says American League umpire and Brinkman instructor Nick Bremigan. True, but in
St. Pete, from Jan. 29 through last Sunday, Emmett Ash-ford's philosophy, not
insanity, seemed to apply. In 1951, at age 36, Ashford, who would break
baseball's color line for umps in 1965, left a secure civil-service job in L.A.
for a life of balls and strikes. Asked why, he replied, "How many men go to
their graves without ever doing what's in their hearts?"
So it was for
Keith Jones, 20, from Guntersville, Ala., who this winter attended Brinkman's
school. "My dad umpired in our town for 35 years," he said. "He's
taught me everything I know. I'd like to make it for him."
Johnson, 22, an Arizona State senior, it was a shot at "a glamour position.
Everybody at the game looks up to you," he said. "You're a status
symbol. I wouldn't mind being seen that way."
Johnson was talking about being a major league umpire, but for an ump, even
more than for a player, the road from the rookie leagues to the bigs is usually
a long one. The average minor league apprenticeship lasts eight years. Only 1%
of those who umpire in the bushes ever reach the majors. The rest wash out in
tumbleweed towns, having endured too many fleabag motels, lousy meals, abusive
fans and bouts of loneliness. Brinkman remembers sleeping in his car during his
minor league days, giving out the telephone number of a nearby booth to anyone
who needed to reach him. "And I used to split breakfast with my
partner," he said.
Times are better
now, but not much. Minor league pay begins at $1,300 a month for six months'
work, plus hotel expenses. In Triple A the base pay is $1,900, and the umps get
$48 a day for room and board. "All you can say about the minors," said
Reveal, "is if you make the majors, what's behind you was worth