The course lasted six weeks, and at the end of the fourth week I knew I'd found a profession. So I called Briggs and told him to find another general manager for Lakeland. "Good," he said. "You probably would have done a rotten job anyway. But what are you going to do?"
I told him I was going to be an umpire.
A manager named Pinky May has the distinction of being the first man I ever threw out of a game. While umpiring spring-training intrasquad games for the Tigers in 1964 I'd gotten used to major league pitchers being around the plate with their pitches. They made it easy. But in the Class A Florida State League the pitchers lacked that pinpoint control. One afternoon I was having a particularly bad game. It involved the Tampa Tarpons and the Lakeland Tigers. One pitch would be too high, the next would be too low, and I'd call them both balls. But the third one would be right down the heart of the plate and I'd call that a ball, too. In the third or fourth inning I called a hitter out on a pitch that bounced on the plate, and May, the manager of the Tarpons, started cursing at me. I got terribly upset. He didn't even know me and he was swearing at me. I didn't need him to embarrass me in front of the fans. I was doing a pretty good job of it myself. So I threw him out of the game.
Just that simply, the problem was resolved. He continued screaming at me for a few more minutes, but suddenly he was gone and it was quiet and peaceful and beautiful on the field once again. I immediately realized I was on to something good.
Too good. The next year I umpired in the Class AA Eastern League, and in 140 games I had 26 ejections, far too many. My problem was that I had gotten pretty good on technique, but I hadn't learned anything about politics. I was trying to run the game with the charm of a South American dictator. It took me a long time to realize that umpiring is best described as the profession of standing between two 7-year-olds with one ice-cream cone. No matter how good an umpire you are, your entire career is going to be spent making 50% of all the players and managers unhappy. Every call is going to anger half the people. The key to getting away with it is learning how to deal with other people's anger and frustration, and all I knew was how to give them the thumb.
In 1966 my contract was purchased by the Triple-A International League. Triple-A is one step below the major leagues and an entire staircase above the rest of the minor leagues. In Triple-A everything was better. Even I was better. Once I stopped trying to be King Kong on the field, I was free to start managing and coaching. I was finally learning how the game of baseball should be played, and once I figured it out I wanted to share my knowledge with everyone. I started talking to the players between innings and during time-outs, then began talking to them in the field between pitches, and finally just started talking to them whenever I had something important to say, which turned out to be all the time. It might have been the bottom of the ninth with the winning run on second and a full count on the batter. He'd be digging his spikes into the dirt, the pitcher would be glaring in, no one in the stands would be breathing, and I'd ask the batter what he thought of a recently opened restaurant. Instead of driving myself crazy, I was doing it to other people. It was good to be in the driver's seat.
I was also feeling relaxed enough to allow my enthusiasm to show on the field. Off the field I'm actually a very shy person, but once I stepped between the foul lines all my inhibitions disappeared. I started screaming my calls and leaping in the air, making an attraction out of myself. The fans loved it. Naturally the league officials hated it. I'd constantly be getting small reminders from the league office that the fans hadn't paid their way into the ball park to see Ron Luciano umpire.
The way the fans responded to me made that difficult for me to believe. I had begun to develop a real rapport with them. Not satisfied simply to be disturbing the players, between innings I'd wander over to the stands and ask the fans what they thought of a call I'd made or their opinion of a certain player. They'd yell at me; I was still an umpire, true, but it was all in fun. It gave them a special contact with the field and made it difficult for them to get on me later in the game. Suddenly I was their official representative. I was doing exactly what they would do if they had the opportunity. Quite often someone would buy me a hot dog or a soda, and I'd forget I was working and end up having to run back to my position with half a frank in my mouth and soda splashing all over me.
When I reached the majors in 1969 everything was going so well I began to get cocky. I started shouting my calls with the same exuberance I'd shown in the minors. I didn't just call a runner out, I called him outoutoutoutoutoutout, maybe 15 times. I leaped in the air to call him out. I mean, he knew he was out.
I couldn't help myself. I was finally in the major leagues, and I let my enthusiasm show. I needed to talk to the players, the coaches, the managers, the ground-keepers, ball boys, anybody who would listen to me. It would have been impossible for me to stand out there for nine innings having nobody to talk to. It didn't matter if they answered or not.