Sports Nut

The Umpire and His Discontents

Another way to think about the men in blue.

Illustration by Charlie Powell.
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Lasting image from this year’s baseball play-offs: Doug Eddings, the plate umpire for Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, blows a third-strike call with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. More than that, he blows the third-strike hand signal, stranding it somewhere between “strike” and “out.” The next batter, who probably should have never seen the plate, smashes a game-winning double. In the clubhouse, Eddings faces reporters. The scene quickly achieves the semantic genius of a White House press conference. “My interpretation is that’s my Strike 3 mechanic. … I did not say ‘no catch.’ … I don’t see how you guys can say it’s clearly a caught ball. …”

If the old occupational hazard of umpiring was bodily harm—Ty Cobb once met an umpire under the bleachers and gave him the worst of it—it is now death by sportswriting. Nearly every baseball columnist in America has since inveighed against Eddings’ boner. This fits nicely with the prevailing sociology of umpires, which you might call the Lonely Man theory. Thomas Boswell’s essay “Lives of Noisy Desperation” paints the umpire as a tragic creature, moving noiselessly among 35,000 fans and a few dozen ballplayers. He walks undetected until he makes a mistake, at which point everyone finally notices him. Why would anyone subject themselves to such masochism? “Almost without exception,” Boswell writes, “they are men who dreamed about athletic heroism as children; becoming umpires was their compromise with their own lack of talent.”

In the face of baseball’s dismal officiating—Eddings’ screw-up seemed to trigger a half-dozen others, including one in last night’s World Series game—here is another way to think about umpiring. Call it the Union Man Theory. Umpires are proud unionists, blue-collar in every sense of the word. As with baseball’s players, the success or failure of their labor disputes tends to dictate how we think about them.

Major-league umpires have been organized since 1963; their union has since been reconfigured, rather grandly, as the “World Umpires Association.” An umpire’s education might consist of little more than a high-school diploma and a trip through umpire’s school. After an apprenticeship in the minors, a few umpires are picked to jump to the bigs. There he becomes a member of a protected and feisty class. Those who remember baseball’s various labor stoppages may not recall that umpires have gone on strike three times since 1978. The first major action came in 1979, when a strike won them “no-cut” contracts, a two-week vacation, and salaries of up to $55,000. In 1988, major-league umpires were earning up to $117,000, according to the New York Times, plus expenses, for baseball’s six-month season.

With the union at its peak, umpiring in the 1980s became rather decadent. A trove of ump memoirs of the period—Planet of the Umps; The Umpire Strikes Back; Working the Plate—reveals umpires exulting in their newfound job security.Clownish umps like Ken Kaiser, who made an entertaining show of arguing with managers, flourished. Umpires hung on well past physical decay: The National League’s John McSherry, whose weight had ballooned to more than 400 pounds, collapsed on the field and died in 1996. Moreover, umpires frequently tangled with players, as exemplified by Terry Cooney’s quick ejection of Roger Clemens in the 1990 play-offs. When questioned about the excesses, umpires often fell back on their “unique” arbitrative skills. Summing up the public discontent with the umps, the Boston Globe reported in 1990, “They now provoke, they now antagonize, they now start arguments and, most of all, they prolong confrontations. Long gone are the days of the impartial arbiters.”

Two events brought about the end of the umpire’s free reign. First was the 1997 National League Championship Series, * where Eric Gregg, a behemoth plate umpire, enforced a strike zone wide enough to accommodate a midsize automobile. Gregg’s performance crystallized a fan complaint: that umpires had become too mercurial and big games were often dictated by their tics rather than the rulebook. Two years later, the umpire’s union finally overreached. Telling the New York Times he was performing “God’s work,” union chief Richie Phillips convinced more than 50major-league umpires to submit their resignations—a bold move, he hoped, that would force commissioner Bud Selig to award them a new contract. Selig shocked the umpires by happily accepting the resignations and hiring replacements. (A few of the umpires were able to reclaim their jobs.) The era of the self-aggrandizing umpire was over.

With the union reeling, baseball re-asserted control. Standardization and accountability became the buzzwords. The American and National Leagues merged their pools of umpires in 2000, eliminating the discrepancies between the two (for years, American Leaguers rarely called low strikes). In 2001, baseball issued an edict that umpires should enforce the codified strike zone—a threat backed up by QuesTec video cameras mounted in the ballparks. In response to McSherry’s death and a rash of umpireal obesity, the league began more seriously enforcing weight limits. The result has been that, with a few exceptions, umpires are much more difficult to tell apart, less prone to elicit a fan’s ire. They are smaller targets, literally and figuratively.

Thus, the roasting of this year’s wayward umps has been different than that of earlier eras. After Don Denkinger’s 1985 World Series boner—which, admittedly, was in a different league than Eddings’ goof—St. Louis radio stations provided his home telephone number to aggrieved Cardinals fans. This season, by comparison, the writers’ calls have been not for the umpires’ heads but for the establishment of instant replay. Baseball’s umpire reform has had its desired effect—it ingrained the notion that umpires are no longer innately incompetent, and that even an elite crew will face balls that stray outside the range of perception. The chief emotion for Eddings and company is sympathy rather than sadism. We no longer want to kill the umpire. We want to help him.

Correction, Oct. 27, 2005: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that umpire Eric Gregg worked the 1997 World Series. He worked the National League Championship Series of that year. (Return to the corrected sentence.)