Update, Jan. 4, 2016: Success! We crossed the 1,000-new-members line just before Christmas, and Seth got on a plane for ump school yesterday. To read his updates, click here.
Fifteen years ago, when I was working at Newsweek, I convinced an editor to send me to Wendelstedt Umpire School in Daytona Beach, Florida. Existing in various forms since 1938, and taken over in 1977 by the legendary MLB umpire Harry Wendelstedt, it is the most prestigious umpire school in the country. A couple dozen MLB umpires have come through its classrooms and training fields as students, or instructors, or both.
I was fascinated that there existed an academy for umping—a breeding ground for future recipients of hateful words and gestures lobbed by fans, players, announcers … pretty much everyone. Were they instructed on how to handle the onslaught of abuse? Schooled in the art of remaining impassive as managers launched spittle at their faces?
Almost immediately after arriving on ump school campus, I was masked up, adjudicating balls and strikes, and, best of all, asserting my dominance over any who questioned my calls. Barking at dudes. Scowling behind my mask. I was happy.
Sadly, that magazine’s expense account had its limits. They paid for me to attend the school for only a couple of days. So I had to leave just as I was beginning to express real flair in my out calls—sometimes throwing in a sideways sashay. But I wasn’t ready for this umpiring journey to end.
During my short stay, I’d managed to fill up my notebook with material. For instance:
- The faculty of the Wendelstedt school is made up in large part by active MLB umps. These are the guys you’re always yelling at through your TV. Off duty, they have tales to tell and dirt to dish. (Not to be confused with cleaning dirt off the dish.)
- Umpire school includes a major in-classroom component, with excruciatingly difficult written exams. The to-the-letter rules of baseball are far more complex than many fans realize. Even hardcore seamheads would likely be stumped by the toughest quiz questions.
- There are ump school sessions in which the teachers act as angry players or managers, arguing a call with gusto. (And by “gusto” I mean graphic genital profanities. This is the most fun part for the teachers.) Ump hopefuls are graded on their ability to listen to complaints without losing authority, to move things along, to keep their cool and not alter the game with ill-advised ejections but to stiffen their spines and run the bums if it becomes necessary.
- Umps relate deeply to police officers. Both are sworn to uphold the line between order and chaos. Both take flak just for doing their jobs. Both work alongside partners, in uniform, and develop an us-against-the-world mentality. Almost all the umps I talked to back then were way into NYPD Blue.
I returned to New York poised to file an award-winning piece of journalism. But this was a print weekly, and space was severely limited. I watched as the magazine’s higher-ups allocated column inches to stories about an elementary school shooting (some things never change), the upcoming 2000 election (spoiler alert: American voters will perpetrate a gruesome error), and the newest Smashing Pumpkins album (“pouty solipsism”). My umpire school dispatch was granted less and less room until, in the end, I was allowed to write a tiny squib—a couple hundred words, more a graphic with bullet points than an actual article. It offered a few tips on umpiring technique, but failed to capture the soul of the man in blue. “How dare they?” I thought, stewing at my desk, behind my umpire mask, which I’d taken to wearing during moments of anxiety and resentment. If only I could eject them from the building.
Since then, I’ve yearned to return to umpire camp—to get the story and do it right. I have begged my Slate editor, Julia Turner, again and again. Each fall sees me bounce into her office at some point, certain this will be my year. But Julia never swings at my wild pitch. It’s always “Wait ’til next year” and “We’re not eating those hotel costs so you can live out some weird authority fetish” and “Didn’t I turn this down last year?” and “I definitely turned this down last year.”
I get it. Julia needs to make tough choices. But you have an easy choice: Join Slate Plus. We’ll give you VIP access to Slate, with exclusive content from your favorite Slate writers and podcasters and a bunch of other fun goodies.
You should sign up for Slate Plus no matter what you think of me, or of umpires, or of umpire learning institutions. But I’ve somehow convinced Julia to go for this plan: If we get 1,000 new members to join Slate Plus, she’ll send me to ump school at last.* I’ll get to fulfill my long-deferred dream. And you’ll be supporting important journalism. (Other Slate journalism. Not this ump school story, which is maybe not so important, comparatively.) If all goes to plan, sometime in 2016 I will lovingly produce the in-depth, passionate, richly comical, profoundly edifying umpire school story I’ve wanted to write for the last decade-and-a-half—and Slate Plus members will get exclusive access to my audio diaries, special features, and more.
What do you say? Yup. PLAY BALL!
We’ll update this landing page as we make progress toward our goal.