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You’re My Boy, Blue

Tom Verducci has a wonderful piece in the current issue of SI about his experience working as an umpire during a spring training game between the Red Sox and Orioles last week.  The good folks at SI.com saw fit to posting it on the web.  Verducci also has a follow-up column, filled with insights, also at SI.com.  The best part of Verducci’s experiment is that is illustrates just how difficult umpiring is, and how seriously the men in blue take their profession.  It also drives home just how good major league players are.  

From the magazine article:

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.’"

From the on-line column:

Star players don’t get their own strike zone.

Said umpire Sam Holbrook, "When I was a rookie umpire in ’98 in the National League, we had interleague play down in Florida. Wade Boggs comes to bat, and the pitcher throws it 92 miles an hour right down the gut. I call it a strike.

"Wade steps back and starts to turn around. I’m thinking, What’s he possibly going to bitch about? He says, ‘Sam, do me a favor. Can you check that ball. I think it’s got a little smudge mark.’

"’Sure,’ I say. The guy throws it in. I look at it and there’s this tiny dot about that big [a quarter-inch] that he saw on a baseball going 92 miles an hour. I said, ‘Holy smokes.’ It just shows you how good the really good ones are."

Said Culbreth, "It’s a myth, this idea that, ‘Do you give Wade Boggs pitches? Because it looks like you do.’ No. Wade Boggs takes pitches because he knows what they are.

"It’s like Greg Maddux. It’s not that we’re giving him that outside pitch. It’s that he never stops throwing out there. If a guy throws a hundred pitches out there and another guy throws 10, it’s always going to appear that this guy is getting the outside."

My father used to ask me what the hardest position in baseball was.  I would say, "Catcher?"  He shook his head.  "Shortstop?"  No.  "The umpire."  I always thought that was funny coming from my dad, who loved to defy authority.  On the other hand, he also had an appreciation for order and rules (maybe he only liked to buck the rules he didn’t like).  The film director Bernardo Bertolucci used to say he’d never work with a film editor if the editor ever won an award for cutting one of his films.  Good editing means that you don’t notice it.  Same as umpiring: you only notice when they screw up. 

Now, I love to curse at umps as much as the next guy, especially the arrogant ones, but after reading Verducci’s story, I will remember not only how hard their jobs are, but how well they perform them. 

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver