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Monday, August 3, 2009

Reading List: As They See 'Em

Weber, Bruce. As They See 'Em. New York: Scribner, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7432-9411-9.
In what other game is a critical dimension of the playing field determined on the fly, based upon the judgement of a single person, not subject to contestation or review, and depending upon the physical characteristics of a player, not to mention (although none dare discuss it) the preferences of the arbiter? Well, that would be baseball, where the plate umpire is required to call balls and strikes (about 160 called in an average major league game, with an additional 127 in which the batter swung at the pitch). A fastball from a major league pitcher, if right down the centre, takes about 11 milliseconds to traverse the strike zone, so that's the interval the umpire has, in the best case, to call the pitch. But big league pitchers almost never throw pitches over the fat part of the plate for the excellent reason that almost all hitters who have made it to the Show will knock such a pitch out of the park. So umpires have to call an endless series of pitches that graze the corners of the invisible strike zone, curving, sinking, sliding, whilst making their way to the catcher's glove, which wily catchers will quickly shift to make outside and inside pitches appear to be over the plate.

Major league umpiring is one of the most élite occupations in existence. At present, only sixty-eight people are full-time major league umpires and typically only one or two replacements are hired per year. Including minor leagues, there are fewer than 300 professional umpires working today, and since the inception of major league baseball, fewer than five hundred people have worked games as full-time umpires.

What's it like to pursue a career where if you do your job perfectly you're at best invisible, but if you make an error or, even worse, make a correct call that inflames the passion of the fans of the team it was made against, you're the subject of vilification and sometimes worse (what other sport has the equivalent of the cry from the stands, “Kill the umpire!”)? In this book, the author, a New York Times journalist, delves into the world of baseball umpiring, attending one of the two schools for professional umpires, following nascent umpires in their careers in the rather sordid circumstances of Single A ball (umpires have to drive from game to game on their own wheels—they get a mileage allowance, but that's all; often their accommodations qualify for my Sleazy Motel Roach Hammer Awards).

The author follows would-be umpires through school, the low minors, AA and AAA ball, and the bigs, all the way to veterans and the special pressures of the playoffs and the World Series. There are baseball anecdotes in abundance here: bad calls, high profile games where the umpire had to decide an impossible call, and the author's own experience behind the plate at an intersquad game in spring training where he first experienced the difference between play at the major league level and everything else—the clock runs faster. Relativity, dude—get used to it!

You think you know the rulebook? Fine—a runner is on third with no outs and the batter has a count of one ball and two strikes. The runner on third tries to steal home, and whilst sliding across the plate, is hit by the pitch, which is within the batter's strike zone. You make the call—50,000 fans and two irritable managers are waiting for you. What'll it be, ump? You have 150 milliseconds to make your call before the crowd starts to boo. (The answer is at the end of these remarks.) Bear in mind before you answer that any major league umpire gets this right 100% of the time—it's right there in the rulebook in section 6.05 (n).

Believers in “axiomatic baseball” may be dismayed at some of the discretion documented here by umpires who adjust the strike zone to “keep the game moving along” (encouraged by a “pace of game” metric used by their employer to rate them for advancement). I found the author's deliberately wrong call in a Little League blowout game (p. 113) reprehensible, but reasonable people may disagree.

As of January 2009, 289 people have been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. How many umpires? Exactly eight—can you name a single one? Umpires agree that they do their job best when they are not noticed, but there will be those close calls where their human judgement and perception make the difference, some of which may be, even in this age of instant replay, disputed for decades afterward. As one umpire said of a celebrated contentious call, “I saw what I saw, and I called what I saw”. The author concludes:

Baseball, I know, needs people who can not only make snap decisions but live with them, something most people will do only when there's no other choice. Come to think of it, the world in general needs people who accept responsibility so easily and so readily. We should be thankful for them.

Batter up!

Answer: The run scores, the batter is called out on strikes, and the ball is dead. Had there been two outs, the third strike would have ended the inning and the run would not have scored (p. 91).

Posted at August 3, 2009 03:30