As They See ‘Em: A fan’s travels in the land of umpires by Bruce Weber (Scribner, 2009) 356 pages
Umpires in baseball, much like officials in all sports, are often considered to be nothing more than a necessary evil.
They proudly claim that you cannot have a proper game without them in the hope that this will make people realise their importance, but it has the opposite effect. It reinforces the point that you have to have them, not that it’s beneficial, let alone desirable. Umpires are there for fans to jeer every time they make a decision against their team, to receive little to no praise for the 99 calls they get right and merciless criticism for the 1 they get wrong.
Part of the umpire’s unenviable plight reflects the fact that most fans, media pundits, players and managers don’t really understand what they do, what they’ve had to go through to reach the elite level and what life is like for them once they are there.
The umpiring fraternity in MLB fuels this by shunning outsiders, not surprisingly considering the grief they get, but Bruce Weber was able to win their trust and in doing so has written a fascinating book that gives baseball fans a greater insight into the world of umpiring.
The most surprising revelation for me is the seemingly haphazard process of training and promoting umpires in the North American system.
There are two main umpiring schools and the MLB Commissioner’s Office has very limited involvement in the process. While players are subject to constant public scrutiny and progress through the minor league ranks based on performance, there’s a clear element of the “old boys’ network” when it comes to the officials (‘Old boys’ being a particularly apt expression, as the entries about the experiences of the few female umpires make clear. They make for interesting reading in light of the recent ‘sexism’ debate in football).
There are only a small number of MLB positions at any one time and once an umpire has reached the Majors, they are virtually there for life so long as they don’t slip to an obviously poor standard. The whole process might serve a few veterans well, but it does little for the image of the profession, or for maintaining high standards through competition for places.
The situation adds yet another entry onto the list of ‘reasons why someone would be mad to become an umpire’, but that doesn’t stop many people each year going to a training camp in the hope of “chasing the dream”, such that it is.
The dream is, of course, being part of the game at the highest level and As They See ‘Em shows that, as with all sports, it’s a long hard road to achieve that aim. The minor leagues are an especially brutal proving ground. Budding umpires drive hundreds of miles to get to games, receive low pay, endure run-down motels and cheap food, all so that they can be bawled at by managers, players and fans alike. The pay and conditions are much improved once an umpire makes it to the Majors, but the grief only increases, as does the pressure to be out on the field regardless of injury or illness.
Which all begs the question: why does anyone do it? Weber explores this theme by training to become an umpire himself, meeting many hopefuls on the way who clearly love baseball and, lacking the playing skills, see officiating as the next best option.
It is greatly revealing to discover just how much there is to learn, not simply through knowing the laws of the game inside out but how to interpret them, how to communicate with players and managers and how to get yourself into the best possible position on any given play to allow you to see exactly what happens and to make the correct call.
It’s interesting to note from Weber’s experience how years of being a fan and an occasional player give you very little useful grounding for a career in umpiring. He has to look at the game, every individual play, from a completely different perspective. Additionally, as Weber puts it, “the instantaneous decision-making that defines an umpire’s responsibility is the sort of challenge that most of us, in our personal and professional lives, shy away from”.
We all know that umpiring is much more difficult than it looks, that the umps don’t have the luxury of different camera angles and countless slow-motion replays to study before making a call on bang-bang play. But do we really appreciate it as much as we should?
Of course, the umpires are there to do a job. Those in MLB should be the best, they should be expected to get the decisions correct and to receive criticism if they make notable mistakes. However, technology now demands them to be perfect and that is an expectation too far. As one of the most memorable passages in the book explains: “technology has now let fans, in the ballpark and at home, in on what the people on the field already knew: that the umpires’ calls are essentially approximations of actual results”.
Nowhere is this more apparent than with the strike zone. Weber notes humourlessly the shock at standing behind home plate and discovering that the white box that appears on TV broadcasts is not there in real life. It’s not that simple, and not just because umpire’s don’t have a ‘K-Zone’ in front of their eyes.
“The strike zone isn’t, nor has it ever been, set in stone, or even sand. It’s set in the air, a concept, not a thing … the umpire’s job is not so much to enforce the rulebook as to represent it, to set the fulcrum of the seesaw – to be the fulcrum of the seesaw – and make sure the duel between the pitcher and the hitter is properly balanced”.
Again, this comes back to the idea that calls are “approximations” and that the real world implementation of the laws is not always as black and white as people would believe. Beyond the extremes, laws are always subject to interpretation and their enforcement is governed through experience and a common understanding of proportionality and fairness.
For example, and to keep with the sporting theme, take corner kicks in football. Holding, tugging a shirt or deliberately blocking a run should result in a foul every time, but only blatant and decisive acts lead to the whistle being blown. If the law was upheld strictly then the game would become a farce, either with fouls being awarded on every single occasion or goals beings scored from virtually every good delivery due to defenders being unable to stop the attackers.
The general intent of the law is fine, so, instead of a rewrite, the law is interpreted in a way that is considered fair and everyone accepts it, albeit withholding the right to complain if a blatant and significant infraction is not spotted.
The strike zone has rarely (never?) been called precisely to the letter of the law and there has never been a time when players have worked to the exact same strike zone in every single game (accepting that the zone differs from batter to batter due to their height etc). We’ve never had the technology to change that until now and whenever a high-profile missed call is jumped on by the media and fans, the argument of using technology to define balls and strikes is raised again.
But is it really something that would make the game better? Of the thousands of pitches called in any regular season week, very few are inaccurate to the extent that they cause serious dispute. The Questec system, which evaluates umpires’ pitch-calling, helps to keep the officials within an acceptable degree of tolerance.
If there is some slight variation from there, through an umpire having a marginally wider/higher/lower zone or with the zone changing minimally due to the context of the play (e.g. immensely skilled pitchers like Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine slightly widening the strike zone due to their unerring accuracy, as explained by Weber), is that something that should be eliminated?
There’s an argument, beyond the reputational blow of taking the responsibility away from the umpire, that we would actually lose a distinctive human element that has always been part of the game.
As They See ‘Em makes you consider the umpire’s craft in this way and many more, which few of us would do otherwise. This edition of the book includes a new afterword in which Weber makes some observations about the future of umpiring. In short, he believes the focus shouldn’t be on significantly increasing the use of technology. Instead, there should be a concerted effort to improve umpiring through better recruitment, better training, better remuneration and a public system whereby the performance of umpires can be properly considered. It’s a convincing argument.
One benefit of the close inspection from TV cameras and technology in recent years has been the realization that in most cases the umpires do an excellent job. Weber’s close inspection of the profession in As They See ‘Em should have a similarly positive effect.
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