How Blue Can You Get?

4 Aug
Robert Birnbaum's only 'selfie '[photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Robert Birnbaum’s only ‘selfie ‘[photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Last night, after umpiring a Little League game of the local 11 year old all stars, I had pause to reflect on my having reached the golden age of two-thirds of a century and discovering a new avocation: umpiring kid’s baseball. It seems that, gradually, over the past five or 6 years, I have morphed from being a standby,fill-in umpire, to this year, refereeing over 40 games.

Considering my anti-authoritarian pathology, the irony of my new role hums along as an air of bemusement through every game in which I am involved and even some that I just spectate. Which is not to say that I don’t take the task of running a game seriously— I do.

Now granted I am drawing from a very small sample size but I am of the belief that I may be the only anarchist baseball umpire on the East Coast(thankfully, no one is going to ask me to prove that assertion). I am also distinguishable from patched (certified )umpires who see what they do as income producing— and yet I haven’t met any who did not also love baseball. But after that, the commonality ends—which an indirect way of saying it takes all kinds.

For a life-long baseball fan (like me) viewing a baseball game as a judicial presence is a rarified and most revealing perspective from which to add the kind of minutiae to the never-ending body of knowledge that dedicated fans are constantly accumulating. And that accrual is one of the elements of the game that makes baseball fascinating.

The bibliography on the subject of umpiring (except for instruction manuals) is not extensive but then for the most part umpires are usually only noticed when one of the participants feels wronged and obliged to seek redress.Then fans are treated to uncommon behavior of adult temper tantrums (of which few artful practitioners remain—no dirt kicking Lou Pinellas, rabid gesticulators like Earl Weaver or tragically wronged victims like Jim Leyland). One rarely hears in the post game wrap up, “And tonight’s umpiring crew did a excellent job.”

Here are a handful of books that reveal the men behind the masks:

Remembrance of Swings Past by Ron Luciano

Remembrance of Swings Past by Ron Luciano

Looking back to the 80’s, it seems that Ron Luciano was the most (perhaps only) visible MLB umpire, publishing (purportedly)cleverly entitled books such asThe Umpire Strikes Back and The Fall of the Roman Umpire. and Remembrance of Swings Past. Luciano’s career-long arch rival,Baltimore Orioles’s manager, Earl Weaver opined of Luciano, he was “one of the few umpires people have paid their way into the park to see.” And Luciano pays back the compliment, observing of Weaver:

The problem with Earl [Weaver] is that he holds a grudge. Other managers, if they disagree with a call, may holler and shout, but you can still go out for a beer with them after the game. Not Earl. He never forgets. Heck, he even holds your minor league record against you. Once, a couple of years ago, I made a controversial call at the plate. Earl charged out of the dugout, screaming that that was the same call I’d blown at Elmira in ’66. That sort of thing can get to you.

Sadly, Luciano committed suicide in 1995 at age of 57.

Called Out But Safe by Al Clark

Called Out But Safe by Al Clark

Twenty five year veteran American League Umpire Al Clark who covered over 3000 games and a couple of World Series, accounts for his life in baseball. And his fall from grace when he was fired for travel expenses irregularities in 2001 and then in 2004 when he was convicted of mail fraud connected to the sale of baseball memorabilia in Called Out but Safe: A Baseball Umpire’s Journey (University of Nebraska Press) In addition to being one of a very small number of Jewish arbiters,Clark claims to have the distinction of suffering a hernia as he enthusiastically threw someone out of a game.

They Called Me God by Doug Harvey

They Called Me God by Doug Harvey

After 30 years, Hall of Fame Umpire, Doug Harvey retired in 1992 with 4673 games under his belt. His memoir (with the hyperbolic title) written with Peter Golenbock,They Called Me God: The Best Umpire Who Ever Lived (Gallery Books) is chocked full,as expected, of colorful anecdotes that include baseball legends such as Sandy Koufax, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Leo Durocher, Sparky Anderson, Tommy Lasorda, and Walter Alston. Harvey adds charmed bits of baseball lore to ever expanding history of our once and future national pastime

   Nobody’s Perfect by Armando Galarraga and Jim Joyce


Nobody’s Perfect by Armando Galarraga and Jim Joyce

The degree of difficulty in pitching a perfect game in baseball should be obvious when you consider the numbers— in almost 400,000 major league games there have only been twenty. The ostensible 21st is the subject of Nobody’s Perfect: Two Men, One Call,and a Game for Baseball History(Grove Atlantic) by Armando Galarraga, Jim Joyce.* On June 2, 2010, Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga threw what appeared to be like baseball’s twenty-first perfect game. Unfortunately, veteran umpire Jim Joyce (who is in the Irish American Baseball Hall of Fame) missed the call on the final out at first base. After viewing the replay Joyce observed “No, I did not get the call correct,I kicked the shit out of it.” And Galarraga? He got the final out and when asked about the play offered,“Nobody’s perfect.” The pair were widely praised in the sports chattering classes for the grace with which this incident was handled—and thus the book accounts for this singular baseball moment.

AsThey See Em by Bruce Weber

AsThey See Em by Bruce Weber

Veteran New York Timesman Bruce Weber who actually went to umpire school interviewed over 200 men in blue to create this insightful peek into the otherwise mysterious world of baseball umpires in As They See ‘Em: A Fan’s Travels in the Land of Umpires (Scribner). Along the way we learn about QuesTec, the system of cameras and computers that measures umpires’ plate performances during regular season games. And most enlighteningly (sic), that although they are “held together by the powerful bond of their singular profession, umpires are a dysfunctional family, at odds with players, management and one another” Weber also points out that the pay is not lucrative and there’s no real job security and “that few fathers light up cigars, point to their babies and say, ‘That kid is going to be a major league umpire.'” Still, hundreds continue signing up for umpire school, as they say,”chasin’ the dream”.

You're The Umpire by  Wayne Stewart

You’re The Umpire by Wayne Stewart

When I reveal to people that I umpire little league— I eventually get around to asserting that every fan of the game should try their hand at it— insight into the game of baseball increases exponentially (well, it did for me). Wayne Stewart’s You’re the Umpire: 139 Scenarios to Test Your Baseball Knowledge (Skyhorse Publishing)doesn’t put you on the field but it does give you a sense of the density and sometimes obscurity of the code that governs baseball play.

It should not go unsaid that I have seen bad adult behavior at kid baseball games and have been subjected to all manner of passive aggressive acting out by parents and coaches. Thankfully none has risen to the level of violence that saw a soccer referee in Michigan die from parental assault. But it does give one pause to think when I see someone exhibiting poor impulse control and weak anger management

* , The old saw “Nobody’s perfect” is also the title of the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane’s anthology which we attributed to legendary director Billy Wilder (Some Like it Hot):

Billy Wilder's Headstone

Billy Wilder’s Headstone

Currently reading Death of A River Guide by Richard Flanagan (Grove/Atlantic)

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2 Responses to “How Blue Can You Get?”

  1. hdinin August 4, 2014 at 10:46 pm #

    What a wonderful column. Write them all like this, compadre, and I guarantee you, within the next 20 years someone will offer you a job doing this for a living…

    But really IB, the best you’ve ever done. I loved this.

    H

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