By Chet Yarbrough
By Bruce Weber
Narrated by: Charley Steiner
Bruce Weber creates a Plimpton’ like book about baseball umpires in As They See ‘Em. True to Plimpton’s modus vivendi, Weber (nearing 50 years of age) goes to umpire school to conduct research on what baseball fans might call a dismal science.
Even lesser baseball fans will find a lot to like about Weber’s book. He calls strikes and balls about what is good and bad about the umpire life with a reporter’s veracity for second source confirmation of facts, whenever possible. There are a number of surprises.
One, becoming a big league professional umpire is a slow slog. It is a harder position to acquire than becoming a professional baseball player. You receive minimum wage for the baseball season and nothing for the remainder of the year. You may never reach the big leagues, even after ten years tenure as a rising minor league umpire. If you are a woman, you will not make it. If you are a minority, the odds are against you. Two, everyone hates umpires except fellow umpires. Fans, players, team coaches, team owners, and interestingly, sports writers and commentators (particularly former players) hate you. Three, the reason for umpire dislike is because of the nature of calling balls and strikes and the inevitable errors in judgment when making safe and out baseball decisions. Four, respect is the most important requirement of an umpire which is the fundamental reason umpires rarely say they make a mistake in calling a play. This, of course, compounds umpire hatred.
In the end, one wonders why anyone would want to become a baseball umpire. If you reach the “bigs”, your income averages $200,000 a year. Not bad for a season’s work, but plan on ten years of wages that will not support a family. If you make it, you are among the elite of the elite but Weber tells two stories that show how rabid fans are capable of threatening your life and your family. Add disrespect shown by baseball managers, writers, commentators, and the general public, and it makes more sense to go to jail for ten years and be vilified as a convict than try to become an umpire.
Weber completes his book like Plimpton did when he entered the boxing ring with Joe Louis. He umpires a pre-season game. Weber explains the fear and thrill of calling a professional baseball player’s game. Umpires are gods of the game. The power of an umpire to control a game is revealed. Power is tempered by fear; i.e. mistakes made by not really seeing a play but having to make a decision. Weber explains how the strike zone is a myth and comes down to an umpire’s judgment more than a definitive description.
He notes how one of the hardest calls to make is whether a ball is foul or fair but decisions must be made and it is difficult to turn back.
Weber explains how in a season game, umpires are vilified by commentators that have a two-dimensional vision of a ball and strike, based on an idealize box drawn on a screen placed in front of the batter. This two-dimensional look belies the umpires’ three dimensional split second decisions. It is not that the umpire’s call is always right, but a commentator is not staring at a 97 mile per hour fastball aimed at his head. A sportscaster has little justification for snide remarks about the ball being a hair too high.
If one is an occasional, or fanatic baseball fan, As They See ‘Em is an eye-opening entertainment; well written, and nicely narrated. It is a must read for anyone seriously considering a career as a baseball umpire.