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Jimmy Scott's High & Tight: The Bruce Weber "All About Umpires" Interview
They are judge, jury and military tribunal. They are the on-field Fates. They are a collective of dictators; a true boys club. They are arbitors of justice. If they are truly above excellence, you don't even know they are there. But when these gods invite controversy, human wrath instantly falls upon them. They are Major League umpires. And guess what? They are people too.
When New York Times reporter Bruce Weber did a couple of stories for the paper a few years ago about baseball umpire schools, he hadn't even known umpire schools existed. The subject intrigued him beyond his few thousand words of published essays. This intrigue brought him closer to The Game than he ever expected, and the result was a book released in 2009 called As They See 'Em - A Fan's Travels In The Land Of Umpires. In the Jimmy Scott's High & Tight interview with Bruce Weber, you're going to get an addictive fix dealing with MLB umpires. Then you'll want to pick up the book so you can come back for more.
In early 2009, I had the opportunity to interview MLB umpire Hunter Wendelstedt. He spoke of his personal journey from son of an MLB umpire to non-competitive (meaning fairly bad) athlete to umpre wannabe. After more than a decade in the Major League ranks, Wendelstedt is walking in his father Harry's footsteps quite well.
But that was just one story. As They See 'Em covers more than one man's story. It begins, interestingly, with Weber's story and how he decided, after his articles were published, to enroll in umpire school. Taking a page from George Plimpton's Paper Lion, Weber went through all of the motions of any other man (or rare occasional woman) trying to make the jump from fan to umpire. Along the way, he spoke with former MLB umpire Jim Evans about the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpires and a number of other men who made the cut to start in the minor leagues. He also writes about a few of the men who didn't.
Eventually, Weber was able to negotiate his way into umpiring the third base line for an Angels spring training game and behind the plate for a Giants spring training intersquad game. Besides writing about his nerves and sudden lack of self-esteem, he also proved to himself why umpires need to spend a minimum 7 years in the minor leagues. "Some of the pitches I saw couldn't possibly diave and swoop the way they did, I thought, unless a driver, a little man behind a steering wheel, were embedded in the ball." In his interview with Jimmy Scott's High & Tight, Weber talks about the requirement to "see" thousands of pitches, just like big league batters, before an umpire is really ready to stand behind the plate in a game.
In the book, Weber writes his experiences trying to learn the proper mannerisms an umpire is supposed to utilize when in a confrontation with a manager. Weber speaks at length about this in the Jimmy Scott's High & Tight interview, and gives some important advice: The bill of an umpire's cap needs to be below the bill of the man's cap he's arguing with. The last thing a man in blue wants is Ozzie Guillen to use his White Sox cap as a means of flipping off an umpire's cap. The umpire may win the bout by throwing Guillen out, but that's only a technicality. Guillen won simply by showing up is adversary.
Weber also talks about the 1999 mass resignation by the then-umpires union. He goes over about the proper way for umpires to handle an on-field brawl. Finally, he discusses controversial calls, from Game 6 of the 1985 World Series (Cardinals vs. Royals) to Game 163 of the 2007 season (Rockies vs. Padres).
Weber writes in As They See 'Em: "Major League umpires are driven and aggressive men, goal-oriented and highly competitive, whish is why it's so odd - poignant and odd - that they've chosen a profession in which literally they can't win and figuratively they don't, in which not only does disappointment always threaten but triumph is almost always bland." If you read As They See 'Em, you'll understand more than you ever knew was possible about the men behind the masks. Maybe next time you're watching your favorite team in action, your eyes will stray away from the power hitter and land on the fella with the goofy cap hanging out on the first base line. And maybe you'll suddenly gain an appreciation for not only what the man does, but what he's done to get there.
Listen to Bruce Weber now and read As They See 'Em next. Your baseball mind will never be the same again.
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John Mellencamp - Between A Laugh And A Tear
John Mellencamp - Your Life Is Now
Soundtrack: A Beautiful Mind