The book: “As They See ‘Em: A Fan’s Travels in the Land of Umpires”
The author: Bruce Weber
How to find it: Simon and Schuster, 352 pages, $26
The scoop: The New York Times reporter has made the career of an umpire look even more attractive than it really should. He should know. He actually did it. From Little League to a big-league exhibition game.
But it’s more than a Plimpton-esque journey into the dark side of baseball’s men in black.
Why isn’t every strike zone equal?
Why doesn’t a tie go to the runner?
What kind of things do umpires and managers really yell at each other during an argument?
Weber’s ability to interview umpires and players as they see the prominence of the position brings out more than just anecdotal information.
The book is an offshoot of Weber visiting the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring in Kissimmee, Florida, to do a story for the New York Times in 2005. He then spent the last three years becoming an ump — hitting the road with a Double-A crew.
Umps are rarely quoted in any kind of medium, so to get beyond that exterior and find the human side is really something special. They really can’t even enjoy the game they and everyone else is watching. They take it very seriously. Yet, they know how to rip a mask off their face without messing up their hair. Most times.
The book also gets into some of the most high-profile umpire episodes in baseball history, such as the George Brett pine-tar incident (1983), Eric Gregg’s 25 strike-out game in the ’97 NL playoffs because a ridiculously wide strike zone, the botched Jeffrey Mair call in the 1996 ALCS at Yankee Stadium and Don Denkinger’s missed call in the 1985 World Series.
It’s hardly a tell-all tale, because the umps keep some things close to the chest protector. But it’s about as close as you can get to the inside of their heads, what makes they want this somewhat thankless job, and how you can better appreciate the restraints they’re under, on any level, at any time.
At a time when in 130 years only one major-league umpire has been accused of professional dishonesty — and that was in 1982 — it’s Doug Harvey who says in the book: “The integrity of the game is the umpires. Nobody else. The entire integrity of the game is the umpires.”
One hurler’s opinion: What “Ball Four” author Jim Bouton wrote of this book in his review for the New York Times: “For future aspirants, the first step should be reading Bruce Weber’s As They See ‘Em, a wonderfully detailed look at the craft of umpiring…I must say that reading this book has given me a new appreciation for the men in blue…I never realized what it takes to be an umpire: encyclopedic knowledge of constantly evolving rules, and the exact positioning for each type of call; the ability to make snap decisions under pressure; the endurance to stand for three to five hours in all kinds of weather; the personality required to deal with endless criticism; and the presence necessary to command a game. And I liked the personal stories.”
How it goes down in the scorebook: A bang-bang play at first base on a slow roller up along third — with the ump getting the call right. As verified by instant replay.
Post script: From a list of questions give at the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring, true or false:
1. Runner on second, two out. The batter hits a home run. But he misses first base as he’s rounding the bases. Only one run counts?
2. An outfielder may wear a first-baseman’s mitt in the outfield.
3. A batter-turned-runner can never be declared out when he it his by a thrown ball as he is running foul territory.
4. There is no penalty for throwing a glove at a fair ball.
5. The ball always becomes dead immediately when a balk is called.
1. False (no runs count; out at first is a force play)
2. False (the first baseman’s glove exceeds the allowable measurements of an outfielder’s glove)
3. False (if the batter running to first in foul territory outside the runner’s lane is hit by a true throw to first, the batter may be declared out, such as when a catcher is throwing from foul territory to first on a dropped third strike).
4. True (a three-base penalty, if the glove touches the ball)
5. False (if the balk is committed when there’s a pickoff, the ball stays in play until the play ends.)