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Umpire Joe West dons the uniform before a recent game at Fenway. ( Photo / David Ropeik)  <a href='' onclick='openWindow('','','width=775,height=585,resizable=yes,scrollbars=yes,toolbar=no,location=no,menubar=no,status=no'); return false;'> Photo gallery
Umpire Joe West dons the uniform before a recent game at Fenway. ( Photo / David Ropeik)

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Men in black (or light blue)

Umpiring much more than just balls and strikes

It's late one night in early August. Four guys drag themselves wearily off a plane at Logan. Nobody pays them any attention. During the next three days they'll shop, eat at local restaurants, stroll along some of the busiest streets in Boston, and they will do it all unnoticed. Then, each night, they'll go to work in front of millions of people and make decisions that will affect the emotions of men, women, and kids all over New England. And even while they are at this highly visible job, they will remain pretty much anonymous.

They are the men in black (light blue for a day game.) They are the umpires who will call three games during a recent homestand. And very few fans will pay any attention to this third team on the field, the team whose decisions have a lot to do with who wins and who loses. Umpires Joe West, Brian Gorman, Mike DiMuro, and Mark Carlson let your correspondent tag along (and even try to call balls and strikes) to discover a side of the game that few fans know.

On a fly ball near the foul line in the left field corner with the bases loaded, where does the first base ump go? How do the umps decide when to hold one of those conferences where they talk a play over before making a ruling? What's the correct position for brushing dirt off home plate? Which are the hardest ballparks in which to work a game (Answers below)? The umpires have to know it all, and have instant recall of the most arcane details of the rules. They have to know how to keep control of the game when a player or coach starts screaming in their face. They spend years learning proper positioning, proper techniques.

"A lot of people don't realize the work that goes into getting to the big leagues. It's a long apprenticeship," says Brian Gorman, a major league umpire since 1993. "We all didn't get just pulled out of a bar and told to go work second base."

Gorman is one of five major league umpires following in their father's foot steps. His dad Tom was an ump for 25 years (DiMuro's dad Lou umpired for 19 years). Like a lot of umps, Brian started early.

"I always umpired, Little League and stuff like that, just for some extra money. I went to the University of Delaware and considered going to umpire school and went to my dad and he thought I should get my head examined. But after that he said, 'Finish school and give it a shot.'"

Step one is a five-week umpire school (there are two of them). Graduate at the top of your class and you're invited to "advanced umpire school" to compete against the top graduates of the other school. Graduate at the top of that class and you're invited to begin your apprenticeship at the lowest levels of the minors. You have to work every level: rookie ball, Single A, Double A, Triple A. Years of lousy pay ($1,800-$3,400 a month depending on the league, and no pay in the offseason), lousy hotels, no benefits. Years of work in front of scouts for MLB, who are checking to see not only how you call the plays but how well you handle "situations": arguments, ejections, appeals ("That's what separates the men from the boys," Gorman says). Then maybe you get called up, if there is an opening for one of only 68 major league jobs.

It's easier to make the majors as a player than an umpire. Two percent of players who enter pro ball make the bigs. Only one percent of the umps who go to umpire school get there. It took Brian 10 years.

But, as with the players, the pay in the majors gets a lot better. Umpires make about $90,000 a year to start. The most senior umps make roughly $350,000. There are bonuses for working the postseason or All-Star Games. Full job benefits. Per diem pay for travel, hotels, and meals. But in exchange, major league umpires are on a 162-game road trip, except for a few weeks of vacation spread through the season.

Crew chief Joe West says, "I think most guys think the hardest part of umpiring is being away from home all the time. You're living out of a suitcase. You don't have a home. Ballplayers are home half the year. We basically never go home."

Two of the members of this crew, Mark Carlson and Mike DiMuro, have little kids.

"That's definitely the worst part," Carlson says, "The amount of time I spend away from my family. I have two kids at home. That's the worst of times, for sure."

DiMuro appreciates the gift of time at home with his kids only too poignantly. His father Lou was an ump who spent months away from home, then had to work in the offseason when the pay stopped. Lou missed a lot of time with his son before he was killed in a car crash when Mike was 14. Mike wears his dad's old number, 16.

The pressure to be perfect

The other thing major league umps get the big bucks for is being correct. All the time. "You have to be perfect on day one, and get better," West says, quoting old time ump (and former nightclub comedian) Dick Stello. A great hitter fails two thirds of the time. A great pitcher gives up a few runs a game. An ump isn't supposed to make any mistakes. "And every controversy shows up on ESPN," West adds.

West has been in the majors since 1978. He says there are three keys to being an ump. If you get them right, he says, mistakes should never happen. The first key is position. Watch the umps on the field during a game. They're moving all the time, before each play, and during many plays, depending on the situation and the play. (Answer to the question about where the first base ump goes on a ball down the left field line with the bases loaded: He covers home, because the home plate umpire has run out to cover third, and the third base umpire has run out into the outfield to see if the ball is foul or fair.)

There's even a right and wrong position for your head, says Mike DiMuro. "Behind the plate, you don't want to move your head. You want to use your eyes, because once you move your head you're pushing the pitch a certain way and that pitch might look low or outside. It's like using a video camera. You want to hold it still to get the best picture."

The second key, West says, is concentration. It's easy enough paying attention behind home plate where you're involved in every play. But Carlson, in the majors since 1999, says, "physically the plate is toughest. You're squatting 300 times a game. You're making a decision on every pitch that comes in. But mentally, focus-wise ... you work third base ... you have to stay more mentally focused there because you might have no plays, you might have one play a game, all of a sudden."

The third key is timing. "Waiting until you have all the information you need to make the call, " West says. It may drive the players and fans nuts, but umps are supposed to delay, even on balls and strikes, to see and hear all they need to, and think over what they've just seen to make sure they get it right.

So do they make mistakes? "If you have position, concentration, and timing, you won't miss it ... you make the play," West says.

"But you're only human," challenges your correspondent.

"No. No, you're not. Not when you're out there. You're not allowed to be wrong."

DiMuro, like Carlson, made the majors in 1999 when 22 umps lost their jobs in a mass resignation/job action that backfired (West was one of them, but was among several who have been reinstated). DiMuro is a little more honest.

"You are going to make mistakes. We are human. But my job is to be perfect. That's what they pay me for. That's why I'm out there and that's what I want to be. If I had to rank everything, the pressure to be perfect is the most difficult part of the job."

And what does it feel like to be constantly evaluated: by the players and coaches, the fans, the umpiring supervisors who are always evaluating their work, or the QuesTec cameras and computers that record how well they call balls and strikes, which MLB uses to rate their performance? The umpires tried to force MLB to get rid of QuesTec in recent labor negotiations, but failed. Fenway is one of roughly a dozen QuesTec-enabled parks.

DiMuro: "If you're looking at it honestly, in any job you don't get a free run to do whatever you want. You've got to be accountable. My employer should have every right to evaluate me."

Gorman: "QuesTec's not the only thing out there for us. If somebody was going to follow you around with a camera and record every decision that you make in a three hour period ... a lot of people wouldn't be able to handle that. That's what we have to deal with every day. There isn't a game that's not on TV. You can't take a day off. If you're out there you better be on. Our work ethic is off the charts."

Do umps call the strike zone differently in QuesTec-enabled parks, as Curt Schilling says many have admitted to him? Carlson: "If you're confident in what you do you're going to do the same thing if they're there or not."

Do not try this at home. They are trained professionals.

You know all those times you've complained about the umps' call on a pitch? If you think you could do it better, fuggetaboutit! In our never-ending search for baseball truth, your correspondent donned the chest protector and mask and tried to call balls and strikes. The first problem was getting the mask on over the hat, without mashing the hat down over my eyes. My tutor, West, says it takes a few hours of practice. The second problem was getting the mask off without knocking the hat off my head, as home plate umps have to do when there's a play at the plate. "There's a technique of how you take your mask off," West says, showing me how to pull the mask forward before pulling it up and back.

And then there's positioning. West shows me how to "wrap around the catcher kind of like a glove" and says I should position my head over the inside shoulder of the catcher, on the batter's side. "For a better view?" I ask. "No, for protection," he says.

"A foul ball off the handle slows down. A foul ball off the barrel of the bat speeds up." Watch the home plat ump next time. Their head is always over the inside shoulder of the catcher, because it's safer there.

A couple of the clubhouse guys, Andy Crosby and Chris Cundiff, help out as pitcher and catcher for this demonstration. West grabs a bat and steps into the batter's box. I squat, and try to figure out where the strike zone is. I grew up when the top of the zone was "the letters" or "the armpits" or something up there. Officially it's "…the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants" ... "determined from the batter's stance as the batter is prepared to swing ..." The bottom of the zone is now the bottom of the knees. Prior to 1996 it was the top of the knees. Of course until 1887, batters could call for a high pitch or a low one.

Fortunately, I don't have to worry about whether I am trying to figure out the American League or National League zone. Starting in 2000, umps have worked both leagues. They call one series at a time in a ballpark, pack, and move on. It evens out how the games are called, and reduces jet lag for the umpires, with fewer long flights between assignments.

Crosby throws the first pitch. "Yes," I say confidently. "Yes WHAT?" West asks. "It was a strike," I reply with confidence. "Did I swing?" West asks. I pause. I have no idea. I was concentrating on whether pitch was in the zone. I threaten to eject him if he questions me again.

I try a few more pitches, kind of get the idea of the zone, kind of pay attention to whether West is swinging, kind of try to hold my head still, kind of remember that a strike means I'm supposed to stick out my right arm ... and I am really glad the ball is not traveling at 95 miles an hour and curving somehow and West is not actually swinging so he won't foul one off my face. I appreciate the truth in his remark "There is no other sport officiating job that is as difficult as calling home plate." I vow never to moan about another ball-strike call again. Or at least, not moan as much.

What not to say to an umpire

It's 11 p.m. after a quiet game one. No arguments. No ejections. The video recording of the game in the umpire's locker room they use to look at close or controversial plays doesn't have to be rewound. The computer they use to send in "incident reports" for ejections or appeals remains unused.

What gets a player or coach tossed out of a game? West says that while profanity will do it for him, it varies with each umpire. Except for one word. Not a four letter word. A three letter word: "You". "It's been an unwritten rule for years," DiMuro says. "If somebody gets personal, they've crossed the line. They can come out and say that call was terrible. But once they say you're terrible, now they've crossed the line."

But things are mellowing about what the umps call "situations". "A lot of our job is handling situations," Gorman says. "I think the league doesn't want us to be too confrontational. Don't find trouble. Let it find you. On the most part I think our staff is pretty tolerant." Still, he admits it was "pretty fun" as a kid to go to games and watch his dad toss out a player or coach.

West admits "I've probably mellowed ..." then grins and adds "You can't tell anybody that! I'm probably a little more patient ... Yeah, I'm a lot more patient. Not as quick to jump on somebody, not as fast to discipline them." This from a guy who in 1984 ejected two TV cameramen from a game for showing one team a replay of a controversial call, and almost got himself suspended for body slamming a Phillies catcher during a dispute in 1990. Now, he says, his country music (he's played at The Grand Ole Opry and has a CD -- "Blue Cowboy") and his golf help him keep things in perspective. That, and the revenues from umpiring equipment he has designed or endorses, including " The West Vest", the chest protector he patented that 85 percent of major league umps wear.

How about abuse from the fans? Carlson says "We really don't hear it, not anything specific anyway." "You hear the noise but you don't hear the words and the insults anymore," DiMuro adds.

"I understand the fans booing," West says. "They paid to get in. They have that right. But they don't understand we're not pulling for either team."

He talks with pride about one of his biggest calls. West was behind the plate during the ALCS last year and, in a conference among the umps, called Alex Rodriguez out on interference for swatting at Bronson Arroyo in Game 6. (Answer to the question about conferences: Umps confer ONLY when the ump who made the call requests such a meeting. After he's made his call he'll only ask for help from another umpire if a player or coach complains to him. Rule 9.02 (c).)

Yankee fans went ballistic. Debris rained down on the field. "The third base umpire (John Hirschbeck, the ump Roberto Alomar once spit on) almost got hit by a beer bottle," West recalls. "Somebody could have got hurt." West and crew called the riot police out as a show of force. "But as bad as they yelled at us that night," West continues, "they went home and saw the replays on the news or somebody told them 'They called the play right'. The next day when we came out to work they actually applauded. I had never seen that before. It felt great."

As anonymous as umpires remain, every once in a while, they are recognized and greeted by a fan. An actual fan of umpires, somebody who watches and appreciates what they do. Twenty-year-old Javier Cantu comes to the umpires' locker room after the game and politely asks if he can shake hands with the crew. He's an umpire in the independent Canadian-American League, and one day he wants to be what these guys are. The crew graciously lets him in and they talk baseball.

A question comes up about what the call would be if a catcher, with a man on third charging home on a suicide squeeze, jumps in front of the plate to catch the ball and tag the runner out. "It's a balk. The runner scores," West says. Gorman disagrees (Correct answer later). Javier stays out of the dispute, just thrilled to be there, and asks for some autographs as he leaves. "That was GREAT! " he says. "Joe West! Everything I own has his name on it! I got to sit and talk with guys who are doing what I dream of doing! It was nails!"

Meanwhile, Joe and Brian, Mike and Mark pack their gear, which will be picked up by an air freight company and shipped to the locker room at their next stop, Philadelphia. They walk out of Fenway, headed for the airport and one more stop on the season's long road, through hundreds of fans still milling around after the game, unnoticed.

Answers to the other questions:
The correct position for brushing the dirt off home plate is facing the catcher, bending your back side to the pitcher, as a matter of courtesy to the fans.

Hardest ball parks in which to call a game, according to West and Gorman, include Fenway Park and Wrigley Field. The more nooks and crannies, lines marking fair and foul, and places for fan interference, the worse it gets. "We kind of look at a park in terms of ground rules and Fenway certainly has a lot of ground rules and corners out there," Gorman says. "Wrigley Field is an umpire's nightmare."

On the suicide squeeze/balk call, Tom Leppard, director of umpire administration for MLB, says neither ump got it right. Rule 7.07 says it's a balk AND interference. The runner scores and the batter gets first.

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