As surely as an umpire's word is law, on the next 10 close plays you see at first base where the ball clearly beats the runner, the umpire is going to call the runner out and everybody will be satisfied. Just as surely, they shouldn't be. In at least seven out of 10 of those plays the runner will be safe—definitely and unassailably safe. The reason: the first baseman took his foot off the bag a split second before either ball or runner got to him.
The observation was first made to me by an accredited, card-carrying umpire in the Open Classification Pacific Coast League. When he said it, I should have been shocked. I was a fellow umpire working in the same league. I wasn't shocked though, and now that I have had time to think it over I probably know the reason why. Watch first base closely and you will probably figure it out too. And the same applies to the steal down to second, and quite frequently to the double play.
Take the steal. The catcher's peg gets down there first, the tag is on, and the umpire's right fist makes the short pumping motion that means out. Yet the chances are excellent the man was not out. The umpire knows it, the second baseman knows it, even the runner knows it—but does not, for reasons I will get to in a second, protest.
For "tag" in this instance is a misnomer for the tagging motion. The rules state that the ball must make contact with the sliding runner. Common sense states that it had better not.
Similarly, in the case of the double play, the rule book has it that the baseman must be on the base and in possession of the ball simultaneously to effect the force at second. But if you think umpires always insist on strict compliance with this regulation, you must suspect us of a sadistic streak even baser than the one you accord us as a matter of course. Because the rule book, although fundamentally an admirable document, offers no provision for the first baseman who, as a consequence of his thorough lawfulness, has his foot maimed by descending spikes. Nor does it make mention of what or how often the wife and children of the shortstop (or second baseman) eat while he hobbles around on severed tendons.
Umpiring is by its very nature an arbitrary and dictatorial calling. An umpire is 1) rrright!, 2) the boss. In fact, it can't very well be any other way. But within this seemingly inflexible framework there are certain tacit agreements that, while they may upset the purists, are no more than practical applications of mercy and reason to justice. Thus, while it may be so that seven out of 10 out calls on close plays at first or second are miscalls, the umpires are morally without flaw. That is to say that the ball did beat the runner, which is the point the rule makers had principally in mind in the first place, and the baseman still is saved inestimable wear and tear.
Of course, if there is a flagrant violation of the letter of the law, if the first baseman meets the throw halfway to the pitcher's box or the man covering second elects to make no production whatever of his tag, that's different. A safe call is mandatory then. To my mind anyway, there must be a strong approximation of reality. If a player dogs his role in the ballet, he has waived his right to what I would call decent negligence on our part.
AN ACT OF NEGLIGENCE
It is on negligent acting, incidentally, that you get a rhubarb from the runner. I imagine each of you has at least once had the experience of watching a runner slide under a tag, yet accept the out verdict without a word. Perhaps you don't know why. How is it, you may ask, that this fireball who'll climb down an umpire's throat over a questionable third strike will still decline to make an issue over a tag that missed him by six inches.
The answer lies in the key word to all good and fair umpiring, and that word is "consistency." Consistency cannot be overemphasized. The point is that the base runner who is out even though he is safe knows that he is only complying with and being obedient to a code that ministers equally to all. In the next half inning, the very same call may be made on a rival, who will accept it with the same docility. If these unwritten and, except within scheming walls, unspoken understandings did not exist, legs and ankles would be chewed up within days. The fault, if fault there is, lies not with players or umpires but with the rules—or the assumption that these must be interpreted with hair-splitting exactness. Fortunately that assumption no longer exists. Call it what you will, winking at transgression or turning one's back on a niggling larceny, it works the same for both sides.
I have never known a dishonest or a prejudiced umpire or one who would make a deliberate miscall. But assuredly I have never known one so infatuated with a rule book that he'd see another man potentially crippled rather than compromise with Paragraph X, Clause So-and-So.
Umpires often are asked why players or managers will launch and sustain so many rhubarbs when tradition tells them clearly that we won't reverse the call. There can be several reasons. One is honest rage, with nothing rational behind it. Another is its inverse: a cold plotting behind a mask of indignation. I have known more than one manager who purposely got himself tossed out of a game in order to use it later as a leverage on his club, the point being that he is giving his all for victory. A few chronic beefers in the player ranks are just naturally bad customers; one or two are on the edge of being psychopathic.
I once asked Leo Durocher, the most celebrated rumbler of them all, why he wasted the time, appealing that from which there was no appeal.
"You really want to know?" he said. "I'm not looking for that call. I'm looking for the next one."
On the whole, Durocher is wrong. None but a weak umpire would permit himself to be influenced by a distaste for trouble. And a weak umpire does not belong in baseball.
The truth is, an umpire who can't control his game shouldn't be arbitrating it. The weapons to do so are his, particularly that of final judgment. His is the weapon of ejection. If the player won't leave when ordered, there is the weapon of fine. Unfortunately for our job, the club pays most of the fines these days—which makes the rumbler braver and more stubborn than he might otherwise be. The umpire's final recourse is to forfeit the game, but one who does that has all but declared himself unable to cope with his responsibility and is sure to be in trouble.
The query most frequently put to an umpire is: "Tell the truth, pal—aren't you ever wrong?" And the best answer to it I've ever heard came from a veteran of the major leagues.
"Sure," he said. "Maybe a hundred times, maybe a thousand—but never in my heart."
In umpire circles, the flippant saying is: "You're entitled to an even dozen errors. Then you start your second dozen." And Jack Powell, supervisor of PCL umpires, has said: "There was only one Man in the world Who was perfect, and they crucified Him."
If pressed, I would put it this way: an umpire may be wrong, but he's never mistaken. You ask me why this should be so, and I can only answer: How else could it be? The cold necessity is that if you pull a boner, you go down with it. As it has to every umpire, it has happened to me on occasion that I've snapped out a decision that I regretted a moment later. But you cannot reverse. For one thing, it would damn you as a vacillating umpire and make you a target of every congenital malcontent in the league. For another, time can be depended on to erase your error. And for a third, the game of baseball has become slow enough as it is without dragging it still more by "equitable bickering."
Like most umpires, I would like to see a definitive rule cutting down the time consumed by aimless rhubarbs. I would like to see the rule governing the time elapsed between pitches enforced more often than it is. And, above all, I would like to see the burden taken off what the book refers to as "in the opinion of the umpire." The umpire has enough to do without having to impose his opinion on situations that should be clearly prescribed.
The infield fly is a good case in point. No one has yet satisfactorily defined the infield fly. An umpire's rule of thumb is that if the ball is popped far enough so that the defending infielder has to turn his back to get it, then it's not an infield fly but in outfield province. I personally accept this, but with the added proviso that if the infielder, without turning away, still backs up to the point where I can no longer read the letters on his shirt-front—the plate umpire rules on this play—then he's in the outfield just the same. "In the opinion of the umpire," you understand. But why, in a matter so susceptible to clear definition, should not the rule book take the load off us?
As an umpire, I have other minor irritations, but these are not of a special nature, to the extent that I think many fans share them. There is a reason (i.e., he might not touch every bag) why a player who obviously has put the ball out of the park must trot around the bases. But the spirit of his doing so is no more than the rough equivalent of the victorious matador swaggering around the bull ring, and the gesture is a time-waster. There is a reason (i.e., the batter might reach out and poke one) why the pitcher issuing the intentional pass must throw four wide ones rather than merely signal his decision to the umpire. But a careless throw near the strike zone is extremely unlikely, the chances of its happening are nowhere near strong enough to condone the limping, luster-less seconds consumed. There probably is even a reason, although I have yet to discover it, for the free-hand use of sportswriters and sportscasters of the term "automatic strike"—the throw the pitcher comes in with when the count is 3 and 0. But I wish it would be banned from the language, certainly, and for patent reasons, it has no place in umpire lexicon.
And there is, I reluctantly have to suppose, a reason why the umpire, one of the most skillful of specialists, is so wretchedly paid for what he does and what he has to put up with. Beside most players and all managers at his professional level, he is an economic patsy foundling. Top in the majors, and this only after the man has given virtually his life to his craft, is around $15,000 a year. Pride of achievement is all that is left.
SUBJECT TO FRAILTY
You can't eat it—but it is there. Umpires are subject to human frailties, to be sure. In the PCL, for example, some of us are known as "high-ball" umpires, some as "low-ball," a reference to the unconscious favor the man working the plate may show a pitch either in or near the strike zone. I was a low-ball man myself, and most of the throwers well knew it. But things like this do not diminish our pride in abilities and instincts developed through long periods of apprenticeship.
Neither ability nor instinct should be associated with vision, where an umpire's vocational skill is concerned. I am never able to hear the local comics blare forth with Three Blind Mice when the umpire team walks on the field without thinking of my very favorite umpire story, a true one. It concerns the great Bill Klem, who, one day some years ago, was called out of retirement to umpire an exhibition between the Yankees and the Dodgers in Atlantic City. As most umpires would, he chose to work the plate, and he turned in a performance without a single error, a truly magnificent job. Later, an awed colleague congratulated him. Klem smiled grimly.
"You know," he said, "I'm blind in one eye and have cataracts in the other. But I wanted to show these young punks that umpiring is not eyesight but instinct."
I'm on reserve status now with the PCL. The chance came to do some television—and I grabbed it. As you will guess, the. money's better. Then again, it's returned to me my status as an individual. Umpires have two qualities in common with waiters: they are faceless, their services usually go unnoticed until they do something wrong. Yet, if I had it to do all over again, I wouldn't change an hour. A few decisions maybe. That's all.
None of the decisions, incidentally, would include the close ones at first and second. The guy's safe, I know, but he's out just the same.
THE AUTHOR, RECENTLY RECALLED TO DUTY IN PACIFIC COAST LEAGUE, TAKES TO FIELD
IN GRIM COUNCIL, GIANT MANAGER RIGNEY (18) PROTESTS CALL IN ST. LOUIS
TAKING TRADITIONAL STANCES, UMPIRE STRATTON WORKS PACIFIC COAST LEAGUE GAMES ON BASE PATHS (LEFT) AND BEHIND THE PLATE
BAD YEAR FOR THE UMPIRES
It has been a hard year for umpires in the National League. While few of the rhubarbs originated over the "decently negligent" calls described here by Umpire Stratton, there nevertheless have been some striking imbroglios. For example:
IN ST. LOUIS: Perhaps the season's worst call came in a Cardinals-Giants game on July 13 when two umpires differed on a line drive hit to a Giant outfielder. One ruled it was caught. In the same instant another ump ruled it wasn't. Confusion settled on the field. A hasty conference ruled it a base hit. The Giants were horrified. A second hasty conference ruled the ball was trapped. Virtually nobody went away happy.
IN BROOKLYN: First Baseman Rocky Nelson reached into the stands on June 16 for an easy catch of a foul ball. First Base Umpire Lee Ballanfant ruled the ball was caught. Milwaukee protested. The plate umpire conferred with Ballanfant and the decision was reversed....
IN PITTSBURGH: During a four-game series between the Pirates and the Giants at the end of June a record of sorts was established for rhubarbs and player ejections. Each umpire threw out at least one player. The final count: four Giants and two Pirates....
IN NEW YORK: Umpire Stan Landes set the season's peak for mass removals on May 21. When he was unable to locate the player needling him all afternoon, Landes cleared the entire Cardinal bench of everyone except two coaches and the bat boy....
IN CHICAGO: The usually mild-mannered Robin Roberts was thrown out of a game for the first time in his nine-year major league career on June 8....
The rhubarb situation reached a kind of a peak a week ago when Cardinal General Manager Frank Lane cried out, as one of his players was being chased from a game, "I say that umpire should pay his way into a ball park." Unmoved by such insinuations, National League President Warren Giles has offered a simple explanation for all the fuss. "Of course there have been more player ejections this year. Every strike, every ball means more because of the tightness of the race. The umpires are more tense and so are the players. History shows that there are more ejections at times like these."