Some umpires have a knack for attracting attention. Retired American League ump Ron Luciano has already published two volumes' worth of memoirs, with more to come. National League veteran Dutch Rennert gives each call such a dramatic reading—finding new ways to squeeze four syllables into the word strike—that he can be heard in the farthest reaches of any ballpark. Singing umpire Joe West has cut a country and western album, and the white-haired Doug Harvey is such a majestic presence behind the plate that players refer to him simply as "God."
Then there is Bob Engel. Engel is a journeyman National League umpire whose 32-year career has little to do with literature, theatrics or song. He just does his job. Engel has little use for umpires who go in for hotdogging. "When you're behind the plate, that's your stage for three hours," he says. "But the players don't care how much gyration you put on. All they care about is getting them right. And I'll guarantee you, the players always want to know who's umpiring, because no two umpires have the same strike zone."
Pitchers, of course, are particularly interested in which umpire they draw. Today, Engel is working home plate in the Houston-L.A. game at the Astrodome, and one Dodger pitcher makes a less than glowing appraisal: "Engel is not the best umpire, and he's not the worst. But he's inconsistent, which can be a real problem. With a good umpire, you establish what's a strike after the first two or three innings, and then if you go back to a spot when you're in a jam you can count on getting the call." Engel agrees that it's important to be consistent, and he obviously feels he is. "The pitcher has got to adjust to me," he says. "I don't have to adjust to him."
The Dodgers' starter is Rick Honeycutt, who will have less trouble with Engel than with the Astros, who keep dinking his breaking ball for cheap hits. In the first inning Houston scores four runs, despite getting the ball out of the infield only once.
This turns out to be an easy game for Engel: no close plays at the plate, no disputes over balls and strikes and, since Mike Scott pitched the day before, no controversy about scuffed baseballs. The Astros trounce the Dodgers 6-1. Says Engel, "Sometimes when you have a little blowout, that's a relief."
He needs an occasional breather in what sometimes seems like an endless road trip. From the start of this season until the All-Star break, Engel will have spent only six days at his home in Bakersfield, Calif. But an affection for the game keeps him going. "I don't know if I love the game," he says, "but I like it a lot."
Engel got his first glimpse of an umpire's life when, as a schoolboy in Bakersfield, he took a job as a bellhop in a hotel. He liked what he saw. "I noticed the umpires were out late every night, chasing girls and not getting up until one o'clock in the afternoon," he says. A few years later, after getting out of the service, Engel was working for an oil tool company in Bakersfield. Every week he would see the ads in The Sporting News inviting applicants to come down to sunny Florida and learn how to call balls and strikes at the George Barr school of umpiring. "All I was doing was cleaning tools," he says. "For an uneducated person, it was a way out of the oil fields."
After 10 years in the minors, Engel finally made the major leagues, working a doubleheader between the Cubs and Houston at Wrigley Field. "I can't remember where I worked last Thursday," Engel says, "but I can remember that one."
The only thing Engel is likely to remember about today's game is the jabbering of Dodger star Pedro Guerrero in the batter's box. "To tell you the truth, I don't think his head was ever in the game," says Engel afterward. Guerrero has been upset ever since he had a clubhouse fight with outfielder Mike Marshall 10 days earlier. Guerrero, it seems, questioned the dedication of the oft-injured Marshall, and today Marshall sat out another game. "Apparently Marshall took a hike on them again today," Engel says. "He got sick from something he ate and he couldn't play, even though apparently Mickey Hatcher ate at the same place and he played. Guerrero was talking about it the whole game. He kept saying, 'Look at him sitting over there, that——.' He was really upset. I wouldn't be surprised if they have an explosion there pretty soon."
If the explosion comes any time soon, chances are Engel, who's on his way to Pittsburgh for the Pirates-Expos series, won't be around to see it. Which is probably just fine with him.
Engel arrived at the park early, led the crew to the field and, with the help of a handy tool, completed another day in the caldron.