The dust jacket on Behind the Mask (Viking, $18.95), the autobiography of former National League umpire Dave Pallone, written with Alan Steinberg, promises a book "bound to raise a firestorm of controversy," and for once, such publishing-house hype seems to make sense.
This is the ump, after all, who began his 10-year career in the majors as a reviled scab during the 1979 umpires' strike. This is the ump who openly feuded with—and intentionally impaired the play of—Cincinnati Reds shortstop Dave Concepcion, among other players. This is the ump whom Reds manager Pete Rose shoved in a 1988 game against the New York Mets, setting off a near riot in Riverfront Stadium and resulting in a 30-day suspension for Rose. And this is the ump who later that season was questioned by authorities about his possible involvement with teenage boys in an upstate New York sex ring; no charges were filed against Pallone and the Saratoga Springs district attorney dropped the investigation.
As promised, Behind the Mask has indeed made some waves, though for none of the incidents mentioned above. The book, which is subtitled My Double Life in Baseball, offers a laundry list of other revelations and allegations: that Pallone is gay; that Bart Giamatti, the late baseball commissioner, fired Pallone in November '88 for, essentially, that reason; that Pallone had an affair with one major league player, "a rising young star" in the former ump's words; and that Pallone had "brief encounters with a few [other] ballplayers."
Startling as this information may be, though, there are barely enough titillating pages in Behind the Mask to sustain a chapter, much less a 331-page book. Pallone's account of his affair with a player, for instance, is so cursory and is couched in such vague terms that it is impossible to tell what life could have been like for the pair. Many readers, in fact, will be left to wonder whether the affair happened at all because, throughout the rest of the book, Pallone gives numerous details about his personal life.
The book, in fact, is split roughly in two—half of its pages given over to baseball and half to Pallone's "secret" life. In the latter, the author writes at length about his relationships, proceeding on the false premise that readers will be interested in the love life of a major league umpire. Were that the case, we would have already witnessed publication of the love letters of Nestor Chylak, no doubt.
None of what Pallone has to say is terribly shocking. Instead, what may be most damaging to baseball—and what makes for the most interesting reading in Behind the Mask—are the pages he devotes to his on-the-field insights. Throughout, he unwittingly draws a portrait of an umpire who operated with frightening subjectivity. Before one game, Pallone admits he felt a "personal desire to prove myself to Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda," whom he then ejected that same night for silently mouthing obscenities.
Concepcion, writes Pallone, "should have been suspended for anywhere from a year to life" for spraying the author with "spittle" in one vigorous tête-à-tête. "In fact," writes Pallone, "for five straight years after he spit on me, if I could have wished upon a star for somebody to fail every time he played a baseball game, Dave Concepcion would have been that guy...." There are many other passages that make it difficult to sympathize with the author—at one point, Pallone likens his crossing the picket line in '79 to Jackie Robinson's breaking the color barrier in '47. "But I want to be clear that I am not asking for sympathy," he writes at the end of Behind the Mask. "I am not asking anyone to shed a tear for me. What I am asking of people who read this book is what I've asked of everyone I've ever known: accept me for who I am—a decent human being, just like you."
Unfortunately, that is what you're left with: a book that was written for the fulfillment of the author, not the reader.