Bruce Weber, a New York Times reporter, found a way inside a small, normally closed subculture to write a fascinating book: As They See 'Em. • The subculture is that of the baseball umpire. • To crack the door, Weber combined traditional reporting techniques with participant observation — past age 50, he enrolled in umpiring school and stayed the course despite hard knocks.
Although his book will appeal primarily to those who are already baseball fans, Weber identifies universal qualities within the umpiring realm, perhaps making the book attractive to nonfans who wonder why the sport is so enthralling to others. As he notes at the end of his odyssey, sports like baseball need "people who can not only make snap decisions, but live with them, something most people will do only when there's no other choice. Come to think of it, the world in general needs people who accept responsibility so easily and so readily. We should be thankful for them."
At the Major League Baseball level, each game is staffed by four umpires who have trained for years, sometimes decades, before reaching that level. (In the minor leagues, only two umpires cover the entire baseball field, making extremely difficult decisions almost every minute during games that generally run between two and three hours.) They make those decisions in the open, before crowds that might number as many as 60,000 partisan fans.
As Weber begins umpiring school in Florida, he quickly grasps that nothing about umpiring is as simple as it looks from the stadium seats. The right way to flip off the protective mask to get the best possible view of a play on the field takes months of practice. Moving quickly to find the best position for deciding whether a runner is out or safe requires the agility of a ballet dancer.
To maintain authority over the emotionally charged game, umpires must convince themselves they have made the correct decision, then convince everybody else by avoiding telltale signs like flinching. Amid all those responsibilities, they are expected by everybody to act with uncompromising honesty, despite their low pay (compared with the baseball players) and their relentless travel schedule.
Weber's research leads him to write, "I never saw any umpire do anything that made me question his on-the-field integrity. It bears acknowledging that in 130 years (of professional baseball) only one major league umpire has ever been accused of professional dishonesty, and that was in 1882."
As Weber interviews umpires, players, coaches, managers and others who constitute the mosaic of baseball, he develops insights he shares with readers. Even the most avid, knowledgeable baseball followers will end the book with a deeper appreciation of the sport.
Among those insights, my personal favorite derives from a conversation between Weber and Robin Yount, the former All-Star and later major-league coach.
Yount told Weber that during two recent seasons as a first-base coach, he often disagreed with umpires on close plays, "but it almost always turned out they were right and he was wrong. It was funny, Yount acknowledged, how your point of view can affect your vision and your decisionmaking."
Yount told Weber, " 'I'd never looked at the game from that angle before' . . . meaning the vicinity of the first-base bag, and he confessed the perspective threw him off. 'I'd see the play differently from the umpire, but then I'd go in the clubhouse and watch the tape and I'd be surprised that almost all the time they were right.' "
So, Weber asked Yount "if he'd ever spoken to umpires about why that is, about what they do to see the play properly."
Yount's answer, which sums up so much of Weber's insightful book: " 'No,' he said, 'I never did.' "
Steve Weinberg is a freelance investigative reporter.