Wednesday, April 8, 2009

As They See 'Em: Q&A with Author Bruce Weber

The fact that "kill the ump" has become part of our national lexicon is evidence that everyone has an opinion about the men tasked with maintaining fairness and order on the diamond.

Outspoken former shortstop and Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen's take, for example:
"Everyone has their own strike zone," Guillen said. This year they come up to us and say, 'We're gonna call the strike zone from here to here" -he sliced the air at the knees and the letters - "but they have to say something every year to make us think they're working. But if Roger Clemens or Pedro Martinez or Greg Maddux, Tom Glavin is pitching, it's a strike. Jose Cruz pitching? It's a ball. Same way for hitting. You're fucking Wade Boggs? That's a ball. You're Frank Thomas? That's a ball. Ozzie Guillen hitting? Strike, get the fuck out."

Polarizing baseball commissioner Bud Selig once said something intelligent (believe it or not). When referring to the unenviable job, Selig put it best when he said, "One of the best days an umpire can have is if nobody knows he's there."

Long overlooked, unless to be the point of rage from disgruntled fans, the life of a professional umpire is more complex than it may seem on the surface. The job is as physical and as mentally taxing as that of any of their compatriots in other sports. On the baseball field, each is intimately involved and programmed to be in precise places and angles on every single play.

What's as trying as their on-field duties, is the journey in which they travel to make it to baseball's biggest stage.

Like baseball prospects, acclaimed or otherwise, umpires travel the same lonely roads and obscure towns as any young player, only they do so in pairs (as opposed to dozens), on little money and under unfathomable conditions and scrutiny. Chances for advancement are about as easy to come by as filling a Supreme Court vacancy. Theirs is a hierarchy in this tight-nit fraternity. Like any fraternity, it has its own rituals, taboos and prejudices.

While he admits that no one can ever really fully grasp the life of a professional umpire, the New York Times' Bruce Weber gets as close as any. In his new book As They See 'Em: A Fan's Travels in the Land of Umpires, Weber creates his own journey - attending one of the two premier MLB-endorsed umpire schools in the States, and spending three years on the road talking with the men in blue - on all levels - as well as baseball executives, coaches and players.

The author was kind enough to talk with us about the book and his experience.

HuggingHaroldReynolds: As an umpire who went through the training process, worked games and became quite close with the subjects you were observing, do you feel your research approach enabled you to objectively portray the lifestyles, mentalities and employer-relations issues of the profession?

Bruce Weber: I'd say the book was objectively sympathetic to umpires, which is a perspective they deserve, since they're otherwise viewed with uninformed, universal disdain. That said, I don't think the book is by any means a love letter or a puff job. It's solidly reported, the failings of umpires as well as their successes. On a personal level, there is a punch or two I might have pulled to save someone I knew well some personal embarrassment, but not regarding anything that had to do with the job he did on the field.

HHR: For a group of individuals who are most scrutinized and vilified on the field, is it fair to say that many of the complaints brought about against umps a direct result of the neglect towards their advancement and working conditions over the course of their existence?

BW: Well, I think it's fair to say that whatever chip an individual umpire has on his shoulder might well have been put there, or at least enlarged, by the persistent hostility of his work environment.

HHR: A recurring theme is "Living the Dream." With embarrassing low pay throughout the minors, a poor quality of life, excessive travel, low-budget lodging, and with low odds of them ever making it to the Major Leagues, what IS that dream they are living? Seems more like a nightmare.

BW: For a while, i think, the young umpires in the low minor leagues see their lives as rugged adventures. And the theme I talked about was "chasing the dream", not living it. Every umpire has a different threshold of intolerance, but when the life becomes a nightmare, most of them pack it in.

HHR: You focus quite a bit on the lack of diversity in the majors, both in writing about female umpires (namely Ria) and with what you describe the "shameless" ethnic imbalance in the Major League umpiring corps. Why, exactly, do you (and the League) feel diversity is so important in professional umpiring?

BW: It's as important in umpiring as it is in any profession. For decades the available jobs have been more available to some people than others, and that smells of discrimination.

HHR: Are you saying women and minorities should be as subjected to a profession that has little pay, little room for advancement and constant harassment as anyone?

BW: You could put it that way, sure.

Ria Cortesio

HHR: You lay it out in the book, but can you give our readers a sense of just how physically and mentally taxing umpiring on the highest levels is?

BW: Three hours or more of hustling to stay in position, of observing with intense vigilance. Flawlessness is expected, every decision is challenged and every mistake magnified and revealed to the public. Sounds exhausting and headache-inducing to me, and that's before you throw in the relentless travel, the mean-spiritedness of spectators and the essential distaste with which umpires are viewed by their employers.

HHR: Umpires seem to somewhat favor advancements like instant replay that give them an extra set of eyes on the field. However, do you feel that the human element of the men in blue is as much a part of the game as any? (Maybe I'm just a purist like that).

BW: I’m in favor of leaving all decisions to the umpires. I like the idea that their mistakes end up as an unpredictable element of the game that the players have to deal with, as much a part of things as a pebble that deflects a ground ball or a gust of wind that carries a pop fly over the fence.

HHR: What's your take on the pros and cons of QuesTec?

BW: I don’t much like it. I think it robs the game of one of its more interesting psychological elements, namely the battle over the daily dimensions of the strike zone among the hitters, the pitchers and the umpire. That said, the umpires, left to their own devices, did warp the strike zone pretty much out of all recognizable shape during the 1990's, and QuesTec, by giving them grades on their ball-and-strike calls, forced them collectively to call a more uniform zone that was at least within shouting distance of the definition in the rulebook, which was probably necessary.


HHR: Has the advancements in video both on television and the Internet and the put unrealistic expectations on umpires, particularly from fans who seemingly have ever view of a play possible?

BW: This one's easy. Yes.

HHR: If you were fresh out of high school or college with uncertain professional prospects, as a baseball lover, would you consider pursue an umpiring career if the opportunity was available (knowing what you know now)?

BW: This one's also easy. No. Writing can be torture. But umpiring is worse.

HHR: I'm very much a fan of this kind of "embedded journalism." Do you see yourself tackling any other subjects in this manner?

BW: I like t too. Got any ideas?

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Sean said...

Great interview. I'll certainly be on the lookout for the book.

richmond said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Michelle said...

My 15 year old son wants to be a major league umpire. Go figure! I am getting this book for him. I don't know if it will influence his decision, but at least he will have an idea of the "behind the scenes" working and living conditions before going to umpire school. Nice interview. Thanks.

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