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Baseball Umpires: A Secret Society

Last week, I attended a program hosted by the Smithsonian in Washington, DC titled Baseball Umpires: A Secret Society. It was held at the National Museum of the American Indian and I was sitting alongside some fellow NL East blogger friends.

The program featured former American League umpire and owner of a professional umpiring school, Jim Evans; 10-year veteran MLB umpire Ted Barrett; and New York Times columnist and author of As They See ‘Em: A Fan’s Travels in the Land of Umpires, Bruce Weber. With the help of moderator Phil Hochberg, a DC public address institution, they discussed intricacies of the strange and mysterious world of umpires. Did you know that in a given year, there are only 68 umpires in the majors, meaning less than 2,000 umpires have graced the fields of the big leagues all time?

When asked what is the hardest call to make in baseball, everyone agreed it is the steal of home.  It happened twice in the World Series and as we recall Chase Utley and Jayson Werth have done it more recently. Both Evans and Barrett said the number of things you have to watch for is unparalleled – a pitcher’s balk, catcher’s interference, batter’s interference, whether or not the pitch is a strike or ball, if there was a check swing, if it hit the batter, not to mention the fact that you are severely out of position to make the out/safe call at the plate. Evans admitted that there are undoubtedly plays where something out-of-the-ordinary happens and the out of position umpire is forced to make an educated guess on the actual outcome.

Another interesting anecdote was the one word that will warrant an automatic ejection.  It’s not the f- word, but rather “you”.  Yes, making an argument personal with the umpire (alongside a profanity-laced tirade, no doubt) will almost always get the manager sent to an early shower.

When asked about steroids in baseball, both umps said that although they did not have any direct knowledge of them being used, there were certainly players that had noticeable growth spurts that were suspicious.  This conversation led into the power of certain baseball players and Evans recalled a time when Albert Belle broke his bat on a check swing; with he and Jim Rice being the two most powerful guys they’ve experienced at the plate.

Also covered was the umpire evaluation systems which they believe has essentially has made strike zone is smaller.  Similarly, before 1975, AL umpires wore chest pads outside their uniform that made it more difficult for them to crouch behind catchers. With them standing higher, this led to an AL strike zone that sat a few inches higher than the NL.  After 1975, with the standardization of umpire uniforms, the zone regressed down to NL-standards.

Finally, when asked what’s the deal with a double plays that are turned without the SS or 2B touching second, Evans commented that they call what managers, owners and the powers-that-be want them to call. He referenced the one year, when they were instructed to call balks much more stringently. After calling 400 balks prior to the All-Star Break (the previous record was 80 in a single season), MLB reversed its policy and instructed umps call the balk less.

Being an umpire is a thankless job, but it takes a special kind of man (no women are currently in the umpiring system, but there have been a few) – one who takes pride in seeing a well-officiated game of baseball be played.  In that sense, they’re much like us fans, who just want to see an entertaining game…in which the Phillies win.  Hat tip to Kristen for the photos.

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