|In 1914, Christy Mathewson, the pitcher, said, "many fans look upon umpires as a sort of necessary evil to the luxury of baseball, like the odor that follows an automobile." Such fans should imagine what life would be like without the likes of Richie Garcia and Durwood Merrill, two of the American league's finest.
Umpires' compensation and benefits have markedly improved in recent years. In 1998 [sic], the first-year umpire earns a base salary of $75,000 a year. An umpire in his thirtieth season earns $225,000. Every November 1 every umpire gets a $20,000 annual bonus, paid from baseball's pot of postseason revenues. Umpires get $5,000 for working the All-Star Game, $12,500 for a Division Series, $15,000 for a League Championship Series and $17,500 for the World Series. In addition, each of the fifteen crew chiefs (eight in the American League, seven in the National) get an extra $7,500 a year. All umpires get thirty-one vacation days during the season -- one week early in the season, two weeks between Memorial Day and Labor Day, one week in September, plus three additional days somewhere along the line, and the All-Star break. That is not a lot of time off, considering that for umpires there are no home games.
A senior umpire who does a lot of postseason work can earn maybe half as much as a mediocre uitlity infielder. The infielder's mediocrity is apparent. Umpires aspire to unnoticed excellence.
It is said that umpires are expected to be perfect on opening day and improve all season.
Garcia, forty-four, came to umpiring from Key West and the Marine Corps. The corps was good training for a vocation that an umpire once summarized in seven words: "Call 'em fast and walk away tough." Garcia is a compact man with a spring in his step and baseball on his brain. On off-days, he watches televised baseball games.
Like the best baseball people, if he is awake he is working. He studies box scores to be aware of what hitters are hot, what pitchers are wild, what fielders are making errors. The night before working home plate, he begins thinking about tomorrow's starting pitchers: their moves to first, their tendency to balk, their mix of pitches.
Merrill, forty-seven, a bear of a man from Oklahoma, via Hooks, Texas, was a burned-out high-school football coach at twenty-eight, so he became an umpire. Studies show that umpires endure stress levels not much lower than those of air-traffic controllers, big-city policemen, inner-city teachers, and Texas high-school football coaches ....
The key to excellence, says Merrill, is "angle and position": being in the best position to make the difficult calls such as swipe tags and trapped balls. There is another ingredient: confidence.
When Babe Ruth was called out on strikes by umpire Babe Pinelli, Ruth made a populist argument, inferring weight from raw numbers: "There's forty thousand people here who know that last one was a ball, tomato head!" Pinelli replied with the assurance of John Marshall: "Maybe so, but mine is the only opinion that counts" ....
Umpires are islands of exemption from the litigiousness of American life. As has been said, if someone gets three strikes on you, the best lawyer can't get you off.
...."Anybody can see high and low," says Merrill. "It is 'in and out' that is umpiring." The saying "Good umpires are pitchers' umpires" means that good umpires are not afraid to call strikes. Their calling borderline pitches strikes makes pitchers more confident and batters more aggressive. That is, good umpiring makes good baseball, a fact from which a large lesson flows.
The business of umpiring is to regulate striving, to turn it from chaos into ordered competition, thereby enabling excellence to prevail over cruder qualities ....
-- George F. Wills
March 29, 1987
Bunts, George F. Will
Copyright 1998 by George F. Will
Published by Simon & Schuster (New York), 1999
available at AMAZON