Book review: As They See ‘Em

I’ve always been a bit of a fan of baseball’s umpires. I know that any good baseball fan worth his salt is supposed to hate umpires, but I never developed that much animosity towards them. I blame Ron Luciano for this deficiency. I loved his baseball books, especially his first one, The Umpire Strikes Back, which is still the funniest baseball book I’ve ever read in my life.

As a result, I was quite intrigued to come across Bruce Weber’s new book As They See ’em: A Fan’s Travels in the Land of Umpires. Despite the book’s subtitle, it isn’t entirely fair to call Weber just a fan. By trade, he’s a reporter for The New York Times, and based on this book he is a quality writer.

He did, however, spend a great deal of time in the land of umpires. He attended umpire school in Florida in the spring of 2006 and spent as much time as he could over the next two to three years in their world.

He interviewed anyone who could help him understand the life of an ump: ranging from students at the ump schools, their instructors, minor league umps, minor and major league officials who watch over them, players and managers, major league umps, and some retired ones as well. Weber even umped some amateur games on his own and even managed to work a pair (as well as a pair of spring training contests (one intrasquad and one regular game—the latter was a plate assignment).

The result of his diligent work is a fascinating account of umpires and their world in the attempt to understand the men who do this job and the pressures they encounter. It contains no specific plot to speak of. It doesn’t focus on individual umpires (though some come up repeatedly) too much as it’s an attempt to analyze the profession as a whole. It’s more a sociological study than a narrative.

There is some structure as Weber starts with umpire school and works his way up through the minors to majors to working the World Series itself. The structure allows Weber to not only describe the world of the umpires, but illustrates how their world affects their mentality and relationship with the rest of baseball.

Each year, 600 hopefuls attend one of two umpiring schools, from whom the instructors cull approximately 50 to a camp for PBUC, which is charge of the hiring of minor league umps. The PBUC treats the ump prospects with outward respect, but beneath this is a passive-aggressive power in which the authorities make the umps squirm.

For example, at the end of this multi-week training session, when umps are finally going to be told what their job prospects are, they are made to wait in a field for up to three hours, as if they were grazing cattle. (And in the year Weber spend time in this camp, the answers the hopefuls got were so vague as to be meaningless.)

From there, the umps experience a series of indignities while in minor league baseball. It’s not so much the low pay (which is very meager). That much is understandable due to the low cost nature of minor league baseball as a whole, combined with the fact that the people who pay the umps (the executives in charge of the minor leagues themselves) have no interest in developing umps. If the ump is good enough, he’ll move up and out of his league.

What rankles is the way they are treated. A story involving future major league ump Bill Miller best explains this treatment. In his first year umping in Triple-A, three thieves broke into his hotel room, put a gun to his head, threatened to kill him, tied him up and robbed everything he had. The league officials gave him little sympathy when he needed time off. Instead, they complained when Miller moved to a more expensive hotel. When Miller, still a nervous wreck after the assault, left to go home, a league executive called him at the airport and screamed that he had no right to leave in midseason.

Though Miller’s story was extreme, umps as a whole get the feeling that they are tolerated and nothing more by those in charge of them.

This helps explain why umps have a chip on their shoulders. This antipathy to their superiors carries through to the major league level, helping to explain the often acrimonious (and occasionally) disastrous labor relations between umps and MLB. Umpires tend to resist ideas from above even when they are generally sensible, such as recent debates over the strike zone and the Questec system, because they don’t trust authorities higher than themselves.

When reading Weber’s depiction of umpires, I was reminded of a book about police officers I once encountered, Police Unbound by Anthony V. Bouza. Some obvious similarities exist between the two professions as both groups are publicly visible authority figures. Police, obviously, are generally much higher regarded than umps in the national culture, but cops generally spend much of their time around those who least appreciate and most despise them.

In his book, Bouza notes that officers are physically courageous but morally conformist. These elements are linked in the job. Cops are willing to engage in activities that most would run from, which makes them need to rely on their fellow officers that much more. The necessity of backing up and defending one’s fellow officers becomes the paramount duty, even if it interferes with official rules and regulations of the job.

Umps also have a sense of unity that runs deep. Though they don’t encounter the life-threatening hazards policemen do, they have no one else they can rely on while working in environments that are generally hostile. In the majors it’s the pressure of making every call right when so much attention and money is at play in each contest. In the minors, umps have to deal with the extra testosterone of young men who are competitive, aggressive, and fighting for a job.

Think about it for a second: in the low minors an ump is paired with one other man, who he will be around everyday for months on end, and usually be the only other person he knows well when they arrive in a town together. That reliance makes it easier for umps to make the tough calls required to do the job.

Retroactive Review: Ace
Looking back at some of Justin Verlander's most interesting moments.

Thus, umpires by and large tend to be a like-minded bunch. They guard their authority and are wary of outsiders and feel the rest of the game refuses to give them a proper level of respect. They come from blue-collar backgrounds and generally have conservative temperaments.

The book is generally sympathetic to umpires, but Weber includes some criticisms—most notably when dealing with sexism within the ranks. In particular, he spends a section of the book focusing on Ria Cortesio, who was the only female ump working in minor league ball for a while. Umpires tend to be a circle-the-wagons group, but they made an exception for her. Any negative rumor, story, innuendo or outright law would be passed along. Berating her was a favorite sport. Weber first had an inkling of this situation at Umpire School, when the instructors fined him for bringing her name up.

Weber’s book also touches on many other aspects of umpiring in the 21st century, including the recent strike by minor league umpires, the implosion of the old major league umpire union and its aftermath, the use of technology by MLB to rate umpires, sexism within the ranks, and various other issues.

I didn’t notice any massive errors or serious problems marring its overall quality; it would have helped if it had an index. One minor nitpick: Weber thinks SABR solely focuses on sabermetrics, when in fact most of its membership has other concerns. That is a minor issue (and hardly unique to Weber), but it is a pet peeve of mine.

In all, I’ve reviewed two other books for THT so far this year. Personally, I found this one more illuminating than the other two (though The Yankee Years is close).

References & Resources
Weber, Bruce. As They See ‘Em: A Fan’s Travels in the Land of Umpires. New York: Scribner: 2009.

Bouza, Anthony v. Police Unbound: Corruption, Abuse, and Heroism by the Boys in Blue. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Book, 1991.

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