Black and Blue

The New York Times

June 13, 2009

By Doug Glanville

When I first started playing professional baseball, I was told by my head coach in single-A, Bill Hayes, that I was being too formal in how I addressed the officials of the game. I called him (and others) “Coach,” and on the field I referred to all umpires as “Blue.”

No one seemed to like those names, so eventually I accepted that I would have to use their first names. I treaded lightly because I knew my southern-raised mom would cringe at the idea. But with my 1992 season in Winston-Salem, I began my journey in dropping “Mr.” and “Mrs.” from my conversation — ironically, in my mom’s home state of North Carolina.

The formality came from a place of respect. Umpires were the judges on the field, their job was to uphold the law. Sure, it was more like “uphold the rules,” but during a game, in the midst of the exploding sliders, 34-inch bats and high-octane fastballs, it was law to me. Every pitch was in the hands of these arbiters, so I hardly saw it as any different from addressing a police officer, or an elder in church.

Unfortunately, I learned very quickly that umpires and cafeteria food share a common problem. No matter how good they are, we will always find something to complain about.

It must be tough to be measured constantly against perfection. If you get every call right, you are just part of the landscape, but if you miss a call, you have littered on the grounds of that beautiful sierra with the sunset. There is no in-between. It is either/or in its rawest form. You are doing what you are supposed to be doing, or you are flat-out wrong and ruining everyone’s dream.

My one attempt at umpiring happened when I was in high school. I somehow got roped into officiating a game and, thankfully, I had the bases, not balls and strikes. Still, I had no idea where to stand. My instincts kept telling me that I should be in a good place to catch the ball, not where I would be invisible. I worried about blocking the second baseman’s view, and getting hit by a line drive the pitcher had stabbed at, never mind making the right call on a close play.

At one point, a ground ball was hit to short, culminating in a “bang-bang,” whisker-close play at first, where the runner’s foot hit the base just as the first baseman caught the ball. I was still a solid 90 feet away, acting more like a spectator than anything else. I called the runner out only to learn between innings from the first base coach that the first baseman didn’t have his foot on the bag. There was no way I could tell because I didn’t know how to get into the right position to make the call. Then again, it takes a lot of training to move around like a ninja, always be in position and then go back to stealth.

By the time I became a major league player, I knew (at least by name) a few umpires from my minor league days. Andy Fletcher, C.B. Bucknor and Bruce Dreckman had matured and learned their craft right alongside us in the farm levels. Long travel, bad motels, getting yelled at by upset booster club members. They paid their dues.

Despite my warm conversations with a few umpires in the Carolina League, I knew hardly any of the umpires who oversaw major league games once I made it up. My first week in the big leagues, I was greeted by the famously edgy Joe West. I got to second base and Joe came up to me and asked, “Who the heck are you?” I told him, “I don’t know, but I guess we will find out.” No one knew the rule book better than Joe, so even when he was checking you with that poker face, you understood that he just loved messing with you.

But umpires don’t have a lot of latitude to be warm and fuzzy, anyway. They have to maintain objectivity; they can’t really shake your hand on the field or make any connection that appears partial. So, for years, you learn their names, you chit-chat a little on your way to center field, or maybe you see them in the hotel lobby, but it is hard to get close. I was able to brush past that line in the sand for a moment with Jim Wolf, whose brother Randy was my teammate in Philadelphia. I sat with Jim once in the hotel in San Juan, P.R., briefly, on a day off. It was the longest conversation I would ever have with an umpire. And I almost felt like I was cheating.

New York Times 06/13/2009


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