Sunday, October 16, 2005

Priorities and Baseball

I've always rooted for the umpires. I was almost one myself. When I was 19 I left Junior College and went to the Joe Brinkman umpire school in Coco Beach Florida. It was a great time, four weeks of hard work, culminating in almost getting a job in the minor leagues. Almost.
There were only 8 job vacancies that year, the year prior there had been almost 20. If I had gone to umpire school right out of high school I would have been a professional umpire.
They invited me back, but I never returned. It was stressful, and besides, I had to finish college.
A young goofball named Tim Timmons graduated with me that year, and got selected to go into single A ball, the lowest division of the minors. He was not top of the class by any means, and I wondered to myself how someone like him was ranked above me.
Today he is in the show, the only one of my class of 300 to make it. I've seen him work, he is a tremendous umpire.
Poor old me, I only got to travel around the world, marry a beautiful woman and have the most perfect child in the universe.

And then there is Doug Eddings. He probably graduated only a few years before me and Tim.
He made a call in game two of the ALCS this year, that was highly influential in the outcome of the game. He ruled a ball in the dirt on a third strike, but the catcher thought otherwise and tossed the ball back to the pitchers mound. The heads up batter took off and made first base. He would turn into one of the winning runs.
Now, I'm always the first one to leap to the umpires defense - but I have to say, though I think Doug got the call technically correct (the replay is inconclusive, but to my eye it just looks like the ball is ground into the dirt) he was not clear enough to his catcher and batter to give them a fair shake.
Good for the batter for being alert, and I'd say the catcher can share some of the blame when all he had to do was raise his glove and gently tag the not yet running batter.
But Eddings mechanics were vague, and that must fall on his shoulders mostly. Mostly.

The fact is, that when I was in umpire school, and to this day - the mechanics for an out call and a strike call were and are identical. The only difference is the verbal call, which as we know in a crowded stadium full of screaming fans is about as useful as a bicycle is to a fish.
Every day we would run through safe and out drills. And then we would do balls and strikes. The strikes and the outs were always the same. Umpire students would get chastised for using flair or their own style.
Now out in the real world, umpires would quickly develop their own techniques, and the supervisors would let it fly. But some umpires would stick with the basic mechanics throughout their careers, while others would use an amalgam of the school style and their own.
Doug Eddings was part of the latter group. His strike call involved an arm out, and then a clenched fist. On every strike. The second half of this call looked exactly like his out call. Hence, the confusion.

There needs to be a uniform mechanic for strike, seperate from the clenched fist of "out". I have thought this ever since my first day of umpire school, and now it seems my thoughts were right on.

But all this baseball gives me a warm fuzzy feeling. To me, the men in blue (and I think some day soon the men and women in blue) are forever linked with the spirit of the game. More than any other sport, there will always be arguments, controversy, discussion in baseball. It is, I think, what makes the game the most American of all.
Mike Sciosia, the Angels manager, was naturally furious at the call. But to his credit, he said his team - not the umpire - bore the responsibility for the loss. And that is what deep down, all the players and coaches know in their hearts. Life, and baseball, are not always fair. But the team with the most talent and more importantly - the most heart, will persevere in the face of adversity. They will follow their dreams - a world series championship.
The umpires have their own credo as well. Everyone of those talented men (and I think some day soon, women) has blown at least a hundred crucial calls in their careers. And they will all likely blow a hundred more before they retire. But they too will persevere, in the pursuit of their own dreams; justice and fair play.

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