Umpires in the News

If you’ve had any exposure to the media over the last four days, chances are you’ve heard quite a bit about the perfect game that wasn’t quite. Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers was one out away from pitching the 21st perfect game in Major League Baseball history (which is the last 135 years) when first base umpire Jim Joyce missed the call on a close play at first base. Rather than having tossed a perfect game, Galarraga now owns the most famous one-hitter that the MLB has ever seen. Even more surprising than the missed call has been the character shown in the reactions of Galarraga and Joyce – understanding from the pitcher, regret from the umpire. Sports errors and character are usually not mentioned in the same sentence.

I’ve spent the last two summers umpiring baseball in Omaha, Nebraska. I’ve probably seen 20,000 pitches from behind the plate and an equal number from the field. Consequently, I have a little bit different vantage point than most sports fans talking about this event. The day after, I was watching a video clip on espn.com, where a baseball expert was dissecting how Jim Joyce could have possibly missed the call. It was his opinion that Joyce made a critical error when he watched the ball hop towards the second baseman, rather than keeping his attention focused on the area where the play would develop – first base.

I don’t know if this particular commentator has any umpiring experience. I doubt it given his critique, but I want to be fair and say I don’t know. The first lesson you’re taught as an umpire is “keep your eyes on the ball.” The only exceptions are on tag-ups and deep fly balls where you have to make sure the runners tag the bag as they’re running. A great example of this is on an attempted steal of second base. The play will be at second, and yet the base umpire doesn’t turn to look at the base until the ball is traveling past him. I leaned why when I came inches from getting pegged by an errant throw from the catcher. You always keep your eye on the ball, or else it will probably hit you.

I’ve heard several other critiques of Joyce since then. That he should have consulted with the other umpires. But doing that is abdicating your job and selling out your partners. They’re too far away to see anything. And you never appeal unless a manager directly asks. Even then the partner will back you 100% unless it’s a foot-off-the-bag situation. Or that Joyce should have been on the side of the pitcher, where any close play would have been an out since he was on the verge of pitching a perfect game. While that sounds great, as an umpire you try very hard to keep yourself oblivious of anything other than the play developing before you. To do anything else is biased, and that’s a very slippery slope to start heading down.

What I didn’t realize until I started umpiring games myself is that timing plays a huge role in being a successful umpire. Baseball is a game of split-second plays, and that requires split-second calls. When you’re behind the plate, from the time the ball hits the catcher’s mitt, you have about half a second before you have to make the call. If you delay any longer, it looks like you’re unsure about whatever call you make. And managers don’t exactly let you get away with anything that looks like indecision.

Likewise, you don’t think about a safe/out call. You react. And sometimes that reaction is wrong. The thump of the ball hitting the glove and the thump of the foot hitting the bag are almost, but not quite, identical. In a split-second decision, it’s easy to mix up the sounds and the sights. I know because I’ve done it, just like I’ve called a fastball right down the middle of the plate a ball because my timing was off and it was too late by the time I realized that the pitch was really a strike.

I don’t remember where, but I read one really insightful comment during the week: nobody feels worse about this than Jim Joyce, not even Armando Galarraga. That’s really true. The plays I remember most vividly are the ones I got wrong. The balk/fair ball/foul ball play in the Hooper tourney. The safe/out play at first at Kelly Field during the Runza Spring Classic. The hit batter/not hit batter/dead-ball tag out during the state tournament at Sandlot Field.

Nobody has higher standards for umpires than the umpires themselves. They’re a group of people who pride themselves on knowing a rulebook that was designed to cover every situation that could ever happen on a baseball field full of managers trying to circumvent the rules to gain a competitive edge.

I was just a baby umpire, and I have an immense amount of respect for the pros. They spend the whole season on the road, away from their families, living from hotel to hotel. It’s definitely a thankless job, but without them we would be without sports, and that would make life a little less fun.

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