The Umpire State

The long Memorial Day weekend provides opportunity to partake of the social life at the Liquor and Rubber Balls Sports Emporium and Custom Gift Wrapping, so Saturday late afternoon I trip in (literally — just not used to shoes yet, I guess) and engage a few regulars. Professional gambler Duck Diamonds is eyeing a few baseball games flickering on the flat-screens, simultaneously embedded in a heated discussion with retired sportswriter Vera Lu Senz.

umpires“Like this is news?” Lu asks him, as I sidle in and park my beer on the bar (Goose Island Honker’s Ale, from Ft. Collins, CO. Very smooth on tap). “Like taking the game away from the umpires is gonna improve the game or the experience somehow?”

“The game ain’t theirs to take away to begin with,” declares Duck, sourly. “And now that there’s technology to straighten out some of these old blind moles, yeah that’s gonna improve the game because it’s gonna lead to more accurate calls. How can you be against getting the calls right?”

“Because first of all, they get it right enough most of the time,” Lu retorts. “But really, this isn’t about getting it right, this is about filing the edges and drying out the juicy parts that make baseball the craptacular human circus that it is. It ain’t supposed to be computer chess. It’s a whole scrum of head-games and hip-fakes and on-the-spot politics chucked into the pot along with pitching, hitting, and catching the ball. A BIG part of that is sizing up the umpires and knowing how their heads work.”

Now I get what this is about. A couple of obnoxiously nerdy types have a study coming out that provides data on the inaccuracies just oh-my rampant in umpires’ calls of balls and strikes. They calculated how umpires favor certain pitchers and batters based on those players’ reputations, how statistics reveal they inevitably favor the home team, how they actually grow less accurate when a game is on the line, etc. They note how some umps call borderline pitches strikes, while others call the same pitches balls. The horror. Some have “high strike zones,” some have low. They conclude that because there now exists the technology to enforce a 100% accurate and uniform strike zone, that decision should be removed from the umpires’ discretion.

And tBob_Davidson_144535400hat’s horseshit.

“That’s not even horse shit,” says Lu. “That’s fish shit. That’s grasshopper shit. One of the things these geeks calculated was when the count’s 3-0, umpires call a strike more often than when the count is 0-0. But when the count’s 0-2, they expand the strike zone less than half the time. And they think this is the umpires being inaccurate, making mistakes.” She gulps her beer.

“That’s no mistake. The umpires have a sense of what it takes to make the game competitive, to spread the breaks around in the course of 9 innings. You’re in the hole with a 3-0 count, yeah, all the next pitch has to be is in the same zip code and Blue gives you a strike. The Old Automatic.  Batters understand.  Fans understand. Give the pitcher some slack here and make the hitter work a little harder for his free pass. 3-1 Blue won’t be as generous — but if the guy on the mound has any fuckin sense, he’ll appreciate the extra pitch and sharpen his delivery.

“Meanwhile, the pitching coach knows it, the opposition pitcher sees it, both managers make note. They work all this in, managing not just the game on the field but the one inside everybody’s heads. Because that’s what baseball is, Duck. That’s the game.”

“That just muddies it up,” complains Duck. “Why should the strike zone change from umpire to umpire, let alone batter to batter? You wanna move the bases closer, too, when a guy with short legs comes up?”

“What you call mud, baseball fans call gamesmanship,” Lu chuckles. “Actually, in Chicago we called it clout. You have a good eye at the plate, the ump respects that and you get the calls. You behave yourself out there on the mound when you’re unhappy with a call, maybe the ump gives you the next one. You put on a display, show up the ump, whether you’re the pitcher or the hitter you might not get a call to go your way the rest of the season. When you’re working up your game plan, going over the batters with your catcher, you factor in who’s calling balls and strikes tonight and how to take advantage.

pinetar5“This is the good shit, Duck. The game inside the game. You don’t make baseball a better experience by sanding down the bristles that tickle your ass, y’know?”

Lu must have been a helluva sportswriter. All those years with the Cubs.

I see Duck’s point. He makes his living calculating the odds. The more factors he needs to consider, the harder it gets. Give him a stack of batting averages, ERAs, lefty/righty match-ups, day vs. night, injury reports, etc. — and now with armies of anal-ysts and their complicated sabermetrics, the data roll in on endless crushing waves — and now he’s supposed to figure in whether or not the umpire is on the rag?

But that’s Duck’s problem, not baseball’s, and certainly not baseball fans.’ Lu is absolutely right. What I like about the game is the sideshows, whether it’s inside the locker room, manager’s office, or bullpen; the pushing and shoving of high adrenaline competitors, some of whom are little more than “hillbillies with great eyesight,” in Jimmy Breslin’s words, manipulated by managers and media and forces they don’t bother to try to understand. The unwritten rules. The communication of a knock-down pitch and spike-high slide. The 4-seam manipulation.

“All baseball season long I make half the money I get in a single NFL Sunday,” he growls, pretty much confirming my suspicion.

Duck — why not give up the gambling and just enjoy the game?

Duck stops, whiskey half-way to his mouth, and stares at me. “Enjoy sports?” he asks incredulously. “Enjoy sports?  Really? That’s the stupidest thing I’ve heard all night.”

“Why, thanks Duck,” chimes in Lu. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“Yeah, well it’s early,” mutters Duck. But he’s smiling.

Note: the “obnoxiously nerdy types” referenced above published an essay with a tantalizing look at their findings and conclusions this spring. Read it here.

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10 Responses to The Umpire State

  1. Borkon says:

    Watching the Phillies this year, the game inside the game is a whole lot more entertaining than the game on the field. Today’s top story: Manager Ryne Sandberg ate cat food as a child. That’s a lot more compelling than watching Domonic Brown piss away his career.

  2. Travis T says:

    This reminds me of conversations I’ve had over the years with people who want to make all baseball fields “uniform” — same outfield dimensions everywhere. Why is that important? How would this improve a damn thing? What’s the point?

  3. Dawgbowl says:

    I get it — you watch baseball for the same reason I watch wrestling. It’s not the staged ass-grabbing in the ring, it’s the sideshows — the interviews, brawls, and crackpot managers. Oh, and the women. Which baseball doesn’t have.

  4. Constance Turmohel says:

    the embedded player brouhaha picture makes me a little wistful for the 20th century

    i can live without cars with chrome bumpers but i really miss those leggings with stirrups

    anyway, squat, this column was some good 5hit

    • Squathole says:

      Why thanks, CT! Haven’t quite figured out who you are, but always glad to see you here. Meanwhile, the ghastly Phillies are about to lose yet again to the Rockies. Maybe they need to resuscitate if not those uniforms, then at least some of the players who wore them.

      • Frank of Oregon says:

        Typically Old-Philly sour. No doubt inspired by Ben Revere’s first-ever major league homer. Ryan Howard comes through with a walk-off blast in the bottom of the 9th to win. I’m sure you were grumpily snoring by then.

  5. J. Arthur Rank says:

    I’m sure you saw the movie Bull Durham. When I saw it, somebody in our group complained that “there wasn’t enough baseball in it.” But it was ALL about baseball — not hitting and catching, but the stuff Lu talked about here. You’re right — it’s GREAT stuff. So was the movie. #gong

  6. Old Timer says:

    Why bother wasting your time writing about anything besides baseball? This is good shit, and nobody else in south Florida ever touches on it. Truly. Besides, when it comes to politics, you don’t know your ass from a sink hole in the suburbs.

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