THE UMPIRES STRIKE BACK
San Bernardino, Calif.
It is a rare and poetic day in Mudville, or anywhere else, for that matter, when a baseball player lifts a finger in defense of that maligned and misunderstood arbiter of the National Pastime, the umpire.Skip to next paragraph
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French-born historian Jacques Barzun of Columbia University once said, "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball." But even the most enthusiastic of sports fans haven't an ounce of sympathy for, or knwoledge of, the men in blue so central to the game. Any American kid big enough to swing a Louisville Slugger can recite players' batting averages, picthers' earned-run averages, and league standing ad infinitum. Ask him to name one major league umpire and he will draw a blank.
"[Umpires are] submerged in the history of baseball," says Furman Bisher, a sports columnist, "like idiot children in the family album." Yet they constitute one of the most exclusive and visible clubs in America. There are fewer major league baseball umpires than there are United States senators. Sixty men, spread between the American and National Leagues, make their living calling balls and strikes and administering an evenhanded justice, frequently misinterpreted by fans as blindm N justice.
Watched by millions across the country, baseball umpires are invisible and irrelevant until the they make a controversial call. Then the ballpark's organist strikes up a chorus of "Three Blind Mice," the home team manager rushes from the dugout hurling homicidal threats, and everybody from the bleachers to the press box wants to run the ump out of town on a rail.
"In the public mind he [the umpire] appears at best as a necessary evil, at worst, a nearsighted Neanderthal bent upon robbing the home team of its just desserts," writes University of Utah history professor Larry Gerlach in his new book, "The Men in Blue."
Complains Nick Bremigan, a seve-year American League veteran who umpired the 1980 World Series: "The ignorance in this country about umpiring is amazing, even from people who know sports." Bremigan is a young man with curly black hair buried beneath a well-creased straw cowboy hat. He lives in West Hollywood and drives a white sports car. "People come up to me on airplanes and say, 'you cant't be an umpire!' Somehow they expect an old gray- haired guy who dresses like a mortician. They ask me silly questions like 'Which team do you play for?' and 'What position do you play?' These are people who know baseball. It's reached the point where, when a stranger asks me, I just tell him I'm a vacuum salesman."
Like any other major league umpire, Bremigan spends most of his life on the road. He doesn't get paid all that much for the nerve-racking 250 split-second decisions he makes every afternoon with 50,000 people staring over his shoulder. Umpiring is a 180-day road trip. While the players are guaranteed half their games at home, when Bremigan says "Play Ball!" on Opening Day in April he is lucky if he sees West Hollywood before October.
In the winter, umpires sell real estate and sporting goods, and play as much golf as they can afford. With springtime comes baseball -- although baseball fanatics believe it's the other way around. But long before March, when pitchers being limbering up their arms at spring training in such sunny places as Tucson and Sarasota, would-be umpires have already begun gathering for umpire schools in Florida and California.
Bremigan understands the rules of baseball as well as anyone in the majors, and every January he acts as a sort of visiting professor to the Bill Kinnamon Umpire School held in San Bernardino, Calif., and St. Petersburg, Fla. Kinnamon, a retired National League umpire, charges $880 (room and board included) for his five-week course, which includes 285 hours of instruction on and off the field. Since 1969 has trained more major league umpires (24 of the 60 -- Bremigan among them) than any other umpire instructor in the country. A number of umpire schools have come and gone, but Kinnamon's only competition comes from Harry Wendelstedt's school in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Who are these masked men behind home plate? And how do they get that way?
In a classroom at the Western Regional Little League Headquarters, Kinnamon, a burly fellow whose shoulders slump from nearly two decades of crouching behind home plate, is reviewing test questions on one of the nine sections in the Official Baseball Rule Book during an evening session at his school.