Ron Luciano: colorful umpire who knew how to have fun

During his 11 years as a big league umpire, Ron Luciano was perhaps the most talkative man on the field. He bent ears in every American League ballpark with his patter and banter. Some managers even threatened to fine players caught talking to him. Today, however, he gets paid for talking -- both by NBC television and Bantam Books, publisher of his bestselling hardcover, ''The Umpire Strikes Back.''

He's already been on more talk shows than you could shake a Louisville Slugger at, including the ''Tonight Show.'' What makes promotional tours tough, he says, are that you spend only one day per city instead of the three to four he knew as an umpire. But as an ump he made far less money and often worked weeks on end.

So who's complaining? Certainly not the loquacious Luciano, who's heard more beefing than most people care to.

Much of it came from the mouth of Baltimore manager Earl Weaver, with whom he still enjoys a running fued. It started in 1965, when Luciano threw Weaver out of a minor league game in Elmira, N. Y. The two are not really bitter adversaries so much as foils for one another.

Luciano, in fact, gets good mileage from needling Weaver in his book, a favor returned by Earl in his just published autobiography, ''It's What You Learn After You Know It All that Counts.'' ''I don't poke fun at anyone but Earl,'' Luciano says with a genuine absence of malice. ''Before we went to press, I got the galleys and went to Earl and said, 'Let me know if there's anything you don't like in there. His reply was, 'What are you, nuts? You treated me twice as bad on the field. This is nice.'

''He also said probably 30 percent of the book was fiction. And I said, 'You're absolutely right. The part where I say you will go directly from the dugout to the Hall of Fame -- fiction. The part where I say for 11 years you were one of the best managers I'd ever seen -- fiction. The part. . . .' ''

Luciano originally went to the publisher with a 600-page rough draft that eventually provided the raw material for his 258-page collaboration with David Fisher.The finished product avoids the tell-all writing style of a ''Ball Four.''

''There's not a swear word in the book,'' Luciano volunteers proudly. ''I love baseball too much to do something like that.'' (Typographical gibberish -- %[*$ &! -- stands in for missing expletives.)

Luciano is not the first umpire turned author, but as the most colorful masked man in the game he was well suited to market his memoirs. His gift of gab made him the friendly neighborhood cop. Beyond that, his size and flair for the dramatic made him highly visible.

A former college and pro football lineman, Ron utilized an entertaining array of gestures and signals in plying his trade. Kansas City's bench picked up on his use of a revolver-like hand to indicate the runner was ''outoutoutout!!!'' and encouraged him to shoot, shoot, shoot. He once gunned down a player with 16 shots, a personal record. ''Later I went into hand grenades and machine guns,'' he chortles.

''People ask me all the time if I stood in front of a mirror to practice these calls. Look at this body and look at this face (a face made for radio, he calls it); would you stand in front of a mirror? Of course not,'' he adds with typical self-deprecating humor. ''Everything I did out there was spontaneous. If the third baseman made a diving play, it was never just, 'he's out;' it was 'Oh boy, what a super, terrific play!' ''

A strong believer that baseball should be fun, Luciano occasionally livened things up with a favorite practical joke.

''With a new kid playing first base, I would stand off to the side of the bag ,'' he explained. ''The runner might be out by seven or eight feet, but I would move up real close to the first baseman and yell 'Safe!' He would go crazy and start arguing and everybody would be wondering why he was so upset. Of course, the old pros were on to me, and a guy like Carl Yastrzemski would say, 'Don't give me that nonsense.' ''

His casualness infuriated some managers, who felt he was more interested in fooling around than the game. Luciano denies this charge, indicating he picked his spots wisely. ''I might fool around on a wide open play when the score is 6 -0 in the eighth, but not in a 1-1 extra-inning game. There's a lot of difference, but they could never see that.

''Look, a double play takes 3.8 seconds, and even as dumb as I am I can concentrate that long. There's a lot of dull time in a baseball game, and that's when I'd fool around.''

Still, he admits to napping now and again.The rigors of the job, he says, make it impossible to stay alert on every single pitch throughout a 200-game season, counting exhibitions.

Once, while talking to some Boston fans between innings, play resumed without him. When the crowd responded to a batted ball, Luciano lumbered madly onto the field, but too late. The first base coach demanded to know: safe or out? ''I figured I had a 50-50 chance of being right,'' he recalls. ''I said safe and a 15-minute argument began. He was out.''

On another occasion, a photographer snapped him intently reading a page from the Angels game program that had blown onto the field. Only problem was a pitch was halfway to home plate.

As much as he liked umpiring, Luciano felt the time had come to move on. For one, he wasn't maneuvering his 300 pounds around the diamond the way he once had. Money was also a factor. NBC Sports offered him triple his umpiring salary. And finally, he explains, ''I was ready for a change. I'd never done anything for as long in my life.''

An All-America tackle in college, Luciano embarked on a professional football career after graduating from Syracuse University. Because of injuries, he played hardly a down with either the Detroit Lions or Buffalo Bills and retired after several seasons. From there, he earned a masters degree in education administration and began teaching seventh and eighth grade math. But sports beckoned and Luciano enrolled in umpire school.

At the end of his arbiting days, NBC made him a color commentator, but things didn't work out that well. ''It's hard to get a 10-minute story in between pitches,'' he explains. So now he puts together five-minute fillers for use on pre- and post-game shows. He also keeps tabs on his sporting goods store in Endicott, N. Y., and fulfills numerous speaking engagements.

Earlier this year he took a screen test for a TV situation comedy. He didn't get the part, but was encouraged in his efforts. If nothing else, he says the experience gave him more material for another book. Are you listening, Earl?

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