Major league umpires are accustomed to making snap judgments. Still, some calls are harder to make than others. For Ron Luciano, who spent 11 years umpiring in the American League, sliding tag and half swing calls always carried the highest degree of difficulty.
When he worked the infield, Luciano's greatest worries occurred at second base, where runners never seemed to slide into the bag the same way twice in a row. ''With all the crazy slides, it becomes a game of angles,'' says the ex-umpire. ''Some guys use a hook slide, some a head first slide. Some guys reach out with this arm, others with that. With each different way they go into bag, you have to use a different angle.
''And when you weigh 300 pounds, like I did, it's not easy waddling into those angles. So you have to anticipate where the runner's going to slide, where the catcher or outfielder is going to throw -- high, low, front of the bag , back of the bag. You have to guess, and if you guess wrong you're out of position and it's a tough call.''
At home plate, Luciano believes the ticklish check swing call to be the toughest by far. ''When the pitch is inside, it's not too bad,'' he explains. ''But what happens if I have my eye on the strike zone and the pitch is a slider on the outside corner? It's impossible to watch both the batter and the pitch.''
If there's any suspicion the batter went around, the umpire will usually call it a strike. TV almost always proves them right, too. ''Sometimes on a replay you can't even tell,'' Luciano says, ''but what they've shown in slow motion is, 'Oh my gosh, did he ever go around.' That's changed that call and given umpires more confidence.''