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.

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.

"OK, fellas, let's look at Question 23," says Kinnamon, standing by a blackboard before what looks like a small college freshman football team. Hulking young men in sweet plants and baseball caps predominate. At the back of the room is one woman from New Mexico. Her name is Becky and she wears blue jeans, a pink kerchief, and scuffed black Riddell officiating shoes. Most everyone has a baseball rule book pressed to his nose and is gnawing pensively on yellow felt-tip marking pens.

"OK, Jeff," Kinnamon begins again. "Say the score is tied 2-2 in the bottom of the ninth inning and the home team has the bases loaded with two outs. The batter draws a base on balls and goes down and touches first base. The runner from third touches the plate. The runner from second, however, runs directly to the dugout making no effort to touch third. The defense throws the ball to third base to appeal. What should the umpire rule, Jeff?"

Twenty pairs of eyes focus on the young man in the Mickey Mouse sweat shirt. He answers haltingly: "Three outs and the game continues tied 2-2."

"Wrong!" barks Kinnamon. "The run scores and the home team wins 3-2. Check rule 4.09B."

To the uninformed bystander, Kinnamon's class sounds like Abbott and Costello's "Who's on first?" routine. Yet every morning and evening for a total of 75 hours Kinnamon and his staff grill students on the finer hypothetical points of the game: What happens if the home team is ahead 2-1 and the game is rained out with one out in the bottom of the fifth innin? (It's an official game; the home team wins, 2-1.) What if a player, batting out of turn, hits a home run in the second inning and the opposing team doesn't appeal until the fifth inning? (The run counts; the opposing team should have appealed right away.)

No question is too esoteric for these autocratic arbiters. They quibble in locker rooms and hallways over the most improbable predicaments. What if a batter hits a high fly ball and it gets stuck in the fuselage of a passing plane? Absurd? It happened once in 1917. The umpire ruled it a home run on the logic that when last seen, the ball was traveling out of the park in fair territory.

"The day-in, day-our stuff of baseball, calling balls and strikes, fair and foul, is no problem, but umpires have to be ready for the weird stuff. You have to know the theory," says Bremigan outside Kinnamon's classroom. "It's hard to believe, but most of the players don't really know the rules, nor do the managers, or sportswriters -- and of course, the fans believe whatever the sportswriters tell them."

While Kinnamon is finishing his evening rules class, Bremigan and National League umpire John McSherry are outside hunched over a desk giving specialized instruction to Osamu Ino and Wataru Washya, two umpires from Tokyo's minor leagues. This evening they are discussing, among other things, rules governing hos often a manager can walk to the mound and confer with his pitcher.

Over the last two years, 62 Japanese umpires have attended special sessions of Kinnamon's school in St. Petersburg, Kinnamon, who is opening an umpire school this June in Puerto Rico, has been invited to go to Japan next November to start the country's first school for baseball umpires. "The rules in Japan are the same, but they're a whole lot more polite," he says. "When the batter comes up to the plate he bows to both the catcher and the umpire. You won't see many arguments, either."

With few exceptions, Kinnamon's students dream of making the bush leagues and eventually moving into the big leagues. The odds, they know, are against them. Of the 28 students in Kinnamon's San Bernardino class, he will select only the top five to attend the one-week evaluation camp of the Umpire Development Program sponsored by the American and National Leagues in Bradenton, Fla. Kinnamon sends a total of 20 students from his San Bernardino and St. Petersburg classes to Bradenton. Harry Wendelstedt, who runs the other umpire school, in Daytona Beach, sends 13. A handful of the Bradenton graduates will go on to earn one of the 140 umpiring jobs in baseball's three minor leagues. Kinnnamon estimates that about 16 percent of the graduates from his San Bernardino and St. Petersberg classes will make it into the minors. Only one in 100, however, will eventually land one of the 60 coveted umpiring jobs in the major leagues.

What does it take to make the majors? Many of the men who become professional umpires are high school or college athletes who couldn't quite cut the mustard in the pros. Kinnamon himself lettered in college football and baseball, and gave up a good job with the Internal Revenue Service in 1953 to become an umpire in the Texas-Oklahoma Class B League, earning $250 a month plus 8 cents per mile on his car. In the Pioneer League, Kinnamon recalls in his book, "We'd drive from Salt Lake City to Billings, Montana, 600 miles, for a game. We'd drive all night, get in about 10 in the morning, sleep for four or five hours, and head for the ballpark." In September 1960 he was promoted to the American League, where he remained until retiring in 1969.

"Athletes don't always make good umpires," Kinnamon points out. "They're used to being yelled for, not booed at. A lot of the time they just can't take the loneliness," he says.

"No umpires are in it for the glory. You're supposed to be invisible until game time. You never get much ink unless the press thinks you made a bad call. Nobody applauds when you call a perfect game. Your satisfaction is internal. You have to be a thick-skinned extrovert. Withdrawn umpires don't last long.

"The field is your stage, and you turn it on like an actor. No matter how big or small you are, when an umpire steps on the field he has to walk nine feet tall. If you look confident, the ballplayers will leave you alone, at least until you make your first mistake."

An hour after class breaks up for the evening, a dozen students are relaxing with the sports page and playing cards. Others are watching television, some are playing backgammon. Some have just returned from town with bags of glazed donuts and are studying for tomorrow's rules test. This is the final week of the school, and the pressure is building. In four days Kinnamon would decide who would go on to Bradenton and who wouldn't.

"Hey Kip," comes a shout from across the room. "What did Kinnamon say about the ruling when Hooker bats in Frank's place and the pinch hitter . . . ?" Kip Arnold is not particularly interested in the question. He is too busy acting out how he ejected a junior college pitching coach from a practice game he and another student umpired over the weekend.

Arnold, who comes from Lakewood, Calif., is all of 19 years old. His brother is a scout for the New York Mets, and when Kip was only 16 years old he umpired a winter league game between the Mets and the Milwaukee Brewers. Already he has his sights set on umpiring in the majors.

Becky Noland has more modest ambitions. She would be satisfied officiating junior varsity games or women's fast pitch softall in Albuquerque, N.M., where she now works as a taxi and gravel truck driver.

"It's like boot camp here," she says. "I've already cried three times. Today on the practice field I had the bases loaded and the batter hit into a double play. I stayed at the plate but was supposed to cover third. Boy, did I get yelled at. It's all part of trying to thicken our skin, I suppose. If you can't take the razzing from the instructors at the school, you won't last long in the ballpark.

"They're constantly drilling us on perfection and precision. We practice over and over again taking off our mask with our left hand so our hat doesn't fall off. We have to yell loud enough so everyone in the park knows the call. Also, I'm learning not to flinch."

Dave Strike is a white-haired insurance salesman from Anchorage, Alaska, who took off five weeks from work to attend Kinnamon's umpire school. He first became interested in umpiring the day he was sitting in the stands watching his son play Little League. The umpire made what he thought was a rotten call, but Strike didn't know enough about the rules of baseball to challenge him. Strike's Little Leaguer is now 22, and "as he progressed out of baseball I got further into it," says STrike, who now officiates about 40 games a year -- for players 6 and 7 years old.

According to Strike, playing the National Pastime near the Arctic Circle has caused complications even Alexander Joy Cartwright Jr., the chap who organized the first baseball game in 1846, never dreamed of: "The rule book discusses delays for rain but no delays for sun," says Strike. "We've had games delayed for 20 minutes at 10 o'clock at night because the sun was in the players' eyes. Alaska gets so much sun in the summer that in Fairbanks they have a baseball game which starts at midnight on June 21 [the summer solstice]."

Here at Kinnamon's school, students live in one of 13 bunkhouses, each named for a Western state and normally used by the Little League champion team from that state while competing in the regional championships.

Each morning after a 7:30 breakfast of hot cakes and eggs over easy, the students put in another couple of hours going over the rules with Kinnamon, then adjourn to a regulation baseball diamond for field instruction. It begins with 20 minutes of calisthenics, which include a series of a 10-yard sprints. At the end of each sprint all 28 students crouch, punch their right fist in the air, and shout, "He's out!"

As four students begin working in the batting cage calling balls and strikes, the rest take part in the mock baseball game, officiated by two student umpires.

"People who know the rules of baseball don't necessarily make good umpires," Bremigan says. "It's a totally different instinct than playing the game, too. When the ball is hit the umpire has to learn to move away from the ball, not toward it, so he can get a good angle on calling the play. The common mistakes students make are anticipation and timing. When you see the throw to first you can't anticipate whether the ball will get there before the runner. Wait till the play's over and then call it. If it's a fly ball to center, it may look like a can of corn, but wait till the ball hits the glove or you may be calling 'Out!' while the ball's rolling on the ground."

Bremigan is the wizard on baseball rules and interpretation, but John McSherry is drill sargeant during field instruction. He is a massive mound of a man with an uncanny instinct for the game. For hours he stalks the third base line, shouting, cajoling, intimidating his students with classic, often enigmatic one-liners delivered in his gruff Bronx brogue:

"You look like we just woke you up and took you out to the parade grounds!"

"There are people in the box seats closer to the game than you!"

You're like the late news. You tell me at 11 what I knew at 6!"

"Your reaction should be like an itch. Don't think about it!"

"Take a 10-minute break, guys, and think about other careers. The Coast Guard recruiters will be here tomorrow."

After 285 hours of classroom and daily field instruction, the rookie umpires have learned everything from the appearance and ethics of officiating to dealing with balks and rained-out games. Kinnamon's school even teaches students how to deal with that classic situation in baseball known as "the rhubarb," the nose-to-nose confrontation between the man in blue and a livid player or manager who disagrees with the umpire's call.

"You may have 50,000 people who think you've kicked the play but you never change a call once you've made it, even if you're wrong," says Bremigan, kicking up a divot near first base. "Some umpires will take a lot of heat from an angry manager. Others have quick guns. One word that will get a manager ejected quicker than anything is to call an umpire a 'homer.' They are insulting your integrity by saying you're taking the easy way out and calling the game for the home team. Call an umpire 'homer' and it's like waving a red flag in a bull's face."

As would be expected, Bremigan is armed with countless tales of managers "getting the thumb," and he recounts his favorite ejection story in "The Rules and Lore of Baseball," a book on which he collaborated with writer Rich Marazzi: "Steve Boros pulled a real classic when he was managing in the minor leagues in the late 1960s," Bremigan recalls. "He was managing the visiting team this particular night and was getting a raw deal from the umpires in the game, and got ejected after an argument in the sixth inning. While wandering around outside his clubhouse after showing, he noticed a big sign on the door of the umpires' room which appropriately read 'Umpires.'

"The wheels began turning. He snatched the sign and proceeded to go out to the scoreboard, which was above the left field fence. The home team had scored four more times before Boros got there, making the score 14-1. A strange thing occurred when the base umpire looked up at the scoreboard in the eighth inning; the line score read: Visitors 1, Umpires 14."

But the umpire always seems to win out, probably because no one has yet figured out how to play baseball on the honor system.

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