Major League Baseball umpire Bob Davidson is dawdling over breakfast in a local eatery, far from the critical crowds, musing about his profession. "We are expected to be perfect Opening Day, then improve from there," he says.
He laughs a great and good-natured laugh because Mr. Davidson - a well-respected, well-liked, and delightfully vocal National League ump heading into his 18th year - understands the impossibility of meeting the job expectations: It's like a group of youngsters being told to line up alphabetically by height.
The Major League Umpires Association says it has just 66 big-league umps. Umpiring today is a unique occupation that by its nature deals with confusion and dispute and which, at its best, keeps things barely under control. With umpiring under attack - last season was especially vitriolic, so this season is approached warily - increasing focus comes to the men in blue.
When Davidson made a disputed call in Denver last season, a fan screamed, "Right Davidson, this game is all about you."
Davidson, however, doesn't think umpiring has deteriorated. In fact, he thinks better training and better pay have improved it. A major league umpire makes between $80,000 and $225,000, gets $250 a day per diem, and flies first class. The problem, as Davidson sees it, is instant replay. Every call is placed under the slo-mo microscope. "And they don't keep playing back the good calls," he says.
Nobody knows dispute better than Davidson. In the 1992 World Series between Toronto and Atlanta, he experienced his career low, he says, when he ruled that Deion Sanders was safe in a rundown when he clearly was out, as documented by instant replay. The call cost Toronto a true rarity, a World Series triple play. Davidson still shakes his head sadly in gloomy memory.
He simply missed it and admits it. Who among billions of other humans doesn't understand "simply missing" something? But most have the advantage of erring in private. To fall short in the hothouse atmosphere and white heat intensity of the Series is another matter.
Last season, Davidson ruled that what appeared to be Mark McGwire's 66th home run in fact was interfered with by an outreaching fan. That made it a ground rule double. "I called what I saw, and I hope I was right," he says. "But to be 100 percent honest, I don't know if I was right or not." Most photos and replays tended to show he was right. These kinds of episodes illustrate how negative the profession can be. Says Davidson, "Supervisors don't phone and say, 'Great call.' " Indeed, it's always the losers in a call who complain bitterly, not the winners. So even getting the call right does little to preclude argument. That's why, Davidson says, "There's a lot of gray in our game."
Clearly, the biggest gray area is the strike zone. It does seem to change, by intent and by what a particular umpire sees it as. Baseball's pooh-bahs tend to want it smaller so players can hit more, which is what fans like. Pitchers, of course, want the zone larger than Montana.
These days, pitches far outside seem to be getting good reviews from umps, but vertically, the zone doesn't tolerate much above waist high. However, the commissioner's office recently instructed umpires to call more high strikes.
Davidson says he favors an "aggressive strike zone," which basically means, if it's close, it's good. "Fans come to see batters hit and somebody try to catch it," he explains. "If you keep calling borderline pitches 'ball, ball, ball,' it's a bad game." This philosophy does get batters swinging, which generates more action.
Much of umpiring in these days of maxi-salaries is designed to keep players from being hurt. That's why inside pitches are watched with increasing scrutiny. And on the bases, it's why a shortstop turning a double play has to be only vaguely in the neighborhood of second base in order to get credit for the out, his foot never touching the base. Ditto for first basemen who are too quick to pull their foot off the bag, ostensibly to avoid being stepped on.
But umpiring is a "con game," concedes Davidson. It means, he says, always being right (in theory), always being decisive (even when you don't feel that way), and always being in control (even when you're not). Even the greatest concert pianists hit wrong notes and so it goes with umpires.
Very early in his career, Davidson ruled that a foul ball was a homer. He remembers standing in the cascading boos thinking, "What am I doing? I'm wrong." But in the tradition of baseball, wrong rules.
Relationships between players and umpires tend to be casual but fine. An exception in Davidson's case was former Philly catcher Darren Daulton, who once exploded after Davidson made a balk call against a Philadelphia pitcher. Daulton said of the umpire, "He's one of the guys with a bunch of pictures on his wall, and they're all of himself and none of his family." Davidson laughs: "I never got along real well with Daulton."
Once on a sunny day in San Diego, Davidson was wearing cheap, drugstore sun glasses. Padres' star Tony Gwynn trotted by and said, "What ugly glasses." They laughed. The next day, Davidson found new sunglasses in his locker from Gwynn. A few hours later, Gwynn was batting. A pitch came in too low, but Davidson says he mistakenly called it a strike. Gwynn muttered, "That ball was on the ground." Said Davidson cheerfully, "Does that mean you want your sunglasses back?" Again, laughter.
Davidson denies that he gives stars breaks on calls, a constant suspicion with officials in all sports. "You ask Barry Bonds or Gary Sheffield if I give them a break," he says. Besides, some hitters - like Gwynn - "are so good that it's irrelevant what I call. They will hit the ball." He also insists he gives the same ball-and-strike calls to a superstar pitcher like Atlanta's Tom Glavine as he does to a little known like the Rockies' Jamey Wright.
Unlike many of his anonymous and reserved colleagues, Davidson is visible and outgoing. He does sports talk radio for KOA in Denver, where he once referred to Sheffield as a "prima donna." The next day, National League president Leonard Coleman called and said he didn't mind the talk radio "but I don't want any negative things coming out of your mouth about the players." Davidson understands the wisdom of the instruction.
As he heads into another year in the big leagues - Davidson will end up working perhaps 160 games, counting spring training and, perhaps, playoffs, and get four weeks vacation during the season - he has seen changes. For example, he observes that "players seem to be more interested in their own stats than whether their teams win or lose." As for umpires, "I see more [of them] reading The Wall Street Journal than I do Sports Illustrated."
Stepping outside his role as an umpire, he says he feels "we have to do a better job of getting younger fans." That, he frets, may be difficult since baseball lacks the bang-bang excitement of basketball, football, and hockey. And the attention spans of those who watch are becoming increasingly short. One Davidson suggestion: Reduce the time between half innings, typically, 2:05. A pitcher, Davidson claims, only needs 1:20 to get ready.
Above all, the key to being a good umpire is "you have to love the sport more than any player or any manager does," he says. "We are the integrity of the game, but we are kind of looked at like Darth Vader."
He leans back, thinks a bit, then smiles: "I've always loved going to the ballpark. The highlight of my day is going to work. There's nothing quite like it."