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An Insider's Tour Through 'The Land of Umpires'

In As They See 'Em, Bruce Weber, a reporter for the New York Times, draws on his own less-than-stellar stint in umpire school and over 200 interviews with men in blue to provide a richly detailed, smart, sassy and sad account of organized baseball's itinerant — and invisible — "tribal society" of 300 men and a couple of women. Taking readers on a tour of the minors as well as the major leagues, Weber reveals as no author before has that, although they are held together by "the powerful bond of their singular profession," umpires are a "dysfunctional family," at odds with players, management and one another.

The book is a feast for fans hungry for baseball lore. The men behind the masks, we learn, don't say "Play ball." They find "pole benders" among the toughest calls to make. And they are by no means opposed to instant replays.

Umpires, Weber points out, are highly competitive professionals who have chosen work in a field in which disaster — as Don Denkinger discovered in the 1985 World Series — is always one play away. Years after he blew a bang-bang play at first base, Denkinger was still getting death threats, and Whitey Herzog, the aggrieved manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, presented him with a braille watch at a charity dinner.

In a fascinating examination of "ballish strikes and strikelike balls," Weber demonstrates that QuesTec, the system of cameras and computers that measures umpires' plate performances during regular season games, is scarcely the last word on the subject. Looking for "consistency" and "control," major leaguers want the strike zone "to be established early and remain unchanged for the duration of the game."

And the stars do get the benefit of the doubt. When young umpire Ted Barrett rang up Cal Ripken Jr. on a pitch on the outside corner, the Orioles legend looked back and said, "Oh, I highly doubt that."

Weber reminds us that because only a handful of slots are available, the pay is lousy and there's no real job security, few fathers light up cigars, point to their babies and say, "That kid is going to be a major league umpire." And yet, hundreds of 20- and 30-somethings are "fervid or foolish enough" to register each year for umpire school. As only a boy (or girl) of summer can understand, they're "chasin' the dream."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Glenn C. Altschuler