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I was a FIFA and NCAA soccer referee for eight years, and when I watch a match now I spend more time watching the officials than the players, their positioning, their interactions with the players, their decisions, etc.“The impetus for this book was a visit I made in January 2005 to the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring in Kissimmee, Florida, in order to write a story for the New York Times, where I work as a reporter. I thought it would be a lark, a chance to talk baseball rules and baseball trivia—I’m the kind of baseball fan who has never gotten over his boyhood obsession, who reads the sports page before the front page and pores over box scores as though they were hieroglyphic finds—not to mention a chance to wear short sleeves in midwinter. But what I found there in three days of observing—the whole course of instruction runs five weeks—was weird and intriguing, an amalgam of strict vocational...came away convinced that a land of umpires exists, that it has citizens, laws, and a culture, and that it is exotic enough—both in the context of baseball and the context of, well, the known world—to warrant further exploring. Indeed, the presumption of this book is that professional umpires are an unusually isolated and circumscribed group, sort of like the inhabitants of a remote country that few people have ever visited, and that I am the sociologist who was dispatched to send back word of what life is like there.Weber is dead on in his description of the attitude of umpires toward the game. Officials really do not care who wins; they care about the game. All officials really want to get it right and anyone who has been an official realizes how little the fans know of the game, some of the arcane rules, and the often subtle differences between high school, college, and professional rules. (A simple example, in high school a player can touch the line with his foot during a thrown-in; in college not. Whether a throw-in is given to the other team if it doesn’t enter the field differs by age group even. And we won’t even begin to discuss the ramifications of the offside rule and how it’s applied.) As Weber notes regarding professional baseball umpires, “But I never saw any umpire do anything that made me question his on-the-field integrity. It bears acknowledging that in 130 years, only one major league umpire has ever been accused of professional dishonesty, and that was in 1882. “The integrity of the game is the umpires,” Doug Harvey said to me. “Nobody else. The entire integrity of the game is the umpires.” Officials form their own unique clique. They are routinely despised by management, players, and fans so it’s natural they, much like cops, see the world differently.I’ve always thought it would be great if everyone in fan-dom were required to referee/umpire several games. They would develop a greater sense of respect for what these underpaid folks do (the pay for a minor league umpire is $1,900 per month—for five months—and the pay scale doesn’t exactly shoot up from there. If you prove to be an exemplary minor league umpire and rise from level to level with regularity, you may reach Triple A in six or eight years, at which time, at maybe thirty, thirty-five, or even forty years old, you’ll be making about $20,000 annually.) The myriad mistakes players and coaches make during a game are rarely blamed for a loss. It’s always some perceived error by the ref that’s always at fault. The most vociferous and loudest critics of decisions would never switch positions. A job description for an umpire/referee might read: “If you like having every close decision you make criticized, if you like doing your job surrounded by thousands of people ready to blame you for mistakes other people make, every one of them believing they can do your job better than you can, and if you don’t mind the only response you get for a job done absolutely perfectly being silence, then maybe you would like being an umpire.”The school, a requirement for anyone ever wishing to even think about becoming a professional umpire, a goal achieved by an even smaller percentage than professional players, lasts five weeks and there are only two that are sanctioned by the major leagues. Above all they teach the rules -- and baseball is filled with bizarre and arcane rules, many of which are explicated here -- and technique. That’s another thing fans never consider: position. We harped on that in soccer referee school. You had to be in position to have the best view and baseball is no different. How you move your feet, where to move your eyes, what to concentrate on. All those things have to become second nature. The school the author attended even focused on how to salute the flag for the national anthem because it helped act like a switch. OK, now the game has begun and the little petty annoyances that might have occurred before the game and might affect one’s attention are put aside.There was a lesson in this for me, though, namely the difference between calling plays and umpiring. Just having to be in the right place at the right time was intimidating enough, and I was surprised at the energy, both physical and mental, that I had to spend just to keep up. Staying aware of your precise location on the field and knowing where everyone else is as well; keeping in mind the situation and the possibilities for action, both likely and not so likely, these things are energy-sapping. At one point, with a man on second, I was so intently focusing on the pitcher in his stretch and the possibility of a balk that I barely moved.As FIFA/NCAA officials, we used to have a little mantra. The presence of referees permitted everyone to go home happy: the officials were happy because they got paid; the winning team was happy because they won; and the losing team was happy because they could blame the referees for their loss.Referees and umpires suffer from inherent contradictions: Major leagues umpires are driven and aggressive men, goal-oriented and highly competitive, which is why it’s so odd—poignant and odd—that they’ve chosen a profession in which literally they can’t win and figuratively they don’t, in which not only does disappointment always threaten but triumph is almost always bland. Listening to Everitt, I had to wonder when he’d begun to understand this, when any umpire does, and what does he then make of a professional life where at any time the agony of defeat is, in Ted Barrett’s words, just one play away, and where the closest you get to the thrill of victory is getting to the end—of an inning, of a game, even of a career—without ruin.Probably not a book for everyone but highly recommended for those interested in the culture of officiating (that’s me) or baseball in general (most other people).
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