Book Review – AS THEY SEE ‘EM – What do you think?
Allen St. John wrote this book review on Sunday, September 27, 2009 called “It’s the Hard-Knock Life For Umps.”
Have you read AS THEY SEE ‘EM, By Bruce Weber? What do you think? Agree or disagree? (Seems like if you are an umpire you will love the book, otherwise, you might find it skewed.)
Here’s the review:
The manager storming out of the dugout to accost an umpire over a blown call is as much a part of baseball as late-season pennant races and overpriced hot dogs. But what exactly are they saying in the heat of the moment? Bruce Weber’s “As They See ‘Em” gives us a glimpse, in the form of a transcript of an argument between former Orioles manager (and legendary umpire baiter) Earl Weaver and umpire Bill Haller.
Haller: I didn’t touch you.
Weaver: You pushed your finger —
H: I did not. Now you’re lying. You’re lying.
W: No, you are.
H: You are lying.
W: You’re a big liar.
H: You’re a liar, Earl, a liar.
Amusing, but not exactly the Lincoln-Douglas debates. And in a way, this brief exchange is a microcosm of “As They See ‘Em.” While Weber’s detailed look at the men (and women) who call balls and strikes is mildly entertaining, it’s also fairly predictable and more than a little overblown.
Weber begins promisingly enough with a brief cultural history of umpiring, stretching from the first — and only — umpire corruption scandal way back in 1882 to cultural references that run the gamut from Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee to Jim Bouton’s novel “Strike Zone.” Weber argues strenuously for umpires’ cultural importance: “It’s hard not to see them as symbols of something or other. The gorgeous human imperfection of democracy, perhaps.” But the cumulative effect is that he protests their significance just a bit too much.
Weber’s Plimptonesque foray behind the plate is not very successful. He attends Jim Evans’s umpire school and learns the basics — and hints at the intricacies — of working the bases and calling pitches behind the plate. The problem is that Weber neither masters the subtleties of the work nor finds humor in his own ineptitude. His biggest insight, such as it is, is that umpires watch the game differently, as he explains why he blew a call. “I’d acted like a fan, a watcher. I’d considered the situation, parsed the details, and analyzed the possibilities, all before I’d determined where to go.” Weber’s stint behind the plate in a Giants intrasquad game in spring training should have provided a dramatic peak for the book, but Weber is so far out of his depth that it’s nothing more than a wasted opportunity.
In the end, umpires are mostly interesting to the degree to which they affect the game. And it’s in Weber’s discussion of the theory and practice of the strike zone that “As They See ‘Em” finally hits its stride. “Anyone who thinks a strike is a strike is a strike ought to recall that the strike zone is like the fulcrum of a seesaw,” he writes. “It sits at the swivel point of baseball, between pitching and hitting, between offense and defense, and if it isn’t precisely situated, the game is thrown out of balance.” Umpires, Weber explains, will consciously adjust their strike zone to keep the game moving, to keep the dugouts quiet and to encourage batters to swing even when the pitcher’s control is suspect. And indeed, he argues that the loosening up of the strike zone in the 1990s was the umpires’ unofficial response to the game’s offensive explosion. “It’s impossible to call a rulebook strikezone,” admits umpire Chris Guccione flatly.
Weber’s genuine admiration for his colleagues drives “As They See ‘Em,” but it’s also the book’s major flaw. While the rest of baseball is largely a meritocracy, Weber explains the many ways in which the world of umpiring is not, and yet he’s reluctant to explore this notion further. Minor league umpires, it turns out, are drawn from the pool of students at one of two umpiring schools and are moved up to the majors in a way that has more to do with random chance, sheer persistence and an ability to work an old-boys’ network than with actual skill. (The treatment of one female umpire — “Guys who had never worked with her were willing to offer an opinion about her, either that she was a lousy umpire or that she slept around, with umpires and with players” — is especially disturbing.) Most umpires are in their mid-30s by the time they reach the big leagues — the age at which most ball players can’t see a fastball the way they once could — and once they’re there, they’re as entrenched as federal judges. Weber notes that, unlike modern players, umpires don’t use outside training aids (and have actively resisted their implementation) and even their QuesTec stats, which are used to measure their performances, are quietly juiced by Major League Baseball.
But despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary, Weber clings to the notion, perpetuated by the umpires themselves, that the men in blue are a persecuted minority. He buys into their version of the bungled 1999 strike and even lends credence to their hurt feelings over being left out of a recent World Series program.
Weber goes so far as to search out umpires like Don Denkinger and Tim McClelland, who made some of the most controversial — and just plain bad — calls in recent memory, and gives them a chance to set the record straight. “Did [Matt] Holliday touch the plate?” Weber wonders breathlessly, as he considers McLelland’s home plate call in a decisive 2007 pennant race game between the Padres and Rockies. “Perhaps this inquiry doesn’t quite have the same resonance as, say, was Hamlet insane? Or does Godot exist? But in the sense that a ball game can be seen as a drama I’ve come to think of it as baseball’s equivalent.” To his credit, McClelland doesn’t try to wax poetic: “I can’t beat myself up. I saw what I saw, and I called what I saw.” It’s a lesson that would have served Bruce Weber well while writing this uneven and ultimately less-than-satisfying book.
Allen St. John is the author of “The Billion Dollar Game: Behind the Scenes of the Greatest Day In American Sport — Super Bowl Sunday” and “Clapton’s Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument.”