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Law & Order

4/15/2009

A few years ago, someone gave Randy Marsh a print of the famous photograph of Jackie Robinson attempting to steal home in Game 1 of the 1955 World Series. Robinson's right leg is extended a few inches over home plate and a few inches under the mitt of catcher Yogi Berra. The photo was taken from behind Berra, at an angle not all that different from the one umpire Bill Summers had when he made his call.

Photographer Mark Kauffman snapped the shutter a millisecond or two before Berra tagged Robinson—or, as history records, Robinson's foot safely touched the plate.

Marsh mentions the photo when we first meet, just after noon on a late-June day in the lobby of the Tampa Airport Marriott. A major league umpire for 24 seasons, the 57-year-old Marsh has served since 1998 as one of 17 crew chiefs. He is the first of his four-man group to arrive in Florida for the start of a three-game interleague series tonight between the Diamondbacks and Devil Rays.

"I look at that photo all the time," he says, "and, you know, there it is, stopped in time forever, and I still can't tell you if he's safe or out." He smiles and shakes his head. "I show people that photo and tell them: There, that's being an umpire."

Being an umpire has meant something different to every member of the crew. For 35-year-old Hunter Wendelstedt, a seven-year veteran who was born to the business, it meant waking up at 5 a.m. this morning at his home outside New Orleans, kissing his wife, Katherine, and two young daughters goodbye, and racing to catch the first of two flights to get to Tampa.

For 44-year-old Angel Hernandez, now working his 14th season, it meant back surgery late in the 2001 season; a torn calf muscle last year as he hustled from behind the plate to first base because Vladimir Guerrero likes to throw runners out on hard-hit balls to right; and peanut butter and tuna fish sandwiches (yes, that's peanut butter and tuna fish together, between two pieces of bread) before every game.

For 41-year-old Sam Holbrook, one of 22 umps whose resignations were accepted as part of a 1999 labor dispute, it meant not being able to bring himself to watch a baseball game on TV for three years. He struggled to support his family, working as a welder, a meter reader and a stockbroker until he was finally reinstated in 2002.

For all of MLB's 68 umpires, it means living inside a singular baseball bubble, in an itinerant eight-months-a-year existence as the game's arbiters-cum-lightning rods. It's a job that's somehow both ubiquitous and mostly anonymous—at least until a controversial call unleashes the wrath of players, coaches and thousands of fans.

If war is long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror, then a week on the road with Marsh's crew reveals the umpiring life to be one long tapestry of clinically observed baseball punctuated by an endless series of airport terminals, hotel lobbies and restaurants that don't skimp on red meat. It raises the question: Just who are these guys? Former grade-school hall monitors? A cabal of power-mad baseball clerics? A bunch of guys who figured out a way to get paid to watch a lot of baseball and be away from their wives all summer?

Not quite, or even close, actually. Rather, six games in six days in two cities offers a picture of baseball's men in black (or baby blue) that is, well, harder to call.

THEIR JOB requires them to spend more than half the year away from home, so umps seize every opportunity to sleep in their own beds, even if it's only for a night. This is why Marsh and his men have all flown in separately to Tampa. He got in bright and early from Cincinnati. "We usually try to catch a nap in the afternoon," he says, adding with a chuckle, "Ump's schedule." Marsh, like the rest of his crew, is unfailingly friendly and a little old-school in a way that seems particular to cops, firemen and guys who've been around
baseball for a lifetime.

Seniority is prized in this culture. Marsh's crew tends to call him Chief (or, as the Cuban-born Hernandez puts it, Jefe) and makes sure he never has to deal with minor details, from hotel and car arrangements to dinner reservations.

"Every year, each crew chief gets to pick three guys he'd like to work with, and this year I got two of my three: Angel and Hunter," Marsh says. "I knew Sam some before this, and he's a great guy too. With some crews, after a game everyone goes their separate ways, and guys maybe even stay at different hotels. Trust me, it's a lot easier to be on the road for six straight months with people you like."

Marsh began umpiring at age 15. His father ran a Little League in northern Kentucky. "A lot of times, the umps my dad hired wouldn't show up on Saturdays—too hungover or something—so I'd do it," Marsh says. He played high school baseball, then spent two semesters at Kentucky before enrolling in the Al Somers Umpire School in Daytona Beach. He got a job in the Appalachian League, the lowest rung of pro ball, in 1968. It took him 14 years to reach the majors.

Dressed in black slacks, a bright orange golf shirt and black suede loafers with no socks—off-duty umpire chic—Marsh climbs into a car for the ride to Tropicana Field, across the bay in St. Petersburg. Umps generally arrive 90 minutes before the first pitch. Every ballpark has an umpire's room: a small locker room with showers, a table and chairs, a TV (which Marsh's crew usually tunes to SportsCenter or a Seinfeld rerun) and some food and drinks. An attendant unpacks and cleans the umps' uniforms and equipment, rubs down new baseballs with Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud (to make them less shiny) and sends everything via overnight express to their next assignment.

Hernandez walks in carrying a cake for Wendelstedt's birthday. He thinks he's a couple of days late, so a card on the box reads, "Sorry I missed the call." As it turns out, Hernandez is two days early. No harm, no foul. (Celebrations during the season are often rescheduled, Wendelstedt says.)

Marsh pops open his laptop. Each crew chief gets regular e-mails from one of MLB's seven umpire supervisors or from VP of umpiring Mike Port, a former Red Sox and Angels GM. "We'll get a heads-up if there's anything we need to know going into a series," Marsh says, "like if the teams had a brawl last time or something."

But the laptops are primarily used for showing umpires how they're faring against the QuesTec computerized pitchmapping system, and their daily and weekly pace-of-game (POG) stats. "The league wants every umpire to be at or above 90% of where QuesTec says we should be," Marsh explains. "So the day after every game, we get sent a DVD that shows a replay of every call behind the plate, with charts that show how often QuesTec says we were right or wrong. We can watch it all and analyze it right on the computer." QuesTec was introduced amid much controversy in 2002. "Guys have calmed down since then," Marsh says, "partly because now a supervisor also looks over video of your calls."

The POG stat is derived from a formula that includes length of game, number of pitches, pitching changes, runs and innings. "Pace of game is harder to control," Marsh says. "But if your POG average is consistently high in relation to the other crews, they let you know it." He asks if any of the other guys saw the previous night's Yankee game. "Posada went to the mound three times in an inning," he says. Everyone shakes his head. Not good for that crew's POG.

"You pull for the other crews to have short games," Hernandez says. "Not just for their POG stats, but because you know how tired they are. When you're watching a game and it goes into extra innings, you say a little umpire prayer for it to be done soon."

By now the crew is just about ready for work. Watching them change into uniform is to witness a transformation. Suddenly they're Umpires—imposing, even a little intimidating. Marsh will work the plate, and as he grabs his mask, I ask if he knows who's pitching. "Nah," he says with a shrug, "didn't see it in the paper this morning." Then he smiles and leads his crew onto the field.

ST. PETERSBURG is probably a nice place to watch a baseball game, but being inside the domed Trop feels vaguely like being trapped in a roomy air conditioner. "It's all the same to us," Holbrook says the following afternoon. "In fact, the park here is actually better for us. If the games were outside, the heat and humidity would be murder."

Holbrook and Wendelstedt sit down with me in the hotel before heading off to lunch and a movie. "Sure, it's fun working a sellout at Yankee Stadium during a pennant race," Wendelstedt says. "But you get in trouble as an ump when you think you can come down to a place like Tampa and take a night off. That's when you'll be a step out of position for a call—and SportsCenter will show you missing one down here as fast as they will if you do it in New York."

The last thing an umpire wants is to make the highlights. "Your friends think it's funny when they see you on TV because of a call," Wendelstedt says. "But they're the same people who, in their job, if a deal doesn't go through or if they have a bad day at the office, will pout for three days. They couldn't imagine getting a call from one of their friends saying, 'Hey, I heard you really sucked at work yesterday!' "

Like Marsh, both Holbrook and Wendelstedt played high school ball—Holbrook in Kentucky (not too far from where Marsh grew up) and Wendelstedt in Daytona Beach. Holbrook went on to pitch for Eastern Kentucky, where he also earned a master's in sports administration before eventually heading to umpire school.

Things were a bit different for Wendelstedt, whose father, Harry, was a big league ump for 33 years. "I thought I knew what the life was like, but looking back, I had no idea," Hunter says. "As a kid, it was pretty great. I got to meet all my baseball heroes. Dad was gone during the summer, sure, but that's when you're running around at baseball camp or whatever. I missed him, but when he came home in October he was a 24-hour dad. My friends' fathers couldn't throw batting practice after school or play quarterback for both teams. What I'm finding out now, though, is that it's harder being the one who's always leaving."

At the end of recent seasons, Wendelstedt and his daughters (Bridget, 4, and Hailey, 3) have developed a ritual. "I throw out my old suitcase—it gets so beat up—and the girls will help me put it on the curb," he says. "During the year, when I get home for a night they'll ask, 'Daddy, can we throw out the suitcase?' And I'll say, 'No, not yet.' But then when we do it in the fall, it'll be special, because it'll mean I'm home for good."

Hernandez always put Post-it notes on his daughters' pillows before leaving on a trip. "Just little things: Love your mom, Do good in school," he says. His girls (Jennifer, now 20, and Melissa, 16) kept them all. "They've got, like, a thousand."

Hernandez, who was a catcher at Hialeah (Fla.) High School before he hurt his arm, is the only one of the crew who may have had a shot to play pro ball. (His brother, Nick, was a first-round pick for the Brewers in 1978. Also a catcher, he made it as far as Double-A.) Angel Hernandez Sr. also ran a Little League, and he suggested that Angel try umpiring. "When I told my high school sweetheart I was gonna try and be an umpire, she was like, no way," Hernandez recalls. "She would have been okay if I'd been drafted, but umpiring? We split up. I met my wife, Mireya, after my first year in the minors. I had to tell her I'd be leaving soon to go ump. She said, 'Okay, call me when you get back.' I called before I was back."

There are 220 umpires in the minors, all waiting for one of the 68 big league slots to open up. It can be a very long wait, but the rewards are significant: Salaries for major league umps start at $90,000 a year and can top $350,000, plus pension and benefits. "Once you're in Double-A and Triple-A," Holbrook says, "that's when you're wondering: Am I gonna make it? Is it worth it? Because nothing is guaranteed. You have some dark times. Even the actual umping can be tougher; the players aren't as good and everyone is hungry, clawing. You're more likely to get into it with a player or coach in the minors."

Tonight at the Trop, following an uneventful game the evening before, Hernandez gets into it with DBacks manager Bob Melvin, who's ejected in the bottom of the fifth for arguing balls and strikes from the dugout. After the game, back in the umpires' room, Hernandez is agitated and angry, and he doesn't want to talk about it. (While he's polite and amiable off the field, Hernandez has a rep for being thinskinned between the lines. Three weeks later, while working third base, he tosses Dodgers coach Mariano Duncan from the first base dugout, sparking an epic and hilarious argument that ends with Hernandez handing Duncan's cap to a fan.)

The day after ejecting Melvin, Hernandez shows up in a much better mood. Marty Springstead, a supervisor and former ump, approaches him in the umpires' room: "You had to run Melvin. He had one foot out of the top step of the dugout, arguing. We looked at it. He knows better."

"Yeah," Hernandez says. "When I told him, he basically understood." Then he turns to me. "Guys know what they can't do. At the plate, if a player doesn't look at you, doesn't make a comment that is prefaced with a 'you' or 'you're a … ,' he can pretty much say whatever he wants. And a manager can yell and scream in the dugout all he wants too, as long as he follows those rules and doesn't come out past that top step."

Holbrook pipes up: "There's also an unwritten rule in baseball that the next day is the next day." As Wendelstedt puts it, "It's like the Bugs Bunny cartoon with the sheepdog and the wolf, where they punch in, fight all day, and then punch out. We punch in, sometimes we have an argument, then forget about it. Usually."

"UMPIRES ARE creatures of habit," Holbrook tells me before heading to Chicago for a Friday night rematch of last year's World Series teams, the Astros and White Sox. "Day games, we get up at this certain time; night games, we know we're gonna nap in the afternoon. In this city, I know I want to have lunch at this place, dinner there, or I'm gonna see family or a friend who lives in town. That's life on the road."

The four ride together in a white limo from their downtown hotel to U.S. Cellular Field on the South Side. Earlier today, there was news of a terrorist plot targeting the Sears Tower. "I've been watching Fox News all day," Hernandez says. "I love Fox News." Wendelstedt was watching some news as well. "It was one of those police chases in LA, and at the end the cops Tasered the guy," he says. "It was awesome."

The conversation changes when they reach the umpires' room. Hernandez and Wendelstedt reminisce about the day they got The Call. "For me, it was before cell phones and e-mail," Hernandez says. "So you'd tell the person at the front desk of the motel where you could be reached. You only get called up if someone in the majors is injured, and if you're not around, they might call someone else. When the call finally came, May 20, 1990, I just broke down and cried."

Wendelstedt was half asleep when it happened. "I was in Oklahoma City, and it was a Saturday morning," he says. "The previous night, I'd been working a game in front of 1,800 fans, and then I hear I have to be in Denver the next day for a Rockies doubleheader. I get there and I'm working third base, and there's 50,000 people, and in the first inning Michael Tucker hits a ball that must have been 10 feet foul. I raise my arms and scream, 'FOUL!' Vinny Castilla is playing third for the Rockies, and he looks at me and says, 'First day?' And I'm like, 'Yeah!' "

BEFORE SUNDAY night's game, Mickey Weston, from Baseball Chapel, speaks to Marsh's crew. Sitting at a table in the umpires' room, he reads a Bible passage and offers a quick sermon that includes the story of John Colter, a member of Lewis and Clark's expedition who managed to escape certain death at the hands of Native Americans through "strength and perseverance."

It occurs to me that umps—perhaps not quite as much as Lewis, Clark or John Colter—need nothing if not strength and perseverance: for life in the minors, for being away from home, for the endless travel, but most of all for moments like when Jackie Robinson stole home. "Let's face it, you need to have self-confidence to do this," Holbrook says. "Everybody always thinks they can do it better than you; everyone is looking to find error. And we are human, so we're gonna make mistakes. We have to deal with that, learn from it and go on trying to be the best we can."

After the brief service, Weston asks for special intentions. Marsh mentions a niece who has just given birth. Wendelstedt brings up his father-inlaw, who's ill, and wishes for continued safe travels for everyone in the room. Hernandez says his sister and his parents are still displaced from one of last year's hurricanes, then acknowledges

U.S. soldiers in harm's way. "And let's pray for a quick Sunday night game," adds Wendelstedt, who is scheduled to work the plate the next day at Yankee Stadium (where he'll eject Braves manager Bobby Cox in the ninth for arguing balls and strikes). Weston and the umps smile, and everyone says, "Amen." The game goes 13 innings. And it rains.