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The Best Seat in Baseball, But You Have to Stand!
The Game as Umpires See It
By Lee Gutkind
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1999 Lee Gutkind
All rights reserved.
The Beginning of a Difficult Year
The 1974 feud between umpires and major league baseball's players, coaches, and managers began in April, in one of the coldest springs in baseball history. The Farmer's Almanac had called for a subpar season, a cold and rainy summer, and its prediction seemed to be coming true. Games in Montreal were being snowed out one after another and the doors to stadiums in Chicago and New York were virtually frozen shut. Temperatures tumbled into the thirties and forties in most major league towns in the eastern portion of the United States, and rain and wind delayed and sometimes ruined many ball games, prompting some managers to consider issuing wetsuits to outfielders and flippers to runners trying to steal second base. Then a Canadian Airlines strike lasting two weeks forced players and umpires trying to get into Montreal to fly into Burlington or Rutland; they had to Greyhound back and forth from Vermont to Montreal.
Even worse than the weather, however, was the unsettling way in which the season was progressing. The teams that were supposed to be winning were either losing or at least not winning nearly enough. Thus, no matter how cold it was in the cities, the tempers of managers, players, sportswriters, and fans were hot enough to melt glaciers. For umpires such a situation signaled the beginning of a very difficult year.
In the National League East the Pittsburgh Pirates, favored to come back from their mediocre 1973 season and their shock over the death of superstar outfielder Roberto Clemente, were, with each game they played, sinking deeper into the quicksand of the cellar, while the New York Mets, "The Mighty Mites," the 1973 National League champions, were ineptly tumbling and buffooning right behind. By mid-April both teams had managed to win only three of thirteen games. The Philadelphia Phillies, on the other hand, a team of youngsters, a team without a superstar, a team whose fans under forty could hardly remember the last time they had played well, were momentarily in first place one full month after the season had started, while Chicago, Montreal, and St. Louis trampolined back and forth behind.
Many people thought that Los Angeles had already won the National League West. By mid-May the Dodgers were eight games in front of their closest rivals, playing at a near .700 clip. Pitcher Tommy John had eight wins and two losses and Jimmy Wynn, a reject from the Houston Astros, had already blasted fourteen home runs. What was so frustrating, however, was that three of the five remaining western division teams were also doing well—mostly against their lowly eastern division counterparts. Cincinnati had won six of every ten ball games they played, a record good enough to lead the league most other years, while Atlanta had won twelve games in a row. In all, four of the six western division teams had a higher winning percentage than the league leaders in the east. At one point, only one of the six eastern division teams was playing better than .500 ball.
Early in the season Ray Kroc, the MacDonald's hamburger hustler who had recently purchased the San Diego Padres, openly chided his team over the home stadium's public address system for its bush-league ballplaying. Steve Blass, the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirate World Series hero, twice a runner-up for the Cy Young Award which honors the finest pitcher in the league, was, at thirty-two-years old, optioned to the Charleston Charlies of the AAA International League for his inability to get the ball over the plate. Judge Roy Hofheinz, the mastermind behind the Houston Astrodome and the originator of the idea of dome-topped stadiums, announced that his hometown attendance had so far fallen 300,000 below last year's. The Astros were one million dollars behind in revenue, just two months after the start of the season.
By the end of the eighth week, it was clear to all who cared to look that this was going to be a topsy-turvy, dazzlingly different, furious, frenetic, exhilarating, excruciating baseball year.
There always have been and always will be feuds between players and teams and umpires in baseball, for the umpires are the policemen of the ballpark, the enforcers on the field, and on any one play, especially when it is comparatively close or controversial, an umpire will never please more than 50 percent of his constituency. Often he will please less. This particular year, however, the feud started earlier than usual, perhaps in part because of the weather, but more so because of the unorthodox and unpredictable way in which the teams in the National League were playing.
For what happens when a team—especially a team familiar with the bright lights and flush of victory—begins to lose ball games with an alarming rate of consistency? If a player were to blame his teammates or coaches, he would make a number of instant enemies and risk being relieved of his position in the starting lineup or his personally polished seat on the bench. And a manager or general manager publicly admitting his own mistakes is, in effect, submitting his own personal resignation. There are only two feasible solutions. First, a team can blame the umpires for unfair and inadequate rulings. Second, the players can blame Providence, "Lady Luck," for issuing a continuing series of unfortunate setbacks.
Luck, of course, is illusionary. Luck has no face or name or color or uniform. It cannot be pinned down. So the players, managers, fans and the press—most particularly the members of the press, who must cast their lot with their home teams and whose readership usually increases or decreases according to the play and the standings of their teams—will, more often than not, select the umpires at whom to level criticism. This makes good copy because every living, breathing baseball fan knows he is supposed to hate the umpires. Umpires are at best necessary evils.
Criticizing an umpire won't unnecessarily embarrass a home team or cause a reporter's sources to be stopped up by moping, vengeful players insulted by negative public exposure. Reporters are heartless in this way. Although their copy may be inflammatory, may break down the discipline of the next ball game following publication of their vitriolic comments or spark a near riot in the stands, they will keep writing these stories as long as grist is available for their daily mill. Although, for obvious reasons, documentation to justify criticism of umpires is almost impossible to obtain, reporters will continue writing their stories whenever a mere whiff of information is available—all season if their team continues to lose—or until their team begins to win. Umpires are sportswriters' and sportscasters' best friends because the men in blue are perfect material for an avalanche of attacks.
The first all-out attack on umpires came in the pages of the New York Daily News and was written by Dick Young, a veteran reporter known for his ability to conjure up controversial news when none is available at deadline time. The game in question was one in which the New York Mets played the Cubs in Chicago. It was officiated by chief Doug Harvey and his crew of Harry Wendelstedt, Nick Colosi, and Art Williams.
Dave Schneck, a twenty-five-year-old outfielder playing his first full season with the Mets, hit a hard fly ball to deep center field which momentarily seemed to get by pursuing Cub center fielder Rick Monday. At the last minute, though, Monday dove at the ball, landed on his shoulder, somersaulted twice, then came up holding the ball triumphantly, his glove hand high. Second base umpire Nick Colosi, who had followed the ball into center field behind Monday, signaled a clean catch. It was then a simple matter for Monday to lob the ball to Don Kessinger at second base and double up the Met runner, who, never imagining that the ball would be caught, was just then sliding harmlessly into third base. Monday, however, had injured his shoulder on the play. He received a standing ovation when he trotted from the field. None of the Mets—including manager Yogi Berra—complained about the call.
Two innings later Colosi, who had been bothered by a sore back since the end of last season, switched positions with Art Williams at third.
In the Daily News the next day, Young ripped Colosi for not going out far enough on the play to see that Monday had actually trapped the ball. Young pointed out that since Colosi had a sore back, he couldn't possibly have run fast or far enough out into center field to be in a position to call the play accurately. Young, on the other hand, had watched the instant replay on the monitor in the press box. It was clear, Young claimed, that Monday had trapped the ball.
In the same column, Young quoted Met shortstop Bud Harrelson as saying that three Met losses in April alone could be positively attributed to poor officiating. Young also pointed out that umpires, most particularly at Shea Stadium, were stealing dozens of baseballs each year.
Harvey, Wendelstedt, Colosi, and Williams took the criticism without public squawking. For one thing, no reporter offered them the opportunity of either denying or confirming Young's or Harrelson's claims. For another, while not oblivious to criticism, after having endured so much so often, they were intelligent and controlled enough to limit their complaints to friends and associates.
Colosi, whose back problems were not a reportorial illusion, admitted, at least to himself, that his reflexes and his speed were somewhat hampered, but he didn't think it had affected his game. Ailing as he was, he was still quicker than some of the older or fatter umpires in the league. He had seen it right: he was convinced that Monday had caught the ball legitimately. Even if he had been incorrect, Colosi knew that the call was honest and impartial. He didn't care whether the Mets won or lost. He was just trying to do his job. As to the videotape replay, Colosi knew he had been closer to the play than the camera had; moreover, he had been there at eye-level and at an angle that a camera couldn't possibly reproduce. Even so, the camera was merely telling the truth—impartially—just as he was. But, considering their different positions, why couldn't it be the camera that was wrong this time?
Privately, Doug Harvey was worried. He had been in baseball for eighteen years, long enough to know that the tone of Young's column and the bitterness of Harrelson's words might signal the beginning of a dispute that could easily build and rage all season—or at least as long as the Mets were losing. Judging from their shoddy play, it looked like a season-long dilemma. Harvey hadn't the slightest idea which three games Harrelson was referring to. Certainly the three couldn't have been umpired by his crew, but now, if past experience served as any kind of guideline, he, Wendelstedt, Colosi, and Williams could very well be made scapegoats for any generalized dissatisfaction either the Mets or the other teams harbored for the league's umpires. As the targets of the first public attack—especially from a man as influential as Young and from a city as media-conscious as New York—his crew might possibly become the targets of other writers from other towns and of other teams. To say the least, it wasn't a particularly pleasing prospect.
No one could tell what Art Williams thought of the situation, for he was characteristically quiet and somewhat aloof through the whole affair.
But the remaining member of the crew, Harry Wendelstedt, seemed completely unconcerned by the controversy caused by Harrelson's and Young's charges. When asked to comment on the situation, Wendelstedt stated:
"Harrelson is a chickenshit shortstop and Young is a corruptible cocksucker. I couldn't care less about any goddamn horse-ass crap they might have said."CHAPTER 2
Hot Foot Harry
First base umpire Harry Wendelstedt felt the pain only a microsecond after he saw the ball and realized what was going to happen. The low line drive, hit from a Ron Bryant fastball by Met catcher Jerry Grote, shot off the bat like a streaking meteorite and collided with Wendelstedt's left big toe with a bone-jarring thump. Biting his lip and holding his breath, Wendelstedt waited momentarily for the fire to clear from his eyes, then threw his arm out to the left, signaling foul. Air whistled quietly through his teeth as he watched Grote, who had started running, slowly retreat down the line, pick up his bat, look up at Wendelstedt, and grin.
"That hurtcha, Harry?" asked first base coach Roy McMillan, with mock sympathy. "Did that hurtcha or did that hurtcha, Harry?" McMillan elongated each word as if he were talking to a baby. "You sure your poor little foot is still down there, Harry? Coulda been burned right off, you wouldn't have known the difference," McMillan chuckled.
"C'mon Harry," said Giant first baseman Dave Kingman, smiling and thumping his mitt with his fist, "we know it's killing you. Why don't you admit it? We ain't going to laugh."
"Not me, I'm not going to laugh," said McMillan, grinning as if this were the happiest day of his year.
"Why don't you just take time out and scream, Harry?" said Kingman.
"C'mon, Harry," said McMillan, "don't be such a big, bad umpire. We know it hurts so much you want to scream. C'mon, scream!"
Wendelstedt stared silently past his tormentors, down toward the batter's box and forced out a tight grin, worthy of a bad joke. He was still dizzy with pain. He felt as if his foot had been nailed with a large rusty spike into the reddish-brown dirt of Shea Stadium and, at the same time, as if his toe had been jammed up into his knee, but there was no way he was going to admit it, no way Harry Wendelstedt would give those rats the satisfaction of knowing he had been hurt.
Thankfully, Bryant's next pitch was a ball.
Wendelstedt gradually shifted his weight to his right foot and tried to wiggle the toes on his left. They were hot and stiff, felt sticky and wet. He shut his eyes hard to force away the pain. Then, making it seem as if it were an afterthought, he forced himself to look up and check his position. He was fifteen feet behind the base and straddling the foul line. Just about where the skin of the infield meets the outfield grass. Just right. If there was a man on first, Wendelstedt would have to move in closer to watch for pick-off plays, but as it was, with the bases empty, the umpire had more leeway to follow a ball down the right field foul line. Art Williams, his partner on third, straddled the left field line, about twenty-five feet behind the base. With plenty of time to move laterally up and down the line before a play might reach third, Williams could afford to be more centrally located. Unlike American League umpires, who positioned themselves down the line in foul territory, the National League umpires on first and third stood directly in line with home plate, one foot on the fair side of the line, the other foot foul, belt buckles marking the middle.
There are other differences between the umpiring styles of the two leagues. For one thing, with men on base, the second base umpire in the National League stands on the infield grass, while the American League umpire stands behind the base on the shallow part of the outfield. Although the National League position increases the danger for an umpire, by putting him closer to the batter where he can easily be hit by a line shot, Wendelstedt felt it enabled him to call a play more accurately, especially on a double-play ball or an attempted steal. The National League umpire is always on the inside of the throw or the inside of the base, facing the infielders' gloves and the direction of the play, while the American League umpire makes his calls from behind the player's backs. Thus, with minimum shifting, the National League umpire is always in a better position to see the play more clearly. On the other hand, he is further away from the outfield and has a longer run to make when judging whether a ball has been caught or trapped. There is good and bad in both systems, Wendelstedt admitted, but he mostly disliked the idea that the American League umpire has to move forward and into the play. Sometimes, when the play is very close, the umpire could easily and inadvertently inch into the baseline, a perfect target for a streaking runner and his high-flying spikes. This would rarely happen to a National League umpire covering second base correctly. No matter how far forward he moves, it is nearly impossible to be in the way of the runner.
Excerpted from The Best Seat in Baseball, But You Have to Stand! by Lee Gutkind. Copyright © 1999 Lee Gutkind. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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