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Center Field on Fire
An Umpire's Life with Pine Tar Bats, Spitballs and Corked Personalities
By Dave Phillips, Rob Rains
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2004 Dave Phillips and Rob Rains
All rights reserved.
An Umpire's Life
There is a popular belief among baseball fans that being a major league umpire is a pretty good job. Fans see umpires work about three hours a day and notice how they travel first class all over the country, watch some of the greatest athletes in the world from very close by, and receive five months of vacation in the winter. Someone once said umpires have "the best seat in the house, but you have to stand," and I can't disagree with that.
As someone who spent 32 years umpiring in the major leagues, I admit that sounds like a pretty good job description. But there is much more involved in being an umpire than fans — and many times even those people who work inside the game — understand or appreciate. Umpires are sometimes taken for granted, although I have always felt the six-week strike in 1979 went a long way toward giving us the credibility and respect that we deserve. We had earned that credibility, and the men hired to replace us didn't have it. People found out not just anybody can do this job.
Fans watching from the stands see the basic calls an umpire has to make — safe or out, fair or foul, ball or strike — and they think it is an easy job. They don't see the intangible skills an umpire has to possess to be successful, and they don't see the sacrifices an umpire has to make in regard to his family and personal life.
Is it a great job? In the major leagues, the answer is yes. But it wasn't always that way before Richie Phillips and others improved the pay scale and working conditions. On the other hand, many umpires work in the minor leagues for years, for less than glamorous pay in less than ideal working conditions, but never get rewarded with the welcome news that they have been promoted to the majors. For them, the answer unfortunately is no, it's not a great job.
Is it a fun job? That depends largely on the other three gentlemen you happen to be assigned to work with in a particular year. I was on crews where I laughed so much that tears rolled down my face. Having partners like Rocky Roe, Dale Scott, Durwood Merrill, Ron Luciano, Bill Haller, Larry Barnett, Jim Evans, Tim McClelland, Jim Joyce, and Steve Palermo would make anyone laugh and enjoy the job. You couldn't have very many bad days hanging around those kinds of men. Also, getting to know a lot of other great umpires, even if I didn't work with them that often or on a regular basis, made the job fun — people like Ed Montague, Randy Marsh, Don Denkinger, Ted Hendry, Larry McCoy, John Kibler, Rich Garcia, and Terry Tata. I was also fortunate enough to work four World Series, and three of them were with Lee Weyer, a treat in itself. He was an absolutely super guy, who had fun, made the job fun, and was a good umpire.
Is it an easy job? No. There are many more physical requirements than people realize, and the stress level might be among the highest for any profession in the country. If you had asked Don Denkinger after the 1985 World Series if being an umpire was an easy job, you might not have wanted to wait for his reply. I always hoped that when I was introduced to strangers no one would mention that I was an umpire — I thought there was a remote chance they would like me if they didn't know.
Nobody likes umpires until they get to know them. By the basic definition of the job, you are making calls that one team and thousands of fans are going to disagree with. The ability to make difficult calls and not have people constantly upset with you is one of the intangibles necessary to be a good and effective umpire. You have to know how to handle people and control situations.
I became an umpire when I was 14 years old for one simple reason: money. I was playing on a pretty good team, and the local YMCA in St. Louis was having trouble getting umpires. A representative came and talked to our team to see if anybody was interested. Nobody raised his hand until he said the job paid $5 a game; then 14 hands went up. A few years later, I was told by a scout that I ought to consider becoming a professional umpire. I decided to quit college and go to umpire's school. My father was totally opposed to it, even though he had been a minor league umpire for many years, reaching the Triple A level. My dad, like most fathers, wanted his son to have more success than he had, but he also wanted to prevent his son from experiencing the heartache he felt when he didn't reach his goal. Many people have told me over the years that my dad, Bob Phillips, was a very good umpire and should have worked in the major leagues, but he never got that opportunity.
The morning I left St. Louis to drive to the umpire's school in Florida in January 1964, I was already becoming homesick and was tearing up before I crossed the Eads Bridge over the Mississippi River into Illinois. I made it to the school in Florida, pulled up in front of the building, and couldn't force myself to get out of the car. I seriously considered pulling out of the parking lot and heading directly back to St. Louis, before I finally worked up enough courage to get out of the car and walk inside the building. What I found out was that everybody there had the same insecurity I had: fear of the unknown.
Did I know exactly what I was getting into? Of course not. Even with the knowledge obtained at the elbow of my father, I had no idea what direction my career and life would take. One of my dearest friends in the world, and a fellow major league umpire for 29 years whom I met in umpire's school, Larry Barnett, was my partner for a year in the Class A Midwest League. As we drove all over Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin, we speculated about our futures. We had no idea if we would make it to the majors, how long we would be there, or how much money we would make. We were making $315 a month and seven cents a mile expense money. The salary of a major league umpire was so far off in the distance we could only dream about it. But I think those lean, uncertain times helped build my character. You can appreciate success more when you know how hard you had to work to get there.
There is no question I would not have been a major league umpire for as long as I was without a loving and supportive family. My parents, Bob and Helen, knew about the lifestyle, and they knew what it would take for me to be successful. Once I made the decision to become an umpire, they were extremely supportive. My father was always my biggest booster. He taught me what it meant to be an umpire. I had the privilege of being in the locker room with him when he was umpiring, and I watched and listened. I sensed the loyalty all umpires had for one another long before I knew this was what I wanted to do with my life.
I have often said the proudest moment of my career was working the 1982 World Series in my hometown of St. Louis, with my father in the stands. He died suddenly a few months later, and the fact that we were able to share and enjoy that Series will never be matched.
My brother, Greg, was also extremely supportive. He is six years younger than I am and was raised in a different atmosphere, the sixties, when the antiestablishment movement and the war in Vietnam put a lot of pressure on young adults. When Greg was 13 years old, he wrote a poem about his big brother the umpire, which I still have.
Growing up in the fifties, life was much simpler than it was a decade later, and certainly was much simpler than it is today. I remember running the mile home from grade school in October in hopes I would get there in time to watch the last few innings of the World Series games on our black-and-white television set with my dad. In those lazy days, my friends and I could go out and play all day in the summer, and our parents didn't know or care where we were, as long as we were home before dark. Now, if a kid is gone for a couple of hours and his parents don't know where he is, they think he's been kidnapped.
We played baseball every day. I played by myself also, throwing the ball against the front steps and then trying to catch it. If the ball hit the step just the right way and rebounded a long way, suddenly Stan Musial, my hero, was the batter.
I was fortunate to marry my high school sweetheart, Sharon, and together we raised three wonderful children. She did all of the hard work because I was gone so much, and she is a great wife and a wonderful mother. Our two daughters, Kim and Jill, both have their master's degrees and now have children of their own. Our son, Randy, is about to graduate from the University of Kansas and take his place in the workforce.
Sharon's parents, Harry and Lois, and her sister, Doris, also were very supportive of me and my career.
Being gone so much, I missed several special moments in their lives: first communions, baptisms, reunions. Jill was the queen of her senior prom in high school, and I wasn't there to see her walk down the aisle. Kim was a cheerleader, and I missed going to her games. That is why so many umpires don't want to work the All-Star Game or postseason games, so they can be home and be there for some of the special moments in their families' lives, like watching their sons quarterback the high school football team. In my case, Randy was on the high school golf team, and I was not able to watch his matches.
Bob Burnes was the longtime sports editor of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, and he wrote a column in 1964 about umpires. It was headlined "What It Means to Be an Umpire." He was writing specifically in support of the National League umpires' attempts to secure a pension, but many of the points that he made are still incredibly accurate 40 years later. Many things about the job have not changed in all those years.
"You are a lucky guy, you are," Burnes wrote. "That's what people tell you. See the world. Work a couple of hours a night. What a life.
"But you are never home. A player moans about his schedule but he enjoys home cooking 81 out of the 162 days. Every town is a strange town to an umpire. ... It has its compensations. Ninety percent of the players like you personally. You respond in the same proportion. They'll rage at you, which is normal. It rolls away the minute the incident is over. Only a few carry grudges.
"You like to laugh. You have a million good stories with which you regale off-season audiences."
I was fortunate to make it home for the birth of all three of my children. I was working in the Midwest League in Burlington, Iowa, when I got an early-morning phone call that Sharon was going to the hospital to deliver Kim. Larry Barnett got me closer to St. Louis in our car, and then we met my father. He got me to the hospital in time. Larry drove back to Burlington to work the last game.
When Jill was born, I had just returned home from the International League. Even though I was home, I still thought I was going to miss her birth. After taking Sharon to the hospital, I was told to go home and sleep because it would be several hours before the baby would be born. The nurses said they would call in plenty of time for me to get back to the hospital.
When the telephone call came, I naturally was in a hurry. I rushed out to start the car, and there was a loud noise and a squeal I had never heard before. I got out and immediately raised the hood. There was Kim's cat, Mittens, staring up at me, strangled to death in the fan belt as I tried to start the car. The cat apparently had crawled up in the engine to try to stay warm on that cool September morning. I called my father, and luckily, he was home and able to get me to the hospital in time for Jill's arrival.
After spending all day at the hospital, I was ready to go home. I went out to the parking lot and tried to remember where I had parked the car — and then I remembered the Mittens fiasco. I took a cab home, and several days later finally worked up the nerve to tell my five-year-old daughter what had happened to her pet. Thirty-three years later, I still feel bad about it.
An umpire really has two families: the one at home and the men he works with every day. You share as much or more time with them as you do your wife and children, and you become very close. I tried to fly home during the season as often as possible, even if I could only be there for 12 or 15 hours, because it shortened the week and the season for me. The families of many of the umpires used to go to spring training together, and the kids got to know each other, and the wives all became close. It really became an extended family.
There is a feeling among some baseball fans that umpires don't care about what happens in the game. Nothing could be further from the truth. We care deeply about what happens. When an umpire makes a bad call, it stays with him for a long time. When you work a perfect game, nobody notices you, and that's just the way you like it. I don't know how many thousands of calls I made in my career, but the only ones I truly remember are the ones I missed.
Having a good time while we were working helped make the job pleasant. Many umpires were big practical jokers when I came to the big leagues. In the days before cell phones, John Rice and others bought toy phones that rang. They would set them off on planes, getting weird stares from the other passengers. One time Rice took a phone out to home plate, made it ring, and told Tigers manager Mayo Smith that the call was for him. Mayo actually picked up the phone and said hello, while everybody else was doubled over laughing.
Those moments are gone from the game now. It has become far too serious. You no longer can tell rookies to go find the key to the batter's box, or bring you a left-handed bat. Money has changed the game. It was a different game when I broke into the majors, and I think it was a better game. It was more fun.
One of the highlights of my career has been the people I was able to meet and consider friends, not just my fellow umpires but players, managers, and other baseball officials as well. My career might have ended in the minors if Dick Butler, the supervisor of umpires in the American League, had not taken a liking to me, and I am eternally grateful to him.
Several players stand out: people like Rod Carew, George Brett, Carl Yastrzemski, Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, Tony Oliva, Kirby Puckett, Cal Ripken, Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Al Kaline, Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., and Ivan Rodriguez. I think Reggie Jackson was the greatest clutch hitter I ever saw.
Richie Allen was portrayed as a miserable person by the media, but I always thought he was a great guy. He and Ted Williams, when he was managing the Senators, would come into the umpires' dressing room to get away from the press, and we had wonderful conversations. Richie was one of the best hitters I ever saw.
I saw pitchers such as Roger Clemens, Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton, Pedro Martinez, Ron Guidry, Catfish Hunter, Ferguson Jenkins, Vida Blue, Don Sutton, Gaylord Perry, Bert Blyleven, and Randy Johnson. The best home-run hitters I ever saw were Mark McGwire, Allen, Griffey, Frank Howard, Cecil Fielder, and Barry Bonds, although the longest home run I ever saw was hit by Jose Canseco, during the playoffs in Toronto, into the fifth deck at the SkyDome. The best defensive player was Brooks Robinson, but the single best catch I ever saw was in Kansas City, when Jim Edmonds of the Angels made a miraculous backward diving catch in center field.
For managers, I don't think anybody was better than Billy Martin, at least for the first two years with a team, no matter what team he was with. He always seemed to self-destruct after that, but for those first two years, he was terrific. I loved Chuck Tanner, and I had more than my share of moments with Earl Weaver. I always respected and enjoyed Tony LaRussa and Sparky Anderson. Another who stands out is Bobby Cox, now with Atlanta. He is a baseball man from days gone by. I first met him when I was playing in the Texas League. He is definitely a throwback. A lot of his knowledge about managing came from Ralph Houk, and the biggest skill he learned was how to be detailed about every player's role on the team. He's not a rah-rah, buddy-buddy kind of guy, but he is a true professional — although he gets ejected quite often now.
Excerpted from Center Field on Fire by Dave Phillips, Rob Rains. Copyright © 2004 Dave Phillips and Rob Rains. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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