February 01, 2012

BOOKS: As They See 'Em, Bruce Weber (2009)

I don't read a lot of sports books, but I do enjoy books that take a look inside some odd little cultural corner, so I liked this book about professional baseball umpires.

It's a hard way to make a living. Like the players, umpires have to work their way up through the minor leagues, where the living conditions are tough and the pay is low. But once they make it to the pros, umpires are there until they choose to retire; only in the most extraordinary circumstances would an umpire be demoted or fired. So there are, in a good year, only two or three opening for new umpires to be promoted to the majors.

The world of the umpire is an insular one; one of Weber's recurring themes is how unwilling the umpires generally are to say anything more than vague generalities about their job, their working conditions, or any of the controversies of the profession. Fortunately, he earns the trust of enough people to get some good interviews.

It's also a fairly lonely way to make a living. Umpires don't get much attention until they make a mistake, and no one ever leaves the park talking about how well the umpires called the game. Even Major League Baseball itself doesn't seem to have much respect for them; they complain, for instance, that the World Series program can't even find a page to list the umpires (and being assigned to work the World Series is a very big deal).

Weber visits one of the two recognized umpire training schools, spends most of a year on the road talking to umpires, and even gets to umpire an intrasquad spring training game. It's an entertaining read and a solid piece of reporting.

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