I had meant to read "As They See 'Em" when it came out last spring, when the 2009 season began. But you know how that goes with books -- you put some on your list, then time goes by and you forget, and you get busy, and by the time you think about it again, months have gone by.
Last week I was looking for something to read over the holidays and, over at Barnes & Noble, saw "As They See 'Em" on the shelf, triggering the memory: "Hey, I really wanted to read that!" So I paid for it, took it home, and I'm here to tell you that every single one of you should do the same. This is an outstanding piece of baseball writing.
Bruce Weber, the author, is a writer for the New York Times. Several years ago, one of his editors assigned him to write a piece about umpiring, which morphed into his desire to write a book on the subject. So the Times gave him a leave of absence; he enrolled in one of the two competing umpiring schools in Florida (and you'll learn in the book, the two schools really DO compete, on several levels), run by former American League umpire Jim Evans, who is one of the umpires who lost his job permanently in the ill-advised mass resignation engineered by former umpires union chief Richie Phillips in 1999; the book goes into great detail about what happened between umpires and baseball at that time.
Weber tells us about his experiences at the school and his two appearances umpiring spring training intrasquad games -- if you, as a fan, think you could umpire a game going that fast, you can't -- and follows some of his fellow graduates as they began what they hope will be major league umpiring careers, by umpiring in the low minors (there's a hilarious story about a couple of minor league umpires having to spend one of their very first days as professionals, wedged between a couple of very heavy people in the front seat of a tow truck in Idaho). There are other truly funny stories told throughout this book; I won't ruin any of them for you.
Weber also spoke to dozens of current and former major league umpires and I won't post any spoilers here. I will tell you that you will have a new appreciation for how difficult the umpire's job is, as they are generally treated poorly by players, managers, fans and baseball management -- and that they do nearly always get it right. And though this book was published before the notable missed calls made by umpires in the 2009 postseason (and you'll find out why the six-man umpiring crews during the playoffs, supposedly done to get more calls right, actually may be the cause of some of the wrong calls), I got the impression that virtually every major league umpire would approve of having replay for the types of plays we have discussed here at BCB (basically, everything except balls and strikes). They really do want to get it right, even if they are shown to be incorrect in the call they make on the field.
Finally, remember how Milt Pappas always blamed Bruce Froemming for "stealing" his perfect game by calling a close 3-2 pitch a ball? Pappas always told Froemming, "You'd always be remembered as an umpire behind the plate for a perfect game." And Froemming's rejoinder always was, "Can you remember any of the others?" Of course, Pappas couldn't. And most fans probably couldn't either. But after reading this book, I can say that Froemming was full of it. Every single umpire who Bruce Weber spoke to who had been behind the plate for a perfect game, or some other significant event, said it was the pinnacle of his career.
Bruce Froemming, you shoulda given Milt the call. Bruce Weber, you wrote one heckuva book. Highly recommended to all.