Umpires, baseball's beasts of burden, lead lives of noisey desperation Many a night wake up screaming.
"In the minors, I roomed with an ump who woke me up at 4 a.m.," said American League umpire Mike Reily's. "He was standing in the middle of his bed, yelling, "You're out. You're out. And I don't want to hear any more about it.'"
Umpires are a breed known only to themselves, their secrets many. "I worked wit hanump in the Northern League," said AL arbiter Ken Kaiser, grinning, "and I was the only one who knew that he had a glass eye."
An umpiring crew may be the closest fraternity on earth, short of a fox hole.
"We're four men controlling 40,000 people, most of whom aren't so sur they want to be controlled," said Ron Luciano, the clown prince of umps. "We're men with huge egos, huge wills. My ex-wife says we're all mind-benders.
"Many times I've known I was dead wrong, but I convinced millions of people I was right . . . in a split second."
On Luciano's trunk full of paraphernalia is pasted a slightly altered newspaper headline bearing out his words: "Luciano Elected Pope."
Umpires are masters of bleak humor, sarcasm, reparatee. Like the smart-aleck shamus vs. the cynical homicide cop of fiction, the ump and ballplayer go round-an'round eternally, trying to one-up each other with barbed dialogue.
"Would he have been out if I'd tagged him?" Baltimore first baseman Eddie Murray asked Bill Haller after a pickoff play.
"Well," drawled the stoic Haller, "you'd have had a better chance."
Umps do not expect any of this to change. Nightmares will always be an occupational hazard. Their eyesight will always be maligned as crowds demand their heads. And millionaire players will have a smart remark for a 30-year-old rookie umpire making $16,500 a year, who eats his dinners at McDonald's.
However, in 1978, a new element has been added to the ancient umpire equation. The arbiters are angry - mad enough to call a strike and take a walk during the regular season for the first time in history.
The major leagues' 52 men in blue took a look at their professional lives last week and cried, "Foul." Only a court injunction forced them back to work after a one-day walkout.
The umpires' rebellion has many causes, all rooted in a life style that is one of the most peculiar in sports.
"Integrity," said the 290-pound Luciano as he smashed a wooden hammer down on a Baltimore crab claw as though it were Bowie Kuhn's tongue.
"(Commissioner) Kuhn says we don't have any integrity because we struck before our contract expired. A stupid comment like that hurts every umpire. And it makes us mad.
"Baseball's big shots have been ignoring us for 18 months since we signed that contract. It was agreed that we could still discuss and negotiate matters that were not specifically covered in that contract.
"But they won't even talk to us. It's like we don't exist. They can dress us up in blue suits, but they don't want to be seen in public with us.
"Baseball is making us mad, and you know how umpires get when they're mad," scowled Luciano, a former college football All-America at Syracuse. "They may regret it."
"The only thing an umpire has is his integrity, his honor. So that's what Kuhn attacks," fumed Luciano as his crew mates nodded agreement.
The umpires have kept this game honest for 100 years. We're the only segment of the game that has never been touched by scandal. We gotta be too dumb to cheat.
"We must have integrity, because we sure don't have a normal family life. We certainly aren't properly paid. We have no health care, no job security, no tenure. Our pension plan is a joke.
"We take more abuse than any living group of humans, and can't give back any. If we're fired without notice, our only recourse is to appeal to the league president. And he's the guy that fires you. That's gotta be unconstitutional.
"If you ask for one day off in a seven month season, they try to make you feel three inches tall.
"If you call in sick, you're hounded and ostracized by the brass. Umpires must be the healthiest people on earth, because none of us ever gets sick.
"Nestor Chylak (age 57) had a stroke last month. Three weeks later, he wanted to come back to work. I guess if Nestor had just a little integrity, he'd have been back the next day."
So far, the public has learned few details of the umps' revolt, since the media concentrated on heart-warming stories about the amateurs who were umps-for-a-day last Friday.
"I hope the scabs enjoyed it," said senior AL ump Haller.
"The public has no idea what we're asking for or why," said Kaiser. "A few of the players understand. Sal Bando (of Milwaukee) told me. 'Go on and strike. It's the only thing the owners understand.'"
Umpires are especailly infuriated that the public does not know how difficult their minor league apprenticeship is, and how unlikely an ump is to make the majors.
"I was in the minors for 13 years," said Kaiser. "I thought about quitting 50,000 times, like we all do.
"In my last year in the minors, in 1976, I was making $650 - a month, not a week - that's for five months a year.
"Just try to get an off-season job. It's murder. I was everything from a pro wrestler, to a used-car salesman, to a bouncer in a bar.
"I tried to get an American Express card and they laughed at me. They told me I could make more money on welfare."
Some baseball umps become basketball officials in winter. "It's brutal," said Reilly, who has done it. "After getting yelled at all summer by experts, who wants to be yelled at all winter by a bunch of high school coaches?"
The day an umpire escapes the minors to the big time "is the happiest day of your life," said Kaiser, "because if you quit in the minors you get absolutely nothing. No pension. No reference. If you're lucky, you get a handshake."
In recent years, baseball has sped several promising umps to the majors before they were 25 - the move-'em-up-or-lose-'em theory.
"I consider this a plum job," glowed Reilly, who is an AL rookie at 26, making the $16,500 minimum. "I went back to my high school reunion and people told me what I already knew - that I had the most unique job."
However, Reilly is young, bumptious and unmarried. A seven to eight-month season - seven days a week - is exciting now.
"I was like that once," said Luciano, probably the best known and most popular of all umpires because of his enthusiasm and comic hot-dogging when he works the bases.
"I became an umpire after playing pro football because I saw it as a way to get back on the field. I went in blind. I thought great umps made $100,000 like great players. I had invested seven years of my life before I found out how terrible conditions were.
"We don't have a single umpire in the American League making $40,000 a year. I'm 41 years old, worked five years in the minors and 10 in the majors, and I still don't make $30,000 a year. My salary doesn't keep up with cost of living."
Luciano, who has a degree in mathematics and quotes Shakespeare with ease, is a banquet circuit star, but he said, "That's just me because I'm a ham actor. Other guys don't have that source of income, so it's not relevant."
Even the umps' $52-per-diem-plus-air-fare doesn't come close to meeting travel expenses when hotels range from $25 to $45 a day. "I'm a lousy tipper and I know every McDonald's in America," said Kaiser. "Welcome to the big leagues."
Perhaps no man could become a major league umpire without a trace of masochism in his nature.
"We're always like the first cop at the scene of the crime," said Kraiser. "We see people when they're on their worst behavior. Don't ask us our opinion of human nature."
"Every night we have to meet a challenge with a TV camera looking over our shoulders," said Luciano. "And believe me, when you've had two open dates in two months, you don't always feel like being challenged.
"The road can drive you crazy. Counting spring training, we may work 200 games a year, and every one is on the road. A ballplayer has 81 games at home.
"I once went four months - from March 3 to June 28 - without seeing my wife once," said Luciano. "I remember the dates because, on June 29, we decided to get a divorce.
"This job is perfect for broken marriages and alcoholism," said Luciano, sipping ginger ale with his steamed crabs. "I haven't had a drink in two years. I was up to a fifth a day. I saw it coming and said, 'Not me.'"
"The first five years I was in the majors, my four sons never got to see me," said AL umpire Lou DiMuro. "I'd try to catch a plane home for a few hours, then hop back out to the next town.
"The kids at school asked my oldest boy what I did for a living. He was real proud. He told 'em, 'My daddy works at the airport.'"
Few families approach the closeness of four umpires.
"We're married to each other," said Haller. "I think I'd rather see Ronnie (Luciano) than my wife. I sure as hell see him more."
Umpires are constantly in the presence of ballplayers, yet almost never speak to them off the field. A coffee shop breakfast between umps and players would be a scandal.
"I've had one beer in 10 years with one player - Rod Carew," said Luciano.
Ballplayers dress fast, their aggressions and frustrations washed away by the daily balm of sweat. Umpires dress slowly, culling the day's decisions, exonerating each other since no one else will.
"You develop an aggressive sort of defensiveness," said Kaiser. "An umpire will only take criticism from another umpire. It's your job to change other people's minds, to bend them to your way of thinking.
"In the off-season, my family kids me, and tells me, "OK, calm down now. You don't have to tell us all what to do. You don't have to yell. You're not on the ball field.'"
Often, the most important part of an umpire's day comes after the game, even after midnight. Those are the hours of forgetting.
"You can't leave the game in the clubhouse' when you go, like they say," said Reilly. "When you come back the next day and open the door, it'll be right in there waiting for you."
So umpires are great talkers, great exorcists of pain through story-telling and heated debate. That is the antidote for being constantly misunderstood.
"If we didn't have each other to talk to, we'd go crazy," said Kaiser. "Most people just have no conception of what you do. You say, I'm a major-league umpire.'
"So they say, 'Oh, how nice. With which team?'
"That's when you know it's hopeless."
"You get used to people saying, "We've got a softball game a week from Tuesday. Can you work it?" said Reilly. "But you never get used to the stuff they yell from the stands."
Two members of the Haller-Luciano-Kaiser-Reilly crew have actually ejected fans from the ballpark this season.
One Detroit fan told Kaiser. "You've cost the Tigers more games this year than they've lost." At that, Kaiser laughed.
"But when he asked me, 'Did your mother have any children that lived?" I threw him out of the park," said Kaiser.
Nevertheless, umpires do not dream about fans. They dream about players and managers. Especially managers.
Kaiser has never even met Herman Franks, manager of the Chicago Cubs, and yet Kaiser said, "I hope Franks goes O-and-162 some year.
"He's the guy who said he hoped we did go on strike because he could find four better umpires in any bar."
However, it is the decades-long feud between umpire and manager that wears on both men's nerves. Perhaps the Luciano vs. Weaver war is the reigning pip in all of baseball.
"The first night I ever met Earl Weaver in the minors. I ejected him in the third inning. The next night, I threw him out in the second inning. The third night, he didn't last through the first inning.
"On the fourth night, Weaver came to home plate with the linup card and said, "Are you going to be as horsebleep tonight as you were the other three nights?' So I threw him out before the game ever began," said Luciano.
"And our relationship has been going downhill ever since."
Tuesday night here, Weaver stalked to home plate to confront Luciano, a man he has tried to have fred and has demanded be removed from calling his games.
"Well, you put your right hand up three times," said the 5-foot-7 Weaver, cap bill pecking at the mammoth Luciano. "With some umpires that means 'Strike three' and the guy heads back to his dugout. But I notice this guy's still here."
Somehow, Luciano sensed that his explanation - "After I raised my hand, I decided to say, 'Ball,'" - was not going to pass muster.
Instead, Luciano answered, "You haven't talked to me in a year and a half. you can't talk to me now."
And he walked away, leaving Weaver speechless at home plate.
"I looked back once," said Luciano. "If he'd taken one step toward me, he was gone."
Many fans assume, mistakenly, that baseball arguments are largely tongue in cheek, a mandatory show of anger to please the crowd.
"Sometimes they're funny afterwards, but never at the time," said Reilly."You can always see it getting out of hand and ending in a fight."
Few umpires can bear the thought of a fight. "You take a man like Billy Martin, who is a violent person to begin with . . . he's punched many people," said Luciano. "When he starts screaming in your face, frankly, you have no idea what to expect."
Kaiser, the 240-pound former bouncer and pro wrestler, is an exception. "I kinda enjoy breakin' 'em up," he said, not specifying whether he means fights or the players involved. "In fact, I've gotten a directive from the league to stop doing it. Seems they think I enjoy it a little bit too much.
"I would never want to accidentally hurt one of these fine gentlemen."
Luciano once enjoyed disentangling a good brawl, too. "Then I noticed I kept getting punched in the back," he said. So now he simply heads "for the highest ground - the pitching mound - and start writing down names."
Because of length of careers and number of games, no sport has the long-term umpireplayer relationships that baseball offers, with the consequent potential for bitter feelings.
Weaver, for instance, is on record as saying that he believes a small minority of umpires consciously or unconsciously penalizes his team.
"I'd love to cheat Weaver's team," said Luciano with a big grin, "but I'm not bright enough to do it.
"I tried to teach (catcher) Bill Freehan a lessen once. I was going to stick it to him good.
"I was so worked up telling myself. "Don't make yourself look bad. Wait for a close pitch to call wrong, that the first pitch to Freehan was right down the pipe and I yelled, 'Ball."
"I was so mad that the second pitch was a curve that bounced twice and I yelled, 'Strike.'
"By then, I was the one who had learned the lesson. I'd made a total fool of myself. I vowed I'd never do it again, and I haven't. You can't spend your whole life turning your brain into a machine that automatically makes the right decision instantly, and then say, 'OK, brain, tonight we're going to turn the circuits backwards to get Weaver.'"
With all the hardships of the job, every umpire must frequently ask himself, "Why?"
"I can't say I have a good answer," said Luciano. "I'm not sure I shouldn't have quit."
The reason, of course, regardless of whether it is a good one, is that umpires are the ultimate baseball fans.
"When Ted Williams managed Washington, he was constantly picking the umpires' brains," said Luciano. "He said, 'You guys see more baseball closer up than anybody. Nobody should know more about it than you do."
"'Tell me if you think this Rodriguez can hit the inside fast ball. See if my right-hander isn't overthrowing a little.'"
Once, Bando shuffled to the plate in a deep slump and begged Luciano: "Ronnie, what the hell am I doing wrong?"
"I got no idea," said Luciano. "But it looks like you're a lot further from the plate than you used to be."
The next night against Baltimore, Bando hit a 500-foot home run. As he rounded third, he screamed, "Ron, that was it. That was it."
Naturally, Luciano gave a big grin and shook Bando's hand as he headed for home.I was happy for the poor guy," said Luciano.
Just as naturally, Weaver sent a furious letter to the American League president, complaining, in Luciano's words, "That now I was coaching players on how to beat him, too."
For these long-suffering beasts of burden, baseball's pains are obvious, its rewards ineffable.
"They've even tried to replace us with an electric eye, one year in spring training," snorted Luciano. "Hell, it didn't take the catcher five innings to figure our he could stick his glove out and trip the electronic plane and make every pitch a strike."
"A few years ago, they assigned former FBI agents to follow us around and check on our off-the-field connections," laughed Luciano. "You'd see the same guy with the same mustache and the same homburg hat sitting in the same backcorner of bars in Seattle and Baltimore.
"Maybe we're too dumb to cheat, and maybe we're too honest. But nobody's dumb enough not to spot those FBI guys."
It is an axion that a good umpire, like a good FBI agent, is never noticed if he is doing his job.
Perhaps that is why baseball has taken so little note of it umpires for so long, and why it may soon notice them a great deal moreif suddenly they are gone.