I have been an umpire since I was 14. I have worked at every level, from Little League on up, and I worked thousands of games in the major leagues for 28 years. I don’t remember when I first heard the popular analogy comparing judges to umpires calling balls and strikes, but recently it’s been everywhere. When Brett Kavanaugh was first nominated to the Supreme Court, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council called him “a constitutionalist — someone who will call balls and strikes.” This past week, as Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings began, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) described him as “somebody who calls balls and strikes and doesn’t come up with his own strike zone.” Supposedly a judge is, and should be, as mechanical as an ump.
It’s true that there are similarities. Umpires have always been considered authority figures, like judges. Both are subject to a lot of scrutiny, and we do what we think is right by rule and tradition. Umpiring is a special calling and a learned skill that requires extraordinary mental toughness. When you put on your uniform, you are supposed to leave all your subjective feelings in that dressing room. Personal integrity and respect for the game are at stake.
But we have never been robots who simply call balls and strikes. Judges and analysts who describe an umpire’s job in those terms are oversimplifying.
Seeing the televised rectangle that allegedly represents the strike zone, you might surmise that any 3-year-old should be able to tell whether that little white sphere is in or out of that box. Replay has reinforced the feeling that it’s simple and obvious.
Yet there are many intangibles when it comes to calling balls and strikes. What the umpire’s actually doing is gauging a baseball’s relative position as it travels 95 miles an hour into a three-dimensional area. You’re judging a pitch as it leaves the pitcher’s hand and goes to the catcher’s mitt in less than half a second.
And when it lands, there are considerations beyond the strike zone: Did the batter swing and miss? Did the ball graze the bat even though the batter did not swing? Did the batter commit to the pitch without taking a full swing? Even if the ball is outside the strike zone, if the batter committed to the pitch, it’s a strike. Did he get his body in a hitting position before moving his bat? If he was in a hitting position, how far did the bat travel? Those critical adjustments happen in thousandths of a second. If you’re not trained to use your eyes properly, you’ll miss them.
Then there are the other plays, on the bases and at the plate, that require rule interpretations and judgment calls: catches and no catches, fair and foul balls, safes and outs, and base-running.
For example, the rule book states that a runner must avoid a fielder in the act of fielding a batted ball. If you collided with a shortstop who was bent over in the act of fielding a ground ball, you would be guilty of interference. But if the shortstop had completed the act of fielding and was attempting to tag you when the collision occurred, there would be no penalty. Among elite athletes, this all happens in milliseconds, and to the untrained eye, the plays look the same — both violent collisions with the ball on the ground. This requires an interpretation of when one act ended and another began, and whose rights are in effect. This is a judgment call.
And it has to happen fast. Unlike a judge, an umpire can’t deliberate over days or weeks, reading briefs over and over, debating with law clerks or fellow judges. Umps don’t have that luxury. Both teams, a manager whose job may be on the line and a stadium full of paying spectators are impatiently awaiting an instant ruling.
When baseball was invented in the mid-19th century, it was a bit more like our adversarial court system. There were three umpires: One was hired by the home team and one by the visiting team, and a neutral third party was there to step in if the advocates couldn’t agree. But the teams disagreed so much that, eventually, the sport’s administrators decided that only the one impartial guy was needed. That one guy had to own his decision regardless of how spectators or players reacted. Nowadays, umpires work in crews and own their decisions as a crew. And at the major league level, replay officials thousands of miles away may have the ultimate decision — which you could consider the final appellate court.
As an umpire, you learn to position yourself on the field so that you’re in the most advantageous location to observe a pitch or a play. You learn to read cues and make the proper adjustments when something changes. It can take years of experience, an exhaustive understanding of the rules and consistency in your calls to become a credible umpire, and even then, you’re going to be in the middle of a lot of arguments and controversies. As a mentor of mine reminded me when I started: There was only ever one perfect man, and they crucified him, so umpires have to learn how to handle criticism. As with judging, the tough calls are hardly ever obvious. Balls and strikes are elusive creatures.
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