May 21, 2009

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As They See ’Em: A Fan’s Travels in the Land of Umpires, by Bruce Weber (Simon & Schuster, 2009, 341 pages)

This is my top pick for baseball reads, my if-you’re-only-going-to-read-one selection.

I also think it’s a pretty good read in general, if you enjoy nonfiction, particularly peeks into the inner workings of various career paths or milieus. And because umpiring is designed to be invisible, unnoticed, machine-like and neutral, we really don’t know much about its human side. But after reading this book — which was an enjoyable experience, engrossing and easy although not brief — I don’t watch baseball on TV the same way I used to, and I won’t experience a Fisher Cats game the same way I used to. Not only do I notice the umpires more now (when I choose to — they’re really good at staying unobtrusive), but I understand certain things they do, and I’m aware of how they seem to interact with the players, and I’m thinking about where that umpire learned his trade (there are just two umpiring schools in the country) and what he might be saying to that batter just now (it’s probably R-rated and quite possibly sexist) and where he’s staying after the game and so on. The book not only humanizes umpires, for better or for worse; it also enlightened me on some finer (and not so fine) points of baseball, on some of the inside knowledge in the sport, and it delves a little into the history of the game (umpiring was different when the goal for the pitcher was to make it easy for the batter to hit the ball) and the recent history of umpiring (labor unions and strikes in the major league, for instance). Probably the most eye-opening is the stuff about how baseball officials — the corporate types, the owners and such — view and treat the umpires and vice versa, and how this affects the game. Bruce Weber did his homework — put himself through umpiring school and worked some minor-league games and even one spring-training major-league game, and extensively interviewed many current and past major-league umpires and their supporting cast members (they do, by the way, refer to the game as theater at one point), and it has paid off. An excellent read. A — L.P.