Working a ‘Perfect Game’
Conversations with Umpires
The publishing info:
Summer Game Books
Released May 29, 2020
The review in 90 feet or less
Funny to see MLB umpire Joe West’s name pop up amidst trending Twitter topics recently. Not really for all the best of reasons, of course, but that would be the Joe West Story.
The 62-year-old West admits he’s motivated to continue working for a 42nd season even during the MLB pandemic protocols. He is approaching the all-time record of 5,375 regular-season games worked, held by Bill Klem, and needs 65 to reach it. Can it be done in a truncated 60-game season, skipping around cities to work, taking days off? He’ll load up his C-pap machine and see what happens to his BMI.
Followers of the game, long-term or now, really aren’t supposed to know much about West, or any umpire, or so we’re told. We recall more human-interest quips that Vin Scully would provide on a Dodgers broadcast about an umpire’s resume — he called a perfect game, worked in the post-season, etc. But the best ones escape our field of vision and stay off our judgmental radar.
We’re not supposed to have a sense of dread when we hear West – “Country Joe” – is apt to insert and assert himself into the game’s ebb and flow as he has conducted his business since the 1970s. There’s also the bedeviling Angel Hernandez, amazed he’s still employed, with all his mysterious methods of arbitration that led to him getting black marks on the MLB judgment ratings.
And really, you had to sue MLB as you still work games?
There have been, for better or worse, autobiographical books of the regal Doug Harvey, the flamboyant Ron Luciano (three of them between 1982 and ’86), Al Clark, Ken Kaiser, Durwood Merrell, Dave Pallone, Augie Donatelli, Eric Gregg …
The only one of real social redeeming value was the 2011 “Nobody’s Perfect: Two Men, One Call, and a Game for Baseball History,” where umpire Jim Joyce combined with the Detroit Tigers’ Armando Galarraga (and Daniel Pasiner) to discuss what happened in the wake of a June, 2010 game when Joyce’s final safe call — replays showed it was an out, but there were no review rules in effect — took away Galarraga’s perfect game.
(By the way: Is there anything of substance on Emmett Ashford, who only logged five seasons of MLB work (1966-’70), then retired after doing the 1970 World Series, as he became the first African-American to officiate a championship game in a major North American pro sport? Other than this effort ... )
Klem (1905-1941) and Harvey (1962-1992) are two of just 10 umpires honored for their work in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The others: Tommy Connolly (1898-1931), Billy Evans (1906-1927), Jocko Conlan (1941-1964), Cal Hubbard (1936-1951), Al Barlick (1940-1971), Bill McGowan (1925-1954), Nester Chylak (1954-1978) and Hank O’Day (1895-1927).
What about the others – why they picked this profession, what personal make-up can lead to becoming better at the craft, how to they take evaluation, do they feel minimized by current replay rules …
In 1980, Larry Gerlach came out with “The Men in Blue: Conversations with Umpires” (with the beauty of the famous Rockwell illustration). As Gerlach points out in the forward to Nowlin’s updated version, 40 years ago was at a time when umpires were split into National and American League affiliations with differing technique, no union representation, not well paid and not so much the target of digital TV reviews.
“Given the great organizational and technological changes in baseball and umpiring since then, this unique and timely book … is destined to become a classic of baseball literature. It will forever change how readers view baseball games and umpires,” Gerlach writes.
Maybe dial that back a bit, but we get the gist of the sentiment. What do we really know – or need to know – about how umpires do their jobs? How dedicated are they to the craft to want to be “perfect” – a phrase that Nowlin saw once attributed to umpire Tony Randazzo who says he loves the challenge of wanting to have a game where all the balls and strikes, safe and out calls are correct. “We don’t want to miss anything. That’s what I meant by a perfect game.”
Who’s really perfect – and how has the addition of the prolonged replay system made fans think there is a better way to achieve some sort of perfection at the expense of the beauty on relying on the possibility of human error.
Nowlin, the 2011 winner of the Bob Davids Award to honor members of SABR whose contributions reflect the ingenuity, integrity and self-sacrifice as the founder and past president of the organization, is already referenced in our 2020 books list for his editing work on “The Babe,” a SABR project released last fall (with our review from last April).
This not only refreshes Gerlach’s book from 40 years ago, but comes out a project Gerlach and Nowlin edited: “The SABR Book of Umpires and Umpiring” in 2017, where 34 SABR members did bios and essays about those who have done this job over the years, interviewing some 56 current and former umps, plus supervisors, to shed more light on the profession.
For “Working the ‘Perfect Game,” Nowlin has 72 MLB umps (we counted 75 in the list he provided at the end — and that included Joe West and Angel Hernandez) and another two dozen umps who get called up from Triple-A to work MLB games, plus four supervisors, in a rather simplistic Q&A sessions between 2015 and ’19, some individually and others in a group setting, as they came into Nowlin’s Boston residency to do games at Fenway Park.
“I wasn’t sure what reaction I would get,” Nowlin writes in the awkwardly slotted Chapter 3 called “How This Book Came to Be,” following Q&A profiles of Ed Hickox and Phil Cuzzi. “Would they be reticent? Suspicious? … I lucked out.”
Yes, he got them to respond to questions. Whether any of them said anything of deep, insightful interest is left to some measure of debate. Which, in a way, is what you’d hope – they don’t call attention to themselves, they are happy to explain how and why things can affect them, but the simplicity of this whole project works both in its favor, but also doesn’t lead to much of a compelling read. Much of that can be attributed to the questions asked, how they’re asked, and if done by some far more crafted in the art of question-asking, working on follow-up questions the come up in the course of the conversation.
From Nowlin’s list of 50-plus books authored – most on Red Sox history, and all seemingly listed on the first two pages here – we know he has the depth of knowledge and background to go after this. But in taking a somewhat less-aggressive approach to this, which is more likely to put all these umpires put at ease and be less concerned with trust issues about saying something caustic, we’re left with a rather pedestrian transcriptions of their conversations that feels flat in this book context and confinement.
The intent to enlighten readers about all an umpire has to deal with is somewhat accomplished. But we’re not sure we came away feeling we knew them all that better aside from a couple of quips and anecdotes about things they’ve seen and heard.
And maybe that is better – they should be held at a respectable distance without creating opinions of them based on things they say here. It’s a new world of ruling order — where the flamboyance of a Luciano and his spirited opinions eventually led him to do MLB network TV. Can’t think of one current MLB umpire who would remotely be qualified for that these days, or even compelling enough to hire by a network as a rules analyst.
How it goes in the scorebook
With no further review, flash the safe sign and get back to your positions.
Here is a blurb from MLB official historian John Thorn:
“Why does someone choose to be an umpire, knowing that in most disputes he will be berated by one side, or the other, or both? It’s a living.
“Why does one become a counselor? A passion for all that is right and good, a belief in humans’ capacity for growth, and a genuine wish to be helpful.
“Why does one marry? Love.
“All of these come into view in Bill Nowlin’s outstanding new book, in which ‘Working a Perfect Game’ mirrors not only the lonely lives of the arbiters, but the real-life pursuit of the rest of us.”