Insights from a Major League Umpire

They’ve said, “If an umpire does his job right, no one notices that they’re there.”  That doesn’t mean that umpires don’t have a unique perspective on the game of baseball.  I’ve had the opportunity to meet with a couple of MLB umps over the last few years, and have always come away with new insights about the game of baseball and the people (including the people in blue) who make it possible.

First, to the questions.  Yes, the players and umpires do chat about their families, what they did on an off day, etc. Gary Cederstrom, like many umpires, lives in Florida (or Arizona) to maximize the amount of time they can spend with their families.  Given that they only get a couple of home breaks during the season, that extra month with the family is really valuable.  Remember, the players are “home” half the time:  the umpires spend pretty much the whole season in hotels.  So Gary trimmed some trees during an off day, and later he’ll be hearing players ask him “hey, have you gotten back to trim those trees yet?” Or maybe an umpire’s and player’s kids have played together, and he’d definitely ask about the other kid. Sometimes players will say something about how badly they’re playing (‘ball’s not carrying today” when they’ve just popped up to the pitcher), but never about how well they’re playing.

Gary Cederstrom

Speaking of players, Gary seemed surprised at Trea’s home run last week.  He says, “Yeah, he might have added a little weight, so now he looks like a junior bat boy instead of a freshman bat boy.” He confirmed that Jayson has a sense of humor—not that I really had any doubts after some of those pranks on the Phanatic.

Can he tell if a HBP is deliberate?  Sometimes.  Sometimes, he’ll think it looked deliberate but wonder where it came from.  In one case, it came out later that a player, back in the minors, had borrowed another player’s car and didn’t fill it up with gas as he had promised.  Eventually that led to a HPB in the majors. (Note:  if you want some stories with really long tails on them, read “The Unwritten Rules of Baseball.  There are several documented stories like that.)

He’s been on the field when the sprinklers just “came on because they always come on at that time of day.”  Color him skeptical on that one.

We talked a lot about technology and how it’s changing the game.  The law of unintended consequences is definitely in play when adding changes like instant replay. We agreed that some things can’t be measured easily, if ever (teamwork, clubhouse leadership, most managers) since it’s still humans playing the game.

Speaking of technology, probably his funniest stories related to rain delays.  One time the grounds crew didn’t come out to put out the tarp because they were all inside watching their cell phones—and those didn’t show that it was raining!  Called a groundskeeper out, said “are you getting wet?!  Well, it’s raining!” Another time, staff: “It’s not raining at the airport.”  Ump: “OK, let’s move the stadium to the runway, because it’s pouring here!”

He had very strong opinions about fan safely:  he’s in favor of netting, and not letting kids or elderly folks sit in the front row(s) where they could be hit by bats or balls. He even pointed out that a parent should always sit to the home plate side of their kid so that if a bat or ball comes flying, they can lean over to protect the kid (he demonstrated that it’s a lot harder to do if the parent is on the “wrong” side.)

His most memorable game was his first professional game.  That’s a different answer than other umpires, who have no-hitters or WS games or something like that for their answer to the “what’s your most memorable game” question.  He’s been at a number of record-setting, playoff, or WS games, but my sense was those have run together—but that first ML game made the biggest impression.

He’s never had a situation with a player stuck in the bathroom, but definitely has had players locking each other in the bathroom (25 going on 2 comes to mind).

He got into umpiring because he’d done some football and basketball refereeing for money in college, but couldn’t do baseball without training.  A college buddy saw the ad for umpire school in the Sporting News, and suggested that they go.  His buddy went that year, he graduated and went the year after.  Buddy made it as far as AA.  They’re still in touch.

Stadiums?  The old Canadian Olympic stadium was the worst. As far as his “must see” stadiums, I’ve been to most of them (Camden, Wrigley, Fenway among them), but have a few to go (including SF, Citi Field).  Lower priority:  Anaheim (too much like Dodgers stadium), Yankee Stadium (tried to be like the old Yankees Stadium—but it isn’t the same), the White Sox field.  He did say that we should see Miami—at least once.  He liked my description of the home run feature:  “like a Disney ride crossed with a Pachinko machine, as interpreted by Salvador Dali on drugs.”

On Dodgers’ Stadium, he said that the reason the fans all leave early is that if they wait to the end of the game, it takes an hour to get out of the parking lot.  So it’s not that they’re bad fans, it’s just that they want to get home at a reasonable time.  He suggested taking a cab or the bus service.

Thinking back over these meetings, I think the one thing they all had in common was their focus on their families.  It’s a small sample size, but my thought is that perhaps it’s the long separation during the season that makes the family more valuable.

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