The Umpire Dispute

There should be no serious or prolonged dispute with umpires. The current controversy has been prolonged because both umpires and owners seem not to understand the nature of the office. The late owner of both the Washington Redskins and the Baltimore Orioles, Edward Bennett Williams, was reported to have said, "If you think football owners are stupid, wait until you need some baseball owners."

The current baseball owners seem to bear out the Williams judgment, both as to the game and as to the role and power of the umpire. The difference between baseball and other games is not one of accidents but of essence, a metaphysical difference.

First, baseball has a singular and distinctive relationship to time. Only baseball is called a "pastime." Baseball is above or outside time. Football, basketball, hockey, soccer, etc., are divided into measured halves, quarters, and periods. They are controlled. even dominated by time. Not so baseball which either dominates time or ignores it. An inning theoretically can go on forever. The same is true of a game. Interruptions generally are limited to acts of God, such as rain or darkness. These acts are declared to be what they are by the umpire. If for some reason -- dust in a batter's eye, failure of lights -- a game must be halted, time is not "taken out." Umpires, unlike referees, do not look at their watches.

Rather time is "called". Again theoretically forever by an umpire, and for eternity.

Baseball is also played in a unique spatial frame. Most other games are played inside defined and limited areas: rectangular or nearly rectangular fields, floors, or rinks. Not so with baseball. Baseball is played within the lines of a projection from home plate, starting from the point of a 90-degree angle and extending to infinity. Were it not for the intervention of fences buildings, mountains and other obstacles in space, a baseball traveling within the projections of first and third base lines could be fair and infinitely in play. Baseballs never absolutely go out of bounds. They are either fair or foul, and even foul balls are, within limits, playable, with the umpire standing by, to settle disputes.

Last year an American umpire working in Japan resigned after having a committee reverse his call of a ball as either a home run or a double, and call it a triple. Baseball uses umpires and no one else for important decisions. And one umpire is ultimately responsible.

One occasionally hears the cry "Fire the referee," but one seldom hears the cry, "Kill the referee." That demand is reserved for umpires, with good reason. Umpires have to be dealt with absolutely, for their powers are absolute. Referees are called, or appointed, to make judgments. Umpires, by contrast, seem to exist in their own right. They are not asked to make judgments. They make them.

The power of the umpire is inherent in word and in tradition, facts which seem to be unknown to baseball owners, sports writers, players and even to umpires who should know the sources of their power. The word is basically theological. It is derived from the Old French word, "noumpere," or "non peer," meaning without father, or peer, proceeding like the Holy Ghost from Father and Son, and formulated for theological and baseball application by a Mr. Harding in 1565, when he said "We refuse not the umpireship of the Holy Ghost."

Eugene J. McCarthy turned his back on a promising career in baseball to become a teacher and congressman before he became a Democratic-Farmer-Labor senator from Minnesota from 1959 through 1970. His latest book is No Fault Politics: Modern Presidents, The Press and Reformers (Times Books 1998).

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