CHICAGO -- Frank Pulli of the National League often has said the biggest problem for an umpire is "they expect you to be perfect your first day on the job and you're supposed to show constant improvement." Another longtime ump, the late Jocko Conlan, insisted it's tougher than being a Supreme Court justice. "They get six months to make a decision," Conlan said. "I've got two seconds."
Whatever, the annual training program for amateur umpires has begun: six-two hour sessions in the Chicago area, at Glenbard North High School in Carol Stream and at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines. The Glenbard class meets Monday nights, Oakton Tuesdays.
There is no fee, but Kurt Pingel of Palatine, Ill., who is among the instructors, expressed caution:
"If you want to be an umpire, you can't have rabbit ears and you must have a thick skin. They all try to take the game away from you, even at the frosh-soph high school level."
A total of 72 umpires, real and potential, attended the first session at Oakton last Tuesday night, 45 with previous experience, 27 beginners. The veterans work high school varsity and college games; the rookies, if they survive, will begin at the bottom and for the first year will be assigned only high school frosh-soph games.
Once school is out, most of the umps work Little League, American Legion and what is called Thorobred Baseball, a league for college players. The pay is small: $32 for a frosh-soph high school game where the ump works alone, a one-man system; and $36 for high school varsity games, which requires a two-man system.
I sat in, listening to Bill Olsen of Elk Grove, who had led the rookies into a classroom. A cheerful sort, Olsen went over the new rules and offered some sage advice.
"Call a lot of strikes," he said. "Nobody likes walks."
"You get paid by the game, not by the hour."
A rookie raised his hand and asked Olsen to define the strike zone.
"If it doesn't bounce, it's a strike," Olsen said. "And if you can reach it with a bat, it's a strike. Don't forget you'll be dealing with 14-year-old kids and they have trouble throwing strikes."
Olsen is not a stickler on obscure rules. Holding his rule-book aloft, he said, "There are some rules in here that have been in the book for 35 years and in all that time nobody has ever asked me about them."
When a substitution is made, according to the book, the player entering the game must report to the umpire. If he fails to report, it's an automatic ejection; he's supposed to be thrown out of the game.
"I look at it this way," Olsen explained. "You've got to use common sense. A boy's been sitting on the bench waiting to get into the game. Sixth, seventh inning, the coach finally sends him in. The boy is excited. His parents are watching. They're excited. The boy runs straight to right field. What am I supposed to do, say, 'Hey, kid, you didn't report, so you're out of the game'?"
Olsen also emphasized the necessity for hustle.
"If you hustle, you'll be OK. You may make the wrong call but as long as you're hustling and in the proper position, the coach will not complain."
He also advised the students to subscribe to the monthly Referee Magazine. For an annual fee of $59, the subscriber becomes a member of the National Association of Sports Officials, which covers him with $1 million of liability insurance.
"Don't laugh," Olsen said. "There are people out there who will sue."
Nearby, in the gymnasium, the veterans were divided into two squads, one group working the bases, the other calling balls and strikes.
John Hardey of Arlington Heights, Ill., had the bases.
"You've got to be in the right position," Hardey emphasized. "You want to be sure you see the play. Position is everything. And don't rush the call. If you have to, count to yourself, silently, 'One. Two. Three.' Then make the call. If you take your time you have a much better chance of getting it right.
"You know there will be a call in the infield. The throw is coming into third base from right field and it looks the runner is out by 15 feet. Let the play come to you. Never assume the unassumable. The shortstop picks up the ball and you assume the batter is out. Wrong. Wait for the play. Don't anticipate."
The most common call, of course, is at first base. Tom Viehman of Itasca, Ill., another of the instructors, explained the subtleties.
"The proper position is 15 feet behind the base, at a 45-degree angle to the base. Watch the ball when it's thrown. After the ball is in the air, forget the ball. Watch the runner's feet and listen to the catch. Some people think the runner is safe if there's a tie. There are no ties. The runner must beat the throw."
Dave Slickenmeyer of Des Plaines, Ill., supervising on balls and strikes, told one of his pupils:
"You missed that pitch because you were too quick. Anticipation is the enemy. You can be a 15 percent better umpire if you wait until the pitch is in the catcher's glove. Don't hurry the call."
As I was leaving, I overheard one rookie telling another of the possibility of malpractice.
"I'm going to get that liability insurance," he said. "If I blow a call, I don't want anyone suing me."