Getting to know you: Umpires adjust to new teams, players

Everybody's learning to work in world with no AL or NL crews

April 08, 2000|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Cleveland Indians manager Charlie Manuel watched from the dugout Wednesday night as pitcher Chuck Finley struggled to find the lower end of baseball's new, higher strike zone.

Finally, after a pitch buzzed the knees of Orioles outfielder B. J. Surhoff and did not get the desired result, Manuel couldn't hold back any longer.

"Where was that [expletive] pitch?" Manuel barked at former National League umpire Ed Rapuano.

Rapuano didn't need to be asked twice. He charged toward the Indians' dugout and threw Manuel out of the game, a pretty harsh sentence for uttering one sentence.

Perhaps Manuel might have known better if he had known anything about Rapuano, who will be showing up regularly in American League stadiums now that Major League Baseball has placed the National League and American League under a single administrative umbrella and intermingled NL and AL umpires in each four-man umpiring crew. Perhaps Rapuano would have cut Manuel a little more slack if the first-year Indians manager was a more familiar face.

"Afterward, some of the guys told me that he's a very good umpire," Manuel said, almost apologetically. "He's the lone National League umpire on that crew, and I don't know him. I know he was just doing his job."

Manuel evened the score the next night, running afoul of second-year American League umpire Bill Miller, another new face for the new manager of the defending AL Central champions.

It's unusual for a manager to get thrown out in consecutive games, but it probably won't be the last time that unfamiliarity will breed contempt this year. Every umpiring crew includes at least one National League and one American League umpire, which means that every crew is different this year, and everyone -- umpires, players and managers -- has some adjusting to do.

If that isn't enough change for one year, more than a third of the active umpires began work last September, when management accepted the resignations of 23 veteran umpires after the abortive labor revolt engineered by deposed umpires union chief Richie Phillips. The adjustment process is further complicated by the interpersonal turmoil that took place during the resultant change in union leadership.

There have been no major problems, and new union leader John Hirschbeck said he doesn't expect any.

"When you start a season, you always have some new people," Hirschbeck said by telephone from Atlanta, where he was umpiring the National League series between the Atlanta Braves and the Colorado Rockies. "It's just a matter of talking about situations how you're going to handle the four-man system. It will take anywhere from a week to three weeks before you really feel comfortable with everybody."

Hirschbeck is confident that the fallout from the union upheaval will not spill onto the field.

"From everyone I've talked to, there has been absolutely no problem," he said. "I'm proud to say that everyone has been very professional about the whole thing. Guys have put aside any personal or political differences and said, `We're a team.' "

Hirschbeck gets no argument from John Shulock, crew chief for the series between the Orioles and the Indians.

"I don't think there are going to be any problems whatsoever," Shulock said. "It's not like anything's that different. This is something that Major League Baseball wanted. There's nothing you can do about it, so you have to make the best of it."

Though there were observable differences in the way National League and American League umpires interpreted baseball rules, the delineation between the two leagues has been blurred by three years of interleague play, the recent replacement of a high percentage of National League umpires and the on-going attempt to standardize the strike zone.

For the players, it may not be so much a matter of NL vs. AL as it is an issue of the new vs. old.

"I'll be aware of it," said Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina, "because I'll look back there and not know about the guy. It will be an adjustment for both [the pitcher and the umpire]. They are watching pitches that they haven't seen before. We're both going to have to make little adjustments. That's only natural."

With a familiar umpire, Mussina says: "You understand what kind of strike zone you're going to be working with, but if you don't have the stuff to put it where it can help you, it's not going to matter, anyway. We've had a little experience with interleague play, so it's not like we haven't seen any National League umpires."

Different umpires have different strike zones. There also are variations in the interpretation of the balk rule and -- as Manuel found out twice -- differences in the amount of dissent that each umpire is willing to tolerate.

"I guess there might be little adjustments that you make because you know a guy year in and year out," said Orioles outfielder B.J. Surhoff. "You know their temperament and you build a relationship. You have an idea what the lines are how far you can go. But you can learn that pretty quickly."

Players have to make those kinds of adjustments every year, as new umpires are assimilated into the major leagues. They'll just have to make a habit of it during this season of widespread turnover.

"Every umpire has his own way of calling the game," said Orioles catcher Charles Johnson, who spent the first five years of his career in the National League. "It's just a matter of learning everybody's tendencies, but I don't think it's a big learning process. In both leagues, they call strikes. Some umpires have different zones. It's just a matter of recognizing who's behind the plate."

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