"There's too much technology in sports," he says. "If the ump blows a call, it's part of baseball. At least he's being fair. He's calling it for both teams."
The Buck strikes here
Not everyone's so eager to dish on the strike zone. Indeed, many inside the game duck the subject as though it were a chin-high fastball, at least until they regain their balance.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter, for instance:
"Man, you can get me in trouble asking about that," he says. Then he reconsiders.
"You could talk about this for hours," he says, and he proceeds to do something close.
The skipper, now in his 14th big league season, points to a spreadsheet on a wall in his office. It ranks all big league umpires by how greatly they favor pitchers or hitters.
The top name on the list is Brian Runge, an ump known for calling a big zone; lower down is veteran Joe West, whose zone is seen as smaller, his ball-strike distribution more even.
When Runge's behind the plate, Showalter says, he might tell hitters to "go up there swinging." When West is back there, "we know we'll have to throw the ball over the plate."
Showalter is known to tweak his pitching rotation when he sees the umpiring schedule for the week.
There are lots of talented umpires in the big leagues, he says, men who call a consistent strike zone, make sure each side gets its share of close calls, generally handle people well and are so matter-of-fact in their excellence that fans and announcers rarely notice them.
But Showalter knows it's not easy. In his view, half the pitches could fairly be called either way. Most arrive at high speed with movement. Umpires have limited sight lines (they tend to set up in the "slot" between hitter and plate), face constant danger (foul tips can travel 140 mph) and must find a way to keep their emotions in check.
"The thing I think umpires don't realize is that we know how hard it is to do what they do. This is a hard sport to referee, as hard a sport as there is," says Showalter, a former college basketball official.
That doesn't mean he's easy on them. He bristles at the way "some teams whine and moan about every pitch and tend to get calls in front of their home fans." (He has ripped the Yankees for this.) Some umpires give in too easily, he adds, to "the bubble gum card factor"— favoring players with piles of stats on the back. "I tell them, 'Our players have bubble gum cards, too,'" he says.
Showalter sees bigger issues. He wonders, for example, whether baseball should develop officiating talent the way good ballclubs develop players. It takes seven or eight years of seasoning to learn umpiring, he says, and pay for the job can top out at $800 a month in some minor leagues. If Major League Baseball required every club to send one released player per year to umpiring school, then pay him as he learns, wouldn't the strike zone be crisper in time?
"You're only as good as your farm system," he says.
Through the years
The strike zone is where offense and defense collide, where the cat-and-mouse game between pitcher and hitter ends up in the form of strikeouts or walks, homers or hits, rallies and final scores. For a site that important, it has changed a lot.
The first rule book, printed in 1876, said "the batsman, on taking his position, must call for a 'high,' 'low,' or 'fair' pitch, and the umpire shall notify the pitcher to deliver the ball as required." By 1888, the hitter could no longer express a preference, and the rules defined a strike as a ball "over home plate not lower than a batsman's knee, nor higher than his shoulders."
As time went on, the game reset the upper limit to the top of the shoulders (1950), the armpits (1968), the upper shoulders again (1988) and the middle of the chest. The lower edge also moved. Umpires switched in stages from the "bubble" chest protector of the early 1900s, an inflatable behemoth that kept them upright over the catcher, to smaller, harder guards that enabled them to get lower and further inside.
As the zone changed, so did the balance between offense and defense.
The high strike was on the endangered list by the mid-1970s, according to left-hander Scott McGregor, who won 138 games for the Orioles between 1977 and 1988. "I'd throw one down the middle, belt high, and they'd [often] call it ball, high," he says.
By the 1990s, most believe the strike zone had grown so tiny it joined steroids as a factor in the offensive surge that saw jaw-dropping home run marks such as Mark McGwire's 70 in 1998 and Barry Bonds' 72 three years later.
The game called on technology to reverse the trend. In 2001, officials signed a pact with QuesTec, a pitch-tracking and graphics firm. The company set up cameras in 11 ballparks — two in the high stands to log pitch trajectories, two at field level to mark the top and bottom of every hitter's zone — and started recording every pitch on DVD. Not everyone liked the idea.