In 2003, pitcher Curt Schilling, then with Arizona, famously smashed a camera in protest. At one point, 69 percent of the umpires voted no confidence in the system. But studies showed the zone was becoming more uniform, home run totals ebbing. Baseball now has a similar system — Zone Evaluation — in all 30 big league ballparks.
Today, every home plate umpire must review each of his games within 24 hours. Facts on location and figures on accuracy are logged and sent to the major leagues' headquarters in New York. Marsh monitors it all.
Should he notice, say, a weak spot off the plate, or an accuracy rate below 92 percent, the equivalent of a passing grade, he gives the umpire in question a call.
Usually it's a matter of positioning, Marsh says, something they can quickly rectify.
"We're doing well," he says, "but human beings aren't robots."
Baseball loves the fallible — the hitter with the tar-strewn bat, the pitcher with three fingers, the crazy hop that decides a game.
When it comes to the strike zone, the question isn't whether it's perfect. It's whether you can turn its imperfection to your advantage.
In his career, McGregor says, he was the one who controlled the strike zone. The secret to getting the calls was throwing strikes.
"You might not get a certain call on the black early in the game, but if you can show the umpires you can keep making that pitch, you'll get it later in the game," he says.
Palmer — known during his long career for getting calls well above the belt — recalls painting the black at times to the point of absurdity. Take the day in the mid-1970s when he faced Cleveland's Mike Hargrove with Durwood Merrill behind the plate.
"I started [Hargrove] out with a pitch two inches off the plate," he says. "I got the call. I moved the next one out an inch. I got that one, too. I did it a third time — same result. I thought, 'This is fun; I don't even have to throw it over the plate.'" He never caught that break again.
Adair, the pitching coach, says that by working "front to back" — that is, subtracting speed — a pitcher gains an extra dimension through the strike zone. Catchers, too, must work the zone. Elrod Hendricks liked to set up on the outside part of the plate to suggest Palmer owned that corner, and Wieters, the All-Star Orioles backstop, says he does what he can to coax strike calls.
"Umpires are people. They see things differently," he says. "If I can catch the ball a certain way where it looks good to the umpire — holding a strike in place or maybe guiding a [borderline] pitch into a better position, I've done my job."
Even the zone's staunchest defender bent the rules. A pitch that grazes the bottom edge, then drops out, is legally a strike, but when Marsh was umpiring (1981-2009), if that pitch bounced before reaching the catcher, he never called it one.
"A ball in the dirt, a strike?" he says, laughing at the absurdity of the idea.
The rulebook bars managers from arguing balls and strikes, but they get their say. Weaver always kept up a flow of criticism from the dugout, but kept it low-key enough most of the time to avoid ejection. "He thought intimidation helped," McGregor says.
Showalter, ejected from a recent game while disputing a call at first base, says he generally hates arguing with umpires. He thinks young hitters like Nick Markakis and Wieters have earned "bubble gum card" status, so he urges them to speak up.
When new umpires hit the majors, he combs their backgrounds for topics of conversation. And flattery is not beneath him.
"We have one excellent umpire who was calling a great game earlier this year. About the eighth inning, I went out and told him [so]. He said, 'Jeez, Buck, you're going to jinx me!' He knows he's one missed call away from being dissected on 'SportsCenter.'"
Does that get the skipper a call or two? This season, as the Orioles chase their first playoff berth in 15 years, or any other, it can't hurt. And fans say if balls and strikes were a perfect science, they'd be the losers.
Irwin Kantrowitz of Tallahassee, Fla., an Orioles backer for 43 years, remembers Weaver charging to home plate to kick dirt on umpires. "Fun times," he says, between innings of a recent game.
His wife, Elaine Harris, agrees. Expect perfection in sports or elsewhere, she says, and you miss what really matters in life.
She glances at the Camden Yards field, where an Orioles pitcher is warming up.
"That ball's coming in at 90 miles an hour," she says. "How can [umpires] get it right every time? Rules are important, but sometimes I just want to get up and shout, 'Hell, those guys are human!'"
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