Umpires: The Old Men of Spring

It's more than an hour before the Cubs' exhibition game gets underway. The seats behind home plate are already filled.

Al Barlik, with the short haircut and the severe expression of a retired police captain, sits straight-shouldered in the ninth row. He is a supervisor of umpires for the National League. For thirty years, Barlik was an umpire. For most of those years, he was crew chief of the unit that always drew the crucial series at season end.

Barlik has been called the best umpire who ever lived. In a few months, he'll be installed in the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown.

During most of those years, Barlik declined to talk to the press.
After all those years, Barlik explains why.
"We'd go into New York," Barlik says, "and there'd be a big battle on the field. I'd throw Leo Durocher, the Giants' manager, out of the game. There'd be 50,000 in the stands. They'd all go wild.

"After the game was over, the writers would come around to ask me what caused the trouble. I was an innocent kid in those days. I tried to be nice. I'd talk to them.

"Next day, the only one who got quoted in the papers was Durocher. They never printed a word I had to say. I said to myself: `Fuck these people. They want to be Durocher's friend,' so I quit talking to the press. Until now . . . "

"There's something you have to understand about being an umpire. You must earn respect. Only an umpire sees the ballplayers as they really are. We see sides of them that no one else does."

Baseball lore is filled with tales of encounters between umpires and players. An umpire's decision on balls and strikes is the final word. It cannot be disputed. There was the day that Hack Wilson of the Cubs threw his bat in the air while disputing a third-strike call made by umpire Beans Reardon.

"Hack," Reardon shouted, "if that bat hits the ground, you're out of the game."

Asked about the difference between a ball and strike, the fabled Bill Klem said:

"It ain't nothin' till I call it."

Contemporary managers called Barlik a dictator. He disputes this.
"I wasn't a dictator," Barlik says, the volume of his voice rising, "but even if I make a bad call on a third strike, I'm not gonna let some player put the monkey on my back.

"I don't blame the player for not liking the call, especially if it was a third strike. Don't kid yourself, these players have a pretty good idea of the strike zone. They know when a pitch is good or bad.

"But I have blood running through my veins just like he does. I don't want to look bad with all those people in the stands."

Most umpires deny they ever missed a call on balls and strikes.
Bill Klem, a legendary umpire of the Babe Ruth era, once said: "I never missed one in my heart."

Augie Donatelli, who was a member of the same umpiring crew with Barlik, said:

"Now, what the hell. Do you think I'd admit that?"
I ask Barlik how many calls he missed during his thirty years as an umpire in the National League.

Barlik becomes thoughtful.
"You know," he says, "I'd have to say that better than 50 percent of the time when a player beefed at me that I really probably did blow the pitch.

"The thing is, that if you did blow the pitch, you'd better know it yourself because then you know how to correct what you're doing wrong.

"I never knew what caused me to do it. I guess it's just like a hitter going into a slump."

Barlik makes a surprising admission.
"I've been behind the plate when a pitcher wound up and threw the ball right over the middle of the plate belt high. I would know it was a strike and for some reason I'd call it a ball.

"Why, I can't tell you to this day. It was very rare but it happens. It's happened to the greatest umpires who ever lived and will again. That's all part of humanity."

The name of Ron Luciano comes up. Most umpires dislike Luciano. They regard him as an opportunist and a showboat who has besmirched their profession.

It could also be that they resent the fact that Luciano has parlayed a relatively short career into a virtual cottage industry of books about umpiring.

Some say, facetiously, that Luciano has already written as many books about umpiring as he ever worked games behind the plate.

Luciano has admitted missing at least six ball and strike calls in every game he worked.

Barlik gives a thin smile.
"I rarely missed a pitch on the inside or outside," he says. "It's right there for you. I always knew whether it was inside or outside. It's calling them high and low that gives you more trouble. Maybe I'd miss two a game. No more."

Barlik had classic run-ins over the years with Leo Durocher, who managed the old Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, as well as Chicago and Houston.

Barlik smiles at the memory of Durocher.
"During my first five years in the game," he says, "Durocher and I couldn't stay in the same game together. Consequently, he had to leave and I had to stay."

But there's no bitterness.
"Leo wasn't really so bad. I remember the day he came out to battle me over a call at second base. We're in the Polo Grounds and the fans are screaming for my blood.

"Leo heads back to the bench. As he does so he accidentally steps on my toe. He turns quickly and apologizes. Then, he waves his arms again to make the fans think he's still battling the call."

There's an ironic twist. It's still fresh in Barlik's memory that there wasn't enough room for Durocher and him in the same ballpark during their heydays. He still smarts because he believes the press always took Durocher's side.

Well, when a sixteen-member panel met recently to decide who would go into the Hall of Fame this year, Barlik and Durocher were the finalists. Only one could be picked by the panel of sportswriters and baseball executives.

They picked Barlik, the silent dictator. This makes it improbable that Durocher--one of baseball's most colorful characters--will ever make it to Cooperstown.

As Joe Garagiola once wrote: "Baseball is a funny game.

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Tom Fitzpatrick