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Making the Right Call

It isn't easy being a sports official, but modest salaries, lots of travel and constant criticism take a backseat to the camaraderie and challenges of the game
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Sharon Stone, July/Aug 2004

(continued from page 1)

Officiating in the NBA is a work in progress. In Nunn's first season behind a desk after 19 years as a referee, he has started to implement changes, both procedural and philosophical. Nunn wants his staff to be more open to discussion, willing to talk to coaches and even players about the reasons calls were made. The referee who made a foul call was once required to immediately head down court to get beyond discussion range, but now he takes up the position along the sideline beside the benches, where gripes can be aired and dealt with before they escalate. "We have nothing to hide," Nunn says.

Nunn makes the case that today's referees are already better than their counterparts of a generation ago—more skilled, more athletic, more consistent. The league office, which used to do little more than issue referees a uniform and a whistle and wish them luck, now monitors the work of every one. It uses video, game observers and even computers, putting difficult plays on a Web site for interpretation to help instill exactly the qualities it wants in its 59-person staff. And top salaries of as much as $400,000 mean that the quality of referee coming into the league is higher than ever before.

But as the referees have improved, so have the players. They're faster than ever, quicker and stronger. Contact is inevitable. At one time, contact in the lane during a shot automatically meant a foul on either the offense or defense, but that isn't the case anymore. Today's referee has to have the judgment of when to blow the whistle—"put air in it," in official's parlance—and when to let play continue. They must do that with a clear knowledge of the league-wide guidelines on what should be a foul and what shouldn't be.

Nunn wants to take as much interpretation out of officiating as possible. Technology has made that necessary. Outraged owners and other gadflys are able to compile tape reels of referees acting inconsistently, calling a foul on one play in Houston but letting a similar play go in Indiana. Nunn is asking his charges not to use their own judgment based on game situations, but to stick to the guidelines.

As a result, officiating is now more science than art. "Balls and strikes," Nunn says. "It's a foul or it isn't." Still, each referee is different. Like a player, each has strengths and weaknesses. Since adding a third official on all games with the 1988—89 season, the league has tried to construct officiating teams in which strengths complement one another. Sixteen of the 59 officials are full-time crew chiefs and don't work with each other until the playoffs. The others rotate, crews staying together for two or three games at a time.

Schedules are made 20 days before the start of the following month, and kept confidential, in part to thwart gamblers. Officials stay in one of three designated hotels in each league city, hotels that have been given clearance as free of gamblers, drug pushers and prostitutes. Most are near the airport because league rules require that officials take the first flight out of a city in the morning, if they haven't been able to leave the night before. The average official works between 70 and 80 games, as much as a player, and he's on the road 22 days of every month.

Unlike the Lakers-Celtics game that follows, when the Celtics will try to compensate for their lack of a physical presence underneath the basket by playing staccato, half-court basketball and fouling O'Neal at every opportunity, the Clippers-Raptors game flows well. In part, this is because the players are running up and down the court of their own accord, but also because Fryer has kept the game moving. However, the second half is always more heated than the first—it's about winning and losing now, Nunn notes, not just scoring points—and when L.A.'s Marko Jaric heads to the basket, Toronto's Donyell Marshall gets a hand up high and contact is made. None of the three officials calls a foul.

Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy thinks Jaric was hit in the head on the drive and lets Fryer know he blew the call and cost his team the game. The crew has a plane to catch to Salt Lake City, but Nunn wants to see the play again on videotape, as well as a half-dozen others he has jotted down in his notebook. With the aid of a state-of-the-art computer system, the plays are downloaded directly onto a television screen in the dressing room. The three officials and Nunn sit in a semicircle and watch the play again and again. It is clear from the replay that Marshall gets a hand only on the ball and never touches Jaric. The call—non-call, actually—was the correct one.

That won't stop Jerry Crowe of the Los Angeles Times from serving as Dunleavy's mouthpiece in the following day's newspaper. Under the headline "Clippers Cry Foul After Loss," Crowe will write, "[The Clippers] wondered how officials Bernie Fryer, Tony Brothers and Zach Zarba could all have been looking the other way when Marko Jaric was bopped on the head by Raptor forward Donyell Marshall." If you hadn't seen the videotape, you would have thought the referees had blown the call.

But they hadn't. Neither had they blown all but one of the others Nunn had noted in his pad. With the exception of an obvious offensive foul that went uncalled earlier in the game, the referees haven't missed a thing. They've worked about as close to a perfectly officiated game as it is possible to have in professional sports.

If the Clippers and Raptors had been achieving on as high a level, which is something of an absurd notion in itself, their game would have been celebrated as an instant classic. But because these achievers are officials, not players, almost nobody realizes what they have seen.

Fryer and his crew leave the arena walking on air. Working a game like that with all three team members clicking together is like turning a double play or scoring a goal with a flurry of passes off a three-on-two rush down the ice. The sense of jubilation makes up for a lot of 5 a.m. wake-up calls. Yet they walk to their rental cars as anonymous as when they arrived, and head for the airport unmolested.

What They Talk About When They Talk About Life
At about 12:30 p.m., on March 3, umpire Joe West arrives at Fort Lauderdale Stadium pulling a steamer trunk of equipment behind him. Since October, he has been idle, soaking up the sun at his Florida home. From now through the end of the season, he will umpire five or six games a week. He'll board perhaps a hundred planes, eat dinners in mid-afternoon and late at night, and file away countless memories.

West, 51, is a big man with a big personality. He has the down-home charisma and folksy manner of a country music singer, which he actually happens to be. He has performed with the likes of Merle Haggard at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry, and even cut his own CD, a twangy 1984 release called Blue Cowboy. As an umpire, he's all business. In 1984, he ejected two cameramen from Shea Stadium when they insisted on showing a controversial replay. In 1990, he shoved pitcher Dennis Cook to the ground during an altercation. Still, flashes of wit show through. When the Orioles' batboy tells West he's the son of manager Lee Mazzilli, West says, "Tell your father you're lucky you take after your mother."

At 1:07 p.m., West cleans home plate for the first time in 2004, flicking away the accumulated dirt with a brush he keeps in his shirt pocket. At 1:13, he calls a hitter out on strikes. And at 1:22, West gets booed for the first time since last fall, at least publicly. He follows a Josh Beckett curve down and out of the strike zone, judging it a ball. Marlins fans sitting tens and even hundreds of feet away don't agree, and they let West know it. West is unmoved, but his vacation is now officially over.

Four hours later, West and two of the other umpires who worked the game are sitting at a beach bar tucked under a bridge out past A1A. The umpires, along with retired umpire Steve Ripley, are doing what umpires usually do when they gather: swapping stories. They'll cover what happened in that day's game and similar things that have happened in other games, but quickly segue into anecdotes that have nothing to do with this game at all. They reminisce about time spent off the field and funny situations in which someone they all know—nearly always a player or manager or another umpire—plays the starring role.

A natural raconteur and one of baseball's most senior umpires, West does most of the talking. "One night I was umpiring with Brian Gorman," he tells Dreckman, another umpire named Eddie Rapuano, and a few friends who have gathered around the bar, "and a guy walks into the ump's clubhouse. Gorman asks who he is, and the guy tells him, 'I'm Billy Sample, the new spotter. I watch what the umpires do from the press box.' Brian says, 'Nice tie!'"

The laugh that comes is a laugh of familiarity; if Rapuano and Dreckman haven't heard that story before, they've heard plenty like it. Umpires are a fraternity and their received wisdom gets passed down through the years over dinners, in rental cars and at bars like this one.

"You don't learn how to umpire on the field," Dreckman, a fifth-year man, will say later. "You learn how to umpire by sitting here, talking to veteran guys." Dreckman has arrived from Iowa with his wife and baby daughter, flown them down for spring training using money and airline miles because he knows that seeing them will soon be a rare treat. He looks into the eyes of little Emily, who is only a few weeks old, and tries to memorize her smile. "I don't think I could be here knowing I was in one spot for that long, and they weren't with me," Dreckman says, his face knotted in a grimace. "Not when I know what's coming."

Once the season starts, each four-man crew is bound together like family members on an endless cross-country trip. Day after day, they dress together, work together, relax together—a quartet of soldiers in a movable foxhole. "I worked in Eddie Montague's crew last year, and I didn't know him from Adam before," Dreckman says. "Now I'm invited to his son's wedding."

Rapuano, 47, and West became friends on the first road trip they took together, a three-game, exhibition-season barnstormer north in 1989. The story of that trip is a blurry narrative of late-night juke joints, bleary-eyed airplane flights, hung-over umpiring, beer, whiskey and country music. "I worked the longest three-day week of my life with Joe West," Rapuano says now. "But it was the best week of work I ever had."

But Rapuano was also working the day his daughter was born. It was his first weekend in the big leagues, and his wife's due date was still a week away. Rapuano spoke to his wife on the phone the morning after his first game. She was in the stirrups, ready to push, but she pretended nothing was happening because she didn't want to spoil his achievement. "She knew there was nothing I could do," he says.

That night, when he learned she'd given birth, he had a crisis. It was his second day in the majors, and now he had a daughter he'd never seen. "I thought, 'What am I doing?'" he says. "'What kind of life is this?'"

The feeling passed. Now Rapuano sees the lifestyle as a positive. "My children love seeing me on TV," he says. "They love coming to the stadium when I take them on the road. I make a good living. I can afford to give my family things I never had when I was growing up."

Umpires earn between $87,500 and $340,000, plus $23,000 in potential bonuses. From their per diem, they pay for their own hotels, usually good ones. "You want to go back after a hundred-degree afternoon in Cincinnati and a miserable game and put a quarter in the bed at the Best Western?" Rapuano asks. "Or go to the Ritz-Carlton, relax, get a massage, have a nice meal, sleep on a comfortable bed?"

More often than not, Rapuano says, he'll have at least one meal a day with a colleague. If he calls any, he'll call all three; that way, cliques and jealousies don't develop. "If I'm in Toronto and feel like having lunch, I'll call each guy and say, 'I'm going to the Grotto. You in?'" After games, too, umpires will typically convene for dinner or cocktails, depending on the hour. "I used to love Wrigley Field when they didn't have lights," West says. "We used to make happy hour. Now we can't make last call."

Some umpires like to exercise at lunch or play golf. A few run businesses or pursue hobbies on the road. Paul Runge promoted records at radio stations. Bob Engel collected war memorabilia. "I told his wife one time, 'My brother dove [around] the only U-boat that was ever sunk by the United States Coast Guard, off the shore of North Carolina,'" West says. "She said, 'Don't tell Bob, he'll want it for the swimming pool.'"

That line gets a laugh, then the topic turns to criticism of umpires. "It hurts, even if it isn't about me," Rapuano admits. "Most people don't know what they're talking about, usually don't even know the rule in question, but I can't help but be affected. I'll never let it roll off my back, not until the last time I walk off the field."

"Try to think about where it's coming from," West advises. "Usually someone whose team has just lost the game."

To compensate for the criticism, umpires have developed a code of loyalty to one another. A nod of approval from a peer means more to them than glorious praise from a fan, a player or even an owner. "We couldn't care less what Barry Bonds thinks of us," West says. "We couldn't care less what the front office thinks. We're concerned about the guy working across from us who says, 'He's doing his job the right way.' Mike Shannon, the Cardinal announcer, says we're the only real authority left. There are no appeals, no higher court. We're judge, jury, executioner."

West will miss that feeling when he decides to retire, he says. He'll miss the interaction with kids, and walking into a ballpark knowing he's as vital to the process as the players—or even more so. "They don't run the game," he says. "We run the game."

But more than that, he'll miss evenings like this one: drinking beer, telling stories, knowing he has nowhere special he has to be. Darkness has settled in over the Intracoastal Waterway. Sandwiches and burgers are eaten, rounds of drinks paid for, but still the socializing and the stories continue. At one point, West looks out over the bar. "When Dutch Rennert retired," he says, "they asked him if he'd miss the game. He said, 'I won't miss the game. I'll miss the guys.'"

 

"That's me, right there," West says now, his voice as wistful as a country song. "I'll miss the guys."

Bruce Schoenfeld's The Match: Althea Gibson & Angela Buxton was recently published by Harper Collins.


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