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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 5)

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?"

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