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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 6)

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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