The sounds and smells of America’s pastime awaken and sharpen every sense in the baseball fan. The crack of the bat, the aroma of hot dogs, peanuts and freshly cut grass fill the air across the country. Stadiums will resonant with the sounds of cheering fans and their boyish grins as their home town heroes sprint harmoniously onto the field. It ultimately symbolizes the fresh start for every team and fan who dream of an October celebration.
The beauty of the game of baseball for many lies in the nuances of the game. The sites and sounds shared and passed down from a father to his son. The right of passage as the two sit on the sun-faded, splintered wooden bleachers – ok, the modern, padded and spacious stadium seating, but you get my point.
In the midst of these roars and cheers it will not take long for the first reverberation to ring out. The one so accustomed to an umpire’s ear. One which tells us that baseball season is truly upon us. It is not so much a word as it is a feeling, a distinctly American expression and a time honored tradition. The sound of booing the umpire.
“Umpires would be natural Republicans — dead to human feelings.” – George Will
In 19 professional baseball seasons – 9 in the minor leagues and 10 in the Majors, it is safe to say that I have heard it all. Mostly the mundane, “hey ump, what are you blind?” Occasionally, the not so creative, “hey ump, if you had a good eye you would be a cyclops” And sadly, the downright crude (viewer warning before reading any further), “hey ump, pull down your pants and show me your good eye.”
I have never thought that our job as Major League umpires is any more important than the guy who works 9-5 and races to the game and voices his displeasure. After all, booing the umpire is as American as apple pie.
History is filled with illustrations of this unique tradition and baseball is one of the few sports where a good old fashioned rhubarb is part of the game.
I believe it was General MacArthur who said that he was “proud to protect American freedoms, like the freedom to boo the umpire.” MacArthur, was ostensibly, reflecting the right to freedom of speech fought so bravely for by countless Americans. I can only wonder what he might think today as those “boos” which still engulf the stadium air, but are now accompanied by some fairly explicit words, in fact, instructions – some that propose a physical impossibility.
In a 1987 decision of the New York State Appellate Division, Justice Betty Weinberg Ellerin wrote that criticizing the umpire was a ”venerated American tradition”. It occurred to me that Ellerin might not have heard the jibes at a Yankees – Red Sox series in the Bronx. Rarely have I heard anything “venerated” [respected, esteemed, honored, holy, sacred] in those criticisms.
One late summer afternoon game in Arizona last season, in the air cooled conditions of an enclosed Chase Field, Diamondbacks announcer, Mark Grace was in the process of interviewing a local high school athlete. During that inning I exchanged a few heated words with the visiting team pitcher. Grace acknowledged the argument and queried the young athlete, “you would never yell at the umpire like that, would you?” She responded emphatically, “No, but my parents would.”
While the tenets of the game of baseball remain mostly unchanged over a century, I believe MacArthur had it right. It is gratifying to know that a fan can sit in the stands, heckle the opposing team and yes, boo the umpire.
But to the parents of youth baseball, my guess is that MacArthur was not talking about you.
It certainly is a great country we live in….
Mike Di Muro is a 10 year Major League Umpire. He is the author of the official blog of UMPS CARE Charities. Please leave any questions or comments below.