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Sympathy For The Devilish Umpires

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The last time I ever held responsibility as a judge in a competition was all the way back in Aught Four. It was one of those “whoever stands the longest while touching this car with their hand wins the car” contests. There were 10-minute breaks every hour, but other than that contests had to stand upright, touching the palm of their hand on a car without leaning, kneeling, or touching anyone or anything. And this thing went on for days. I heard a story of one person who, after days of fatigue and poor posture, was disqualified because he hallucinated that the hubcap was some kind of food and he went to grab it.

The circumstances of how I came to be a judge for two hours escape me. But on the second day of this war of attrition, I took my post. It was quite fascinating and scary all at once. Competitors had to ask my permission to switch hands, and there was a certain way you had to accomplish it.

Within 30 seconds of my shift I recognized one of the contestants as a guy who used to work with my dad. He outstretched his non-car-touching hand to shake mine, and instinctual social behavior kicked in as I shook it. Not a minute had elapsed. My actions directly disqualified a contestant.

As far as I know he was the only one of the couple dozen contestants that fell out that hour. And to this day it breaks my heart that I … okay, no, I actually did that man a favor. Odds are he wasn’t going to win. I saved him at least 72 hours of normal human activity. Perhaps his life.

The rest of the two hours went without a hitch, but of course this story is hardly noteworthy without my blunder as a judge. But that fiasco helped me empathize with Tim McClelland, Phil Cuzzi, Tony Randazzo, and a boatload of other MLB umpires who have made some terrible calls, balls, and strikes.

Imagine how much worse it could’ve been. I could have been booed by that man’s family and friends. I might’ve been on the front page of Touching-Car-While-Standing Digest getting blasted by the media for making the news instead of doing my job. And perhaps I would’ve become a hilarious but overdone Twitter meme.

Wait, this is 2004. What was popular back then? Oh, right. I would’ve become banned from Livejournal.

They would’ve clamored for me to be suspended without pay; which is cool, because I was a one-time volunteer (just like Enrico Palazzo). And perhaps they would call for additional training (beyond the 15-minute crash course we heard from the radio DJ at the dealership?), but soon they will realize that extremely shitty car contest judges have come before me, and in all likelihood will be around long after I’m gone. Provided hands-on car contests are still around. (I’d like to think they are, having seen Idiocracy. That may be how they decide mayors.)

Sympathy for athletes is rare. Why? Maybe it’s their seven-figure salaries which are difficult to comprehend. But what about umpires? Their salaries are still pretty swanky (up to $300,000) but less than the player minimum. When they blow a call … who feels bad for them? The rights and civic responsibilities of baseball fans are as such:

1. Root for the gritty white guy
2. Boo the opposing pitcher if he checks the runner more than twice
3. Boo the opposing pitcher intentionally walking the batter
4. Boo the opposing catcher walking to the mound
5. Boo the umpires. Like, always.

Everybody hates rules. The Blogcritics Magazine rules, a.k.a. the writer guidelines? You cringed at them when you saw the volume of them. So did I. But everyone begrudgingly knows they exist for a reason. Umpires are walking rules. So when the umpires make the wrong ruling … well, that’s just hilarious and frustrating. Hey, they were both off the base! How is only one of them out? Explaining it in one’s head is as constructive as parsing “If it weren’t for my horse, I wouldn’t have spent that year in college.

Nobody has to like umps. (God, no.) The furthest one should probably go in terms of appreciating them is a fantasy umpire league. But perhaps to reach a type of baseball nirvana with missed calls — like I have — try judging a car hands-on contest.

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