This may seem miraculous, but that's basketball. As I learned from Weber's As They See ‘Em: A Fan's Travels in the Land of Umpires, baseball is not about miracles -- it is about rules.
Loyal Tommywood readers won't be surprised to find that "baseball facts" is one of my weaker "Jeopardy" categories, but even those who know a lot will learn a great deal from Weber's definitive appreciation of the history, the challenges, and the importance to baseball of being an umpire.
There is a long tradition of ardent Jewish baseball fans that stretches across the nation from Ebbets Field to the current Dodgers Stadium, and Weber, who I used to know a long time ago (New York in the late 1980s and early ‘90s), is a New York Times reporter who brings both a fan's obsession and a reporter's curiosity to the task of investigating every aspect imaginable about umpiring, including attending umpire school himself and umpiring at games.
Reading As They See ‘Em gives the reader a deep appreciation of the rules of baseball and the importance of having umpires to define the strike zone and make the calls (even when they call ‘em wrong). Weber details with examples from famous and recent games, and from his own observed and personal experience as to what an umpire endures from fans, from players, from management, and even from the unions to become and to be an umpire. A lot of it is tough and requires extreme mental fortitude. No one can read this book and come away without a more profound sense of the role of umpires and of their unique place in the game.
My experience of reading Weber's book was not unlike my experience of going to a baseball game: I was excited to begin, and then became anxious about how long the thing would last -- doubting I would make it to the end. Then as I settled in, carried along by Weber's narrative focusing on the players, on the game, on the plays, as seen through the prism of the umpire, I suddenly found myself thinking about baseball at a much deeper level.
I now know more than I ever thought I would about the George Brett pine tar incident in 1983, QuesTec, and that at least in professional baseball, the tie does not go to the runner. There are no ties. The umpire calls it.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview, and The Forward. His column appears every other week and his new Tommywood (the blog) appears daily, pretty much.For more information about The First Basket, visit http://www.thefirstbasket.com.