March, 1990: After twenty-eight years with the New York
Mets, my friend and mentor Arthur Richman had recently matriculated to the Yankees' front office at his good pal George Steinbrenner's insistence. One of the
first things Arthur did upon assuming his vice-presidential duties was hire me to umpire some Yankees spring training games in Fort Lauderdale. I met Mr. Steinbrenner on quite a few occasions: here's a photo of him my husband at the time, Tom Vris, took while he was sitting next to him in the stands at a split-squad game I was working over on one of the practice fields at Legends Stadium in Tampa in 1996. And here's a shot of me working the actual game, a Cincinnati Reds@Yankees affair featuring Jimmy Key, a high-priced rehab project coming off the disabled list, on the hill for the Bombers. The Yankees are obviously on offense in this picture, and I can't positively identify the batter behind me who appears to be on his way up to the plate while eyeing
me as if I were an alien, but it may be Ruben Rivera.
George was always cordial and welcoming to me, whether I was in uniform or visiting the ballpark in street clothes as Arthur's guest at a game. But there was one game in particular, the very first Yankees intrasquad I ever worked over in Fort Lauderdale in 1990 and the first time I met the legendary owner, that sticks out in my mind and which I share with you now in tribute to the passing of a lion. (What follows is an excerpt from my forthcoming work-in-progress, Kiss the Umpire. Coming forth sometime this century, presumably.)
... I had umpired dozens of spring training games since 1985, but this would be my first with the Yankees and I definitely wanted to make a good impression. I wasn't exactly nervous, but I was concerned about working the three-umpire system because I had very little experience with it at that time. My partners, a local ump named Joe Stirone and a long-retired American League arbiter, Frank Umont, and I decided to make it easy on ourselves and not use any regular rotations, which are often complicated choreographies whose movements are dictated by specific plays. The plan we devised was simple: Joe was to stay behind the plate. Big Frank, at 72 rendered almost immobile by infirmity and only a year away from a fatal heart attack, would plant himself on the foul line behind the first baseman, and I would be ready at all times for plays at second and third. In other words, nobody had to move except me.
This strategy turned out to be a boon for all of us, but
especially for yours truly. It also made me, temporarily, the apple of George
Steinbrenner’s eye. Arthur had introduced me to the oft-maligned magnate before
the game started. He was holding court in one of the dugouts and seemed pleased
to meet me, but a bit confused
about who I was. He addressed me as “Pam” and I
explained that I was Perry, not Pam Postema, who at the time was the only woman
calling regular season balls and strikes in all of pro ball. The spring training games I work are often scheduled only a few days
before they get played, sometimes even the night before, and local high school
or college umpires like me get hired at short notice for them by the equipment
managers or the traveling secretaries of the major league teams. I had friends
in these positions all over the National League, but until Arthur switched his
allegiance from the Mets to the Yankees I had no such champion among the American League clubs. This would be my first opportunity to test myself on
unfamiliar territory, and I was determined to make the most of my audition.
Even in the nondescript
uniform of an umpire it doesn't
hurt to be charming, so while I had Steinbrenner’s attention I thanked him for
the chance to work the game. “Arthur says you’ll give him a lot of shit if I
don’t do a good job!” I teased. “I give him a lot of shit anyway,” he joked back.
I nodded. “He tells me about it all the time.” It
was true. Arthur confided in me frequently about his spirited interactions with
the legendary owner. Ranted, was more like it. According to Arthur, the two of
them ranted frequently, chiefly about each other.
The game started off with a bang. The leadoff batter singled to right, which meant that as soon as he hit the ball I was sprinting towards the middle of the infield from my position on the third base line. The batter rounded first, looking over his shoulder, and saw the right fielder having trouble getting a handle on the ball. He sped up and motored towards second as I settled in smoothly, waiting for the tag by the shortstop. “Safe!” I shouted, confident and alert. I saw Umont beaming at me from behind first base, proud of his little protégé. A murmur arose from the crowd, signaling an ever-so-slight defrosting of their initially chilly reception. General reaction had been lukewarm at best when the public address announcer introduced the umpires, and I heard the usual shocked queries. “Look, is that a girl?” people asked, as if I were from Mars or the IRS. “I didn’t know girls could do that, daddy,” a tot squealed. I have very mixed emotions about such comments. They should make me happy and proud, but my delight at hearing them is often tempered by regret because of the solitary nature of my calling. Umpiring may be a crowded fraternity, but for me it’s almost always been a sorority of one.
Have you ever watched the movie Thelma and Louise? There
is a scene in it where Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, on the lam from the law,
are driving around the rim of the Grand Canyon. “I feel awake,” Davis tells
Sarandon. “Wide awake. I don’t remember ever feeling this awake.” That’s the
sensation I get, a sort of calm hyper-awareness, a hormonally induced high,
when a game starts to flow. It’s like being charged with a low hum of focused
energy. Once the Yankee pitchers found their rhythm, the pace picked
up dramatically. I glided in and punched a runner out on a close play at second
with an aggressive, strategically timed motion. Joe was nailing his plate game
and Umont was still vertical. We were firing on all cylinders. By the fourth
inning, I knew I had the crowd in the palm of my hand because everybody was
pretty much ignoring me. And for an umpire, being ignored is a good thing. After watching
me suspiciously up until that point, most people could tell I knew what I was
doing so they started paying attention to the game again instead of
scrutinizing every move I made. I was really beginning to loosen up when I
found myself on the infield near second base,
with runners at first and second.
This positioned me for a play at second or third while Umont was making like a
statue at first and Joe, obviously, was home. The batter swung and bounced a
double play ball, the umpire’s best friend, right towards shortstop Alvaro
There is something colloquially called a “phantom tag” that
shortstops and second basemen apply on the front end of a double play in order
to spare themselves unnecessary risk of injury from a runner sliding or
crashing into the bag. The phantom tag occurs when the fielder motions as if he
were tagging a runner but doesn’t actually touch him, or steps on the ground in
the immediate vicinity of the bag rather than directly on it, to avoid getting
hurt by a runner. Umpires will permit this and grant the out if a fielder
clearly could have gotten it but chooses not to because of an oncoming runner.
In other words, if the ball is there, call an out even if the fielder doesn’t
actually touch the base or the runner. Fans might get upset when they see
umpires allow a fielder this leeway, but it is a ruling generally accepted
without protest by players and managers. Nobody wants to see a player get hurt
for no reason, especially one making millions of dollars.
Espinoza decided to test this theory of sympathy for the
irritatingly rich by stamping his foot on the ground expectantly as he snared
the ball and whipped it to Steve Sax at first base. The only problem for me was
that the place he tapped was not all that close to second base. As a matter of
fact, it was so far off the bag there was no way I could justify calling the
runner out. I would look ridiculous if I did, and invite an argument. So I
called safe, and wound up with an argument. Only it wasn’t even mine!
A photograph memorializing that episode appeared in the local
newspaper the next day. In it, I am dwarfed by pitcher Tim Leary, infielder
Steve Sax, and base coach Joe Sparks. My back is to the camera as the three
Yankees loom over me, and I remember taking a couple of breaths to steady
myself as they ganged up and moved in on their prey. But wait! They wanted to discuss Umont's call, not mine.
I did what any umpire in this situation should do. I told them to go away and leave me alone. “Forget it, guys,” I halted them, raising my hands palm side out as if emitting a force field. “I’m not going to talk to you about the play at first because I didn’t make the call,” I said firmly. “And since Frank Umont, the umpire over there who did, was in the major leagues for twenty years, I doubt he’ll want to discuss it with you either.” Umont was auditing this exchange with interest, barely concealing his mirth at the sight of me defending his decision to the menacing Yankee posse. “I’ll talk to him,” I nodded towards Espinoza surveying our little tableau nearby. “The rest of you, go away.” Glumly, the trio dispersed. Like mischievous children, they were testing me to see how far they could get, but I was in no mood to be lenient. What I needed was to establish my boundaries and let them know exactly what I expected from them so there would be no future confusion. Espinoza strolled over and eyed me without expression. “You don’t give me that call?” he asked, all innocent. “We don’t get too many umpires who make that call like that.” “Oyé me, Alvaro,” I sighed, his newest ally. “I’m under the microscope out here. If you want me to call the runner out on that play, you have to help me. At least make it look legitimate so I can call him out and not look like an idiot. You don’t want me to look like an idiot, do you?” Espinoza, no idiot himself, shook his head. I wouldn’t necessarily try this approach in a high school game. A fourteen- or fifteen-year-old might say yes; they’re little snots at that age. But the Yankee shortstop was all pro. “From now on, you have to actually touch the base for me,” I admonished him. “Entiendé? That way, neither of us will look like we’re trying to get away with something.” Espinoza listened without comment and nodded. “Okay,” he said, and that was that. With one out and the bases loaded, the next batter grounded to him again. This time he stepped on the bag as deftly as a dancer before throwing to first for a thrilling double play that ended the half inning, drawing lusty cheers from the crowd. I breathed a sigh of relief at such a satisfactory dénouement and jogged to the outfield. I had withdrawn my head unharmed from the mouth of the lion to emerge smelling like a rose, and the perfume of success was intoxicating.
I stood off by myself in short left center field while the next pitcher was warming up, and spied one of the ball boys running towards me from the first base dugout where Steinbrenner had enthroned himself. He raced across the outfield clutching a cup in his outstretched hand, his little legs churning as he struggled to balance it without letting a single drop of liquid spill, and I gratefully anticipated a tall sip of cool water. The boy slowed as he approached me and shyly held out the cup. He appeared to be very young. “Mr. Steinbrenner says he thinks you made a good call on that play at second base, and he’s sending you this Coke as a token of his appreci…appreciation,” he stammered adorably. I regarded the lad with amusement. “Please tell Mr. Steinbrenner I said thank you, but I don’t drink soda during games. It’s bad for me and only makes me thirstier,” I advised him. “Take it back and tell him a nice cup of water would be great, but I really don’t want this.” No more than eight years old, he suddenly had the glassy-eyed look of someone who has just been condemned to death. His rosy little lower lip started to tremble, and I heard a sob catch in his throat as he envisioned the unspeakable horror that awaited him when he returned the despot’s offering and told him it had been spurned. I thought better of my ingratitude, for the sake of the child. “Tell you what,” I said, taking the cup from him. I leaned my head back and slung the liquid in it over my shoulder and behind me so it appeared to the faraway spectators that I was drinking. I touched the cup to my mouth as I straightened up and licked my lips for effect. “Mmmm, good,” I said, smiling at the little tyke to ease his pain. “Just tell him I said thank you, and next time I’d prefer water.” I gave the empty cup back to him and sent him on his way, spared from imminent execution. Umpiring is not just calling safe and out, after all. It’s protecting the youth of the world from the boogeyman, too.
Now, I am not implying that George Seinbrenner was a despot or the boogeyman; that's mere metaphor, a literary device used here to illuminate his basic humanity. Far from being someone to be feared, he was a visionary, complex, often excessively kind and generous man who privately performed many charitable acts that have never been made public. He was unfailingly courteous and warm towards me, he resurrected the careers of several players others had written off, and he gave Arthur a reason to survive a sorrowful break-up with the Mets so he could go on to thrive for nearly two more decades with his beloved Yankees.
The sports world just dimmed a little bit, but the baseball firmament must be brighter for his passing. I can see it now: Arthur, George, and Bob Sheppard all sitting around somewhere, having toddies and watching the All-Star game together while Arthur asks them, "Hey Georgie! Bobby! Do you need any money?"