Last month during my zigzag road trip around the western United States, I had the pleasure of umpiring in Arizona for the Men's Senior Baseball League World Series. The annual MSBL World Series is one of the largest amateur hardball tournaments in the country, spanning three weeks and featuring more than three hundred teams from all over the world. Umpires from every corner of the continent flock to Phoenix to work it, and I was fortunate to be paired with some excellent partners while I was there. Even better, two women besides me were on the roster of umpires: Regina Boyd from Edmonds, Washington and Maggie Santana of Phoenix. Although none of us was assigned to work with the others, we're all looking forward to changing that status quo. Several women have played in the tournament too, so it might be time for the MSBL to start reconsidering that "M."
A highlight of my two-week umpiring stint was working the plate one day when the SoCal Dodgers faced the Southern California Fire. Both starting pitchers were in the zone all afternoon, each of them getting the ball over the plate quickly and efficiently, making it a breeze for me to be back there. The Dodgers pitcher in particular stood out not just for his athleticism and seemingly effortless ability to pour strikes across the plate - fastballs that painted the corners, curves that dipped into the zone at the last second, offspeed pitches that totally screwed up the hitters' timing - but for his composure and mental focus as well, which drew me into a deep, zen-like harmony with the baseball, with the battery, with the beingness of the game. When that happens, which isn't often, everything intensifies: the hues of the sky, the grass, the dirt, the sounds of ball meeting leather and wood, the smells of sunshine, sweat, and the sweet outdoors. It's like being in perfect sync with the heartbeat of the universe for two or three hours, and it's why I'm still out there after thirty-two seasons. Baseball is my religion, my church, my temple, my holy place, and the pitcher's mound is consecrated ground, the altar before which I pray, the nexus from which all else radiates, the center of the cosmos for nine innings. If there's a secret to baseball, it's that throwing (and for an umpire, calling) strikes is everything, the beginning and the end, alpha and omega, the divine act by which all other acts are baptized, the catalyst for success on the diamond. Getting the ball over the plate is what writes the nine-act script and wins the Pulitzer Prize for Propelling The Pill. A hurler who does that in concert with a catcher who's tuned into him and an umpire who conducts the game like a seasoned maestro will win. Won't he? Perhaps, but there's a rub...
photo courtesy of nymets.com
So I umpired this fantastic game that afternoon, a 2-0, two-hit complete game shutout by the Dodgers pitcher and an almost equally superb outing by his counterpart. Two hours and fourteen minutes from first pitch to last out, a plate umpire's dream. After the game was over, the Dodgers pitcher caught up to me as I was leaving the field and thanked me for "getting" his curve ball. "Not too many umpires get my curve," he said, which made me laugh, thinking of all the times I've been accused by unhappy pitchers of not knowing how to call breaking balls. I assured him he and his catcher had made it easy. He told me his name is Brian Kingman, and when I got home that evening I googled him out of curiosity and learned that he had pitched for the Oakland As and San Francisco Giants. His major league career was brief, lasting only four seasons (including the strike-shortened season of 1981) and part of a fifth, from 1979 through June of 1983, and was terminated by injury and overuse by Oakland manager Billy Martin. It was also punctuated by one of the most startling statistics ever recorded in the annals of modern major league history: in 1980, Brian Kingman lost twenty games for Oakland.
Think about that for a moment. If the benchmark for a stellar pitching season is 20 wins, how amazing is it for a pitcher to be tagged with that many losses in a single season? It's been done only twice in the last thirty-two years, by Kingman in 1980 and Mike Maroth of the Tigers in 2003, who went Kingman one better and lost 21. In contrast, there have been 115 times during the same interval that major league pitchers have won 20 or more games, itself a rare enough feat these days.* With a paltry 9 victories, Maroth was, shockingly, Detroit's winningest pitcher in 2003. He was also its losingest, but he had a lot of help plummeting towards that perigee, recording his 21 fails for a woeful squad that surrendered 119 defeats total, just one shy of the modern major league mark for single season futility established by the 1962 Mets. Kingman, on the other hand, lost his 20 for a club that posted an otherwise fairly respectable 83 wins against 79 losses. What a mensch! He shouldered more than a quarter of his team's losses that season on a staff boasting four starters with double digit wins. Three of those four also lost 10 or more games: ace Mike Norris was 22 and 9; Rick Langford won 19 and lost 12; Matt Keough was 16 and 13; and Steve McCatty went a nice, symmetrical 14 and 14. Kingman himself won 8 games that season, but of course, that's not the stat that stands out.
In the more than thirty years since he lost his twenty, Kingman has become a cult figure for baseball wonks who cherish the oddities and anomalies that make statistical research so much fun. He's also made a kind of post-career career out of putting the hex on pitchers who have approached his mark, foiling the 19-loss seasons of four fellow hurlers by being at the ballpark with a voodoo doll - that's right, a voodoo doll - as they unsuccessfully went for their 20ths before Maroth finally matched and then surpassed it in 2003 when Kingman was unable to attend. "I ended up out of the country and my powers were weakened," he laughingly told a Sports Illustrated reporter. And as he so charmingly and self-effacingly puts it, "I figure that if Hall of Fame pitcher Pud Galvin could lose 20 games for 10 consecutive seasons, I should be allowed to do it once!"
Brian Kingman is now 58 years old, three decades removed from his last major league loss. He has experienced his share of personal misfortune since his ML playing days ended, but retains a wryly philosophical sense of humor about it all. His love for the game has not diminished in all those years, and what he did on the hill last month in Arizona will remain, for me, a highlight of my time on the diamond. What he did after that will too - well, see for yourself.
NOVEMBER 4, 2012
Earlier this month I was pitching for Dodgertown West in a 2012 MSBL World Series game. I quickly realized that the home plate umpire was among the best umpires I had thrown to all season. She not only had a consistent strike zone but she also did a great job of calling breaking pitches. It felt like I was pitching to a major league umpire and as it turns out, she is an accomplished umpire.
often remind me of hitters. The best ones can handle any pitch and the
less accomplished ones have holes in their strike zones. It takes a
hitter awhile to learn to hit a curve and for an umpire to get good at calling them.
The home plate umpire on this day was Perry Barber, and she has been umpiring for over 30 years. Perry is also part of an elite group of female umpires who have umpired for major leaguers during spring training and in minor league games. Like most of us still playing, Perry loves baseball. She travels around the country umpiring 150-200 games a year and spends 8-10 months per year on the road.
At the MSBL World Series Awards Banquet a few days after the game, an attractive, elegantly dressed woman approached me and asked if she could get her picture taken with me. I said, "Sure."
She said, "You may not recognize me, but I was your umpire on Thursday." I told her what a great job she had done behind the plate and praised her ability to call the curve ball. This was the beginning of an interesting conversation.
Perry told me she learned to call the curve at Harry Wendelstedt's umpire school in the early 1980s. I asked her what made her want to be an umpire.
"My interest in baseball comes from of a love of trivia. I didn't know very much about baseball, but I wanted to learn as much as I could in order to beat a friend named Barry Bell at baseball trivia. So I devoured hundreds of books about baseball, and reading about the old-time players, the lore, the amazing characters like Christy Mathewson and John McGraw, was all just completely fascinating and irresistible to me.
"My mother saw that I had an interest in baseball and when she noticed an ad in the Palm Springs newspaper placed by a youth league that needed umpires, she showed it to me and told me I should apply."
Perry Barber's story intrigued me, and when I got home that evening I turned to the internet to learn more about her. Further research shows she not only loves trivia, but is a Jeopardy! champion. She also won on Tic Tac Dough and a program called The Challengers that was hosted by Dick Clark.
In her past life, Perry had a ten-year career as a singer/songwriter, opening for the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Hall & Oates, Billy Joel, and David Brenner. She still plans on umpiring for some time, but her focus is shifting towards inspiring the next generation of women umpires. Not many women have been a part of baseball history, and one of Perry's goals is to change that:
"Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. As far as I’m concerned, Robinson’s mission will not be complete until there is a woman on the ball field with the men. Only then will true 'equality' be achieved. Equality for women most often comes as a sequel rather than as the main event; blacks gained the right to vote before women did, and we had to fight tooth and nail for that right, as we have most of the ones we now enjoy. I plan on not just being around to see a woman umpire in MLB, but actively playing a part in making it happen."
For an umpire, going unnoticed is usually a good thing, but meeting Perry was a great way to end the 2012 season.