Hardest Job in Baseball
Everyone and anyone who has ever take in a baseball game at one time or another have thought they could do the job better than the guy in blue behind the plate. We have all seen the umpires make calls from a distance,or in retrospect with considerable digital enhancements to expose the life of an umpire is not easy. But one of the greatest dangers of being an umpire is not the threat of harrassment or injury from people attending the games.
The biggest threat to their personal health is actually the small white ball that they call for balls and strikes.
The game is played at an extremely fast pace between the pitcher and the hitter. In an instant the ball can travel from the pitcher’s hand to the glove or bat without a conscience of what might happen to it. In a fraction of a second all three members of the pitch’s evolution have to make consierable actions and reactions before the guy in blue even gets a chance to make a decision on the pitch. And sometimes the unthinkable happens.
Sometimes a variable comes to light that barely ever happens in a game,or a simple pitch selection cross-up between a pitcher and a catcher makes the unthinkable happens. We in the stands usually do not hear the sound of the ball hitting the metal mask or chest protector before the guy behind the plate goes down in a heap of humanity. It is a constant thing that can nhappen on any pitch in the game. He doesn’t have the ability to think for itself, or redirect its path, the ball can cause more harm in a split second than a Walk-off Grand Slam.
And lightning did strike, twice last night during a game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Toronto Blue Jays. Twice a lighting fast ball of twine and leather struck a member of the blue fraternity behind the plate, and twice there had to be a change of positions due to injuries sustained by a member of the umpiring crew to keep the game going smoothly.
Last night’s game began with the groups crew chief, Jerry Crawford behind the plate. He is considered by many to have one of the most consistent strike zones in baseball. And that is a high honor considering most nights everyone,including the guy selling peanuts, thinks they can call the balls and strikes with more clarity than the umpire behind the plate. In the first two innings of last night’s game, Crawford called 24 strikes and 19 balls between the two teams, which included 5 strikeouts for both squads. The game was going smoothly and Crawford had a good grasp of both pitcher’s arsenals and seemed to be cruising along without incident.
But within a flash, he was gone. Crawford had begun having back spasms after taking a foul tip off the bat of the Jays Arron Hill in the bottom of the first inning. The pitch seemed to hit flush into his mask and it rattled his cage a bit. Instead of maybe compromising the game, he pulled himself out from behind Home Plate before the beginning of the third inning and umpire Tom Hallion, who began the game at second base went behind the plate to call the contest.
Somewhere during the course of the first two innings, a foul tip came back and got Crawford square in the mask. But do we really know who might have slapped at the ball that finally got got Crawford? During the first two innings, a total of 16 foul balls were hit off the plate by members of both squads. And one of those fouls came straight back and got Crawford right on the mask.
It really doesn’t matter who got him, but it also shows the inherent danger of this position that we all might take for granted. Umpires have been hit by backswings, errant pitches and even shards of broken bats in the past and had to buckle down and keep calling games. For Crawford, who is the crew chief of this umpiring crew to pull himself out of the game, it had to be an extremely painful event. This is also the second Rays game that Crawford has had to take himself out of this season, He also was injured in the June 21st game against the Mets in Citi Field.
Major League Baseball has 17 revolving umpire crews that travel throughout the circuit on a given year. But during that time injuries and game complications can endanger the group. On May 15, 2008 the MLB actually had six members who don the blues out with injuries, and of that group, five were out with head and neck injuries. and most of those injuries had a direct correlation with a ball striking off of their equipment when they were behind the plate.
And that has to be another area of major concern for MLB. With the guy calling the games getting more and more injuries sustained because of batted balls or miscommunications between a catcher and a pitcher, it is only a matter of time before a umpire is seriously hurt to the point of extended hospitalization. And most of the catchers in major league baseball take pride in the fact they can get to most of those pitches before they ever get to the umpire’s chest protector.
But in the case of the second injury on Weds. night, Rays catcher Gregg Zaun could do nothing to stop that 96 mph fast ball that tailed up and away and caught Hallion square in the chest. “That was scary,” Gregg Zaun told the St Petersburg Times. “I feel so bad. It’s one of those things I don’t like to see that happen. It’s pretty rare I don’t get leather on a ball.” And Hallion stayed down as medical staffs from both teams came out to aid him.
But after a considerable amount of time, Hallion walked off the field on his own. He was checked by medical personnel, and it was determined that if he felt no breathing difficulties, he could stay in the game. The incident effected both Zaun and Rays starter Scott Kazmir who was physically shaken by the event. “You saw it and it hit him flush,” Kazmir told the Times. “And I heard the sound. And the way he fell down, I knew it wasn’t good. You never want to see anything like that. … It looked pretty serious. I missed my location and you kind of feel at faul
But the truth is that Kazmir’s pitch missed so bad it was the only contributing factor to the injury. Zaun had set up for an outside low pitch and the ball tailed up andin on him and Zaun could not have done anything to stop the ball. The only good that came out of that pitch was the fact Jays batter Travis Snider swung and missed at the pitch and it ended the inning. And since the team Not the fact he struck out stands out as the positive, but the teams would be switching field positions, this factor made it easier for the medical crews to come out and check on Hallion before the game play was restored.
And with that, the third member of the umpiring crew went into the Umpire’s room under the stadium tonight and changed into his protective gear. After a 21 minute delay , the third Home Plate Umpire of the night, Brian Onora called the game back into action. And you had to wonder if the facts of the night were swirling in Onora’s mind knowing that two of his crew had already gone down in this game. But Crawford was still at the ballpark and willing to even go out to third base and try and call the rest of the game, but Hallion made it be known that he wanted to continue this game at third base.
MLB has rules governing the umpiring of games, and the possibility of an injury to any of the games Umpiring crews. Rules 9.01-9.05 pertain to the job of the umpires during the course of a MLB sanctioned game. In Rule 9.02(d) it states: “No Umpire may be replaced in a game unless he is injured or becomes ill.” After that passage it continues onto 9.03, which outlines what is to happen if the number of umpires goes below the required 4 per contest. This section outlines the repsonsibilities and the duties of the remaining umpires and their correlation to getting game completed.
The incidents during this game did become a life threatening situation like in May 1, 2008 for umpire Kerwin Daley. He was behind the plate during a Los Angeles Dodgers versus Washington Nationals game when Dodger starter Brad Penny threw a 96 mpoh pitch that struck him in the head. His 68-year old mother was in the stands that day to watch her son and she was the first one to speak to him besides medical personnel before he was lifted into the ambulance.
In 2008, MLB umpires sustained a total of 38 blows to the head. Within the first two months into the 2008 season, there have already been 20 umpire injuries. These numbers are high,but the ratios are higher yet, when considering that there are only 68 Major League Umpires. Mrs. Danley knew that her son was in a profession that posed a physical risk to him, following surgeries to his shoulder and foot to repair damage he incurred on the field. But head injuries are a different story.
Even with the advent of newer equipment and more caution by both catchers and umpires, injuries will still be a fact of life behind the plate. But the true fact that neither of the umpires injured in last night’s game had to physically be carted off, or sent to the hospital has to be a sign that the equipment is doing its job to promote a safer environment for the men in blue. But you also have to tip your hat to the guys behind the plate who are tough as nails.
Crawford commented after the game to the Times that “If he (Hallion) was having any difficulties breathing or something like that we wouldn’t have let him go back out there,” said Crawford, the crew chief. “I would have gone back out there.” These guys know the inherent risks of their jobs and they still do it night after night. Both Hallion and Crawford fully expect to be able to again man spot in the field or behind the plate come Friday night in St. Louis for the Cardinals series. Say what you will about the umpires, but after last night, i have a new respect for two members of that fraternal order.