(Scribner’s, 352 pages, $26)
No boy ever dreams of growing up to be a professional umpire, says New York Times writer Bruce Weber. A baseball fan has to have given up on headier fantasies before appreciating the attraction of a job that pays 68 unionized employees “upwards of $200,000” each to watch big-league ball at field level for seven months of the year. When Weber himself joined 120 such dreamers at a five-week umpiring camp recently, he was seeking an understanding of the profession, not a new career. But what he learned—besides the skills that allowed him to eventually call a few youth league games and even a major league spring-training tuneup—was that he didn’t like the work at all. “You wouldn’t believe the aggravation,” he writes.
Weber’s portrait of the umpiring life is “the best baseball book I’ve read in a long time,” said Michael Silverman in the Boston Herald. All of us have seen big-league umps screamed at, spat at, and booed. But they live invisibly in our world, like one of those isolated tribes that “keep getting discovered” on other continents. The discoveries that Weber has made about them begin with the fact that they typically start a game by shouting “Play!” not “Play ball!” said Eric Zorn in the Chicago Tribune. There’s an invisible ballet to the ways they’re required to move on every play, said Steve Weinberg in the St. Petersburg, Fla., Times. Even learning the right way to pull off a protective mask “takes months of practice.”
The vast majority of umpires never make the bigs, of course, said Jim Bouton in The New York Times. If they’re lucky enough to be recruited into one of the minor leagues, they can expect years of shared hotel rooms, takeout meals, and $10,000 a year for their troubles. Even umpires stuck in the farm system must demonstrate “the ability to make snap decisions under pressure, the personality to deal with endless criticism, and the presence necessary to command a game.” After reading Weber’s book, you can’t help but appreciate their dedication and wish that America had more like them in other walks of life, said George Will in The Washington Post. They “embody what any society always needs”: a class of selfless regulators that, “by preventing ordered competition from descending into chaos, enables excellence to prevail.”