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Mudville: September 18, 2021 12:09 pm PDT
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The Umpire’s Bunkhouse

Understand this: We need umpires.

Eventually, Major League Baseball will get rid of umpires by having an automated strike zone. It’s already being utilized in the Low-A Southeast league, and after having watched it live, this is just another Pandora’s Box about to be opened by MLB. There already is way too much replay, which has changed the game in a negative way.

There is no tempo to a major league game anymore, the second-guessing of every play, every gotcha slide and tag and nearly every single ball and strike call, it is so tiresome, it has made watching a game tedious. Another thing it has done is has really affected the broadcast booth.

Broadcasters of the past who had big personalities and would tell stories, don’t have the time to do that anymore. They are too busy saying a pitch was missed by the umpire.

Can you imagine Phil Rizzuto being plopped into a 2021 broadcast booth and having to abide by the parameters these poor broadcasters have to follow? We would never hear any of the Scooter’s delightful stories, his fear of lightning, his goal of crossing the GW Bridge before the traffic hit, it all would be lost to the percentage of two-seamers thrown by each pitcher, True Outcomes and ball and strike complaints.

Part of the joy of MLB always was the umpiring, good and bad, the personalities, the human strike zone, not some TV box that is the same to every hitter. Even the arguments were part of the patchwork quilt that made the game entertaining.

And real.

“We talk about that all the time,’’ Brown said. “This is not a self-serving thing. But all the umpires are almost unanimously against the automated style.’’

Here at The Story, we look at baseball in different ways and this Sunday we tell the story of an amateur umpire and what that life entails – and the importance of umpire guidance and personalities to young ballplayers. We really do need umpires.

Meet Michael Brown.

He umpires high school, college and spends a number of weeks in the summer umpiring up at Cooperstown Dreams Park. He offers up truths about umpires and has the ability to tell those stories in an interesting fashion with a background in journalism and public relations.

Brown was so enthralled by his time umpiring in Cooperstown that he wrote a wonderful little book about the experience called “The Umpire’s Bunkhouse’’.

This would be a great book for any young player to read to get a better understanding of an umpire’s life, especially at the amateur level. Parents might learn something too. Certainly umpires – and officials in all sports – could be treated with a little more respect, especially at the high school level.

Cooperstown, home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum, is a most special place and decades ago Brown worked as a sports editor in the area, so he knows it from the vantage point of when the induction ceremony was a much more intimate affair. His experience as an umpire and spending time in the Umpire’s Bunkhouse with umpires from all across the nation in Cooperstown Dreams Park umpiring games for 12-under teams gives a bird’s eye view of the importance of umpires.

Not just having more machines and more tech in these kids’ lives as well as the parents who make the trek to Cooperstown Dream Park.

Think back to your own Little League days when a kindly neighbor perhaps umpired your games and the impact that experience had on your life.

Brown, who lives in Ohio, has been umpiring 35 years. He has experience. And he has drive. When his brother Terry, a firefighter was killed in a blaze at the age of 21 along with another firefighter, Dana Fuller, 40 years ago, Mike decided to make the most of every moment and try to be the best he could be at everything he did in his life to honor his brother.

Michael Brown with his book, The Umpire's Bunkhouse.

This past week he umpired the city of Columbus League Championship with the Whetstone Braves winning their 10th straight city championship, beating the Briggs Bruins, 10-0.

This is grass roots baseball fun, and it is so real.

What made this particular championship game even more enjoyable for Brown was that it was a three-man umpiring crew, usually it is a two-man crew. “This was a blast,’’ he told BallNine. “It was great having the extra man out there.’’

Brown was stationed at first base and nearly was run over when the final out was made and the winning team celebrated. His friend John Fox was one of the other umpires.

“It’s really intense,’’ he said of such a game. “John has been to Cooperstown 15 times and I lived there for five years back in the ‘80s. It was a great time to be in newspapers and it was a great time to be covering the Hall of Fame. It was a beautiful thing.’’

Back when he was working in Cooperstown, Brown explained, the HOF induction ceremony “was behind the library, very small scale. Bob Feller, Henry Aaron, Ted Williams, everybody was there. It was a very small intimate experience, there wasn’t any of the security there is now and of course the Otesaga Hotel was wonderful.’’

Brown was able to take his dad Richard to the 1980 ceremony when Al Kaline was inducted and to one of the events at the classy Otesaga Resort Hotel.

“My dad went through the line for all the nice food, lobster, crab, whatever, and the whole way through he had this great long conversation with this guy who was also filling his plate. He came back to me and sat down and we’re sitting right next to Al Kaline and (Bill) Freehan and Mickey Lolich and a lot of the Tigers and he said, ‘I just had this great conversation with that little short guy right over there. Who is that?’

“I said, ‘That’s Warren Spahn.’ For anybody from the ‘50s and 60s, Warren Spahn was a hero to a lot of people.’’

That’s the beauty of Cooperstown, especially Cooperstown 41 years ago. You just never know who you are going to run into there.

Richard E. Brown, a Red Sox fan, also got to meet Carl Yastrzemski that year. Richard lives in Florida now and just turned 91.

Mr. Richard Brown, 91, had the full Cooperstown experience with his son.

Mike Brown has umpired three years in the Cooperstown Dreams Park and is looking forward to returning.

For players and umpires this is a summer camp experience and friendships are made. Consider these paragraphs from his book about making friends with a family of one player from California:

“When we finally met up, it was a magic moment. I brought a plate brush and an umpire pin and we posed for a family photo with a baseball signed ‘Pals Forever.’

“Four different teams sponsored me and one of the grandparents of the team from Pittsburgh said games reminded him of the character of Forrest Gump. ‘You never know what you’re going to get from 12-year-old kids,’ he said.

Yes, umpiring life is like a box of chocolates.

“I jumped at the chance to go and it was an incredible thing,’’ Brown said of going to the tournament in Cooperstown. “There is no heat, no air conditioning, the umpires are all in a bunk house, it’s like summer camp. Some of the guys are 70 years old and some of the guys are 25.’’

They all take their umpiring jobs seriously, doing the best they can every day.

“You live eat, breathe and sleep baseball,’’ Brown told me of life in 41A Bunkhouse. “You do about three games a day. They have 104 teams that come in and by Thursday they are down to two. It’s quite an honor to be picked for the finals.’’

Brown received such an honor in 2019.

Umpires are sponsored by teams to work the event. The teams that sponsored him have cancelled this year so he is not going, but Brown will return in 2022. He is paid $850 a week while there for all the games that he umpires and was thrilled to do it.

“I’m going to go every single year,’’ he promised. “Teams from the year before will nominate me or suggest me and each town, each city will pretty much send a team every year. Some of the guys go for 13 weeks and I don’t know how they do it.’’

The Umpires outside of Bunkhouse 41A

That’s big blue dedication. “I’m too old for that, I’m 66,’’ Brown said with a laugh. Brown is retired from his public relations career for the state of Ohio so he has the time to devote to umpiring. On the Ohio board was a gentleman named George Steinbrenner.

I asked Brown if he had ever known The Boss before his public relations career.

Turns out, Brown for a period, covered the Yankees and worked for Yankees Magazine.

“Funny story about Steinbrenner, he censored me one time,’’ Brown explained. “I wrote my column about Don Mattingly, how he had been in the minor leagues for five years and he never hit less than (.315) and Steinbrenner sent me a note and said, ‘Well Mike, I like your columns but I got to stop you on this one because I don’t have a place for Mattingly. I don’t know if he is going to start. He’s a terrible outfielder and he doesn’t have any speed.’

“And of course, you know the rest of the story.’’

In 1984 Mattingly led the AL in batting with a .343 mark. In 1985 he was AL MVP. Over his 14-year career, Donnie Baseball became one of the most beloved Yankees of all time.

Clearly, Mike Brown knows something about baseball.

I am a big believer in the human element in baseball. It makes the game… human – so I asked Brown where we are going with the automated umpires and everything else.

“We talk about that all the time,’’ Brown said. “This is not a self-serving thing. But all the umpires are almost unanimously against the automated style.’’

Balls and strike calls can be subjective, according to the angle of view.

“I was a curve ball pitcher in American Legion and the umpires have to look at the angles,’’ Brown said. “People see that little square on their TVs but that is not the strike zone. The strike zone is from the arm pits or the letters to the bottom of the knees. That’s the way we call them.

“If you got a 6’6’ batter or a 5’6” batter, how are you going to set that automated strike zone up? I see it as problematic.’’

The pins the umpires trade among themselves at Cooperstown Dreams Park.

In the Low-A Southeast this year, they took measurements of each batter before the season but what if the batter changes his stance? What if there is a two-strike approach where the batter gets a bit lower in the zone?

Certainly, for high schools and colleges the expense of such a system would be prohibitive.

More importantly, the human element has always been a part of the game and the feedback from the umpire to the players. What does that bring to the game?

“I think it means everything,’’ Brown said. “You talk to the fans, the coaches the players. You talk to the coaches beforehand and you make it clear that you are with them, you are not against them. That’s one thing I bring to the table. They know I am a fair umpire. I don’t keep score. I don’t know who is ahead.’’

How bad is it getting with the public and criticism?

“It’s gotten really bad,’’ Brown admitted. “I had a team recently, a 14-under team and their coaches were just brutal. They questioned everything.’’

On a swipe tag at first that was called safe, “The coaches went nuts,’’ said Brown, who was working the plate with coaches arguing that the runner was out of the base line.

Chill, people.

Brown offers a talk to public schools entitled: Don’t Holler at Your Umpire.

Every call on TV is questioned and that response has boiled down to the amateur level. Umpires are not getting rich, either. They do it for the love of the game. Brown worked a game where the other umpire tossed the coach out of the game and the then two umpires were then followed out of the stadium after the game.

“They wanted to fight us, but the police were right behind us and luckily nothing happened,’’ Brown said. “The pay doesn’t really matter. Here in Ohio for example we have the lowest paid umpires in the country, $65 for a varsity game and $42 for a JV game. In Vermont and New Hampshire where I came from you get $85 for a varsity game and in New York you get $123. My point is, the umpires here are in it for the thrill of trying to be the best you can be. And I mention that in the book. Each game they try to get better.

“The pay doesn’t come into it. I remember when I was in high school or American Legion ball and I don’t remember anybody yelling at the umpires or referees, we had respect for them. There aren’t many voices speaking up now for the umpires.’’

Umpires, especially at the high school level of baseball and softball, enjoy watching young players grow. That is part of the fun of the job.

“That’s a big part of it,’’ Brown said. “As an umpire you don’t know the names of players but after a while when if you have done it enough you start to see someone who was a freshman and a sophomore playing varsity and by the time he is a senior he is a young man and he is really good and you say to him, ‘I remember when you were a freshman.’ The kid will say, ‘How do you remember me?’

“‘Oh, I remember, I don’t remember your name but I never forget a face. I remember you were at shortstop and you played second base and the kid will say, ‘Yeah that’s me.’’’

The human element at work.

Brown’s book is gaining traction in a year when that is difficult because of a lack of book signings and events to promote books with places being shut down.

“I recently had a head of an umpire’s group in Texas, a total stranger to me, he wrote to me and sent me a check because he wanted to give that book as a gift to every one of his umpires as they go into playoffs,’’ Brown said.

Umpires appreciate the effort to tell their stories. “What I’m finding is the book has a lot of shelf life,’’ Brown said. “It’s not just about the 2019 season, it’s about a lot more than that and it is gaining some momentum now.’’

His fellow umpires in Cooperstown love the book and want him to go to their towns across the country for book signings. “We have a real tight bond,’’ Brown said. “I hear from somebody almost every day.’’

Brown is working on a new book about the friendship between his father and his best friend, Lisle Burnham, from being in the Navy together to raising families and “about how the world has changed since 1930,’’ Brown said. “I’m calling it: “Burnham & Brown, a 75-year friendship made in Vermont’’.

His father’s friend recently died, “and he was buried in the Navy cemetery in Florida, and we were there with his sons and that’s probably going to start the book out,’’ Brown said.

There will be baseball in that book too, as well as plenty of life experiences. Should be another fascinating read.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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