Monday, June 29, 2009

Umps and Academics

I just finished Bruce Weber’s new book, As They See ‘Em, which is about professional umpires. As a longstanding baseball fan, it’s a hoot, but I couldn’t help but notice a few, oddly-comforting parallels to the academic world.

Take, for example, this excerpt from an interview Weber did with Pat O’Conner, who was at the time the chief operating officer of Minor League Baseball. He was in charge of negotiating contracts with the minor league umps’ union. Minor league umps make ten to twenty thousand dollars a year.

“They are the first line of defense for the integrity of the game,” O’Conner said to me. “I respect the hell out of these guys. They’re doing something I couldn’t do.”
In that case, I said, why are they paid so poorly?
They aren’t, O’Conner said; there is simply a difference of opinion about their stature (sic) as employees. That is, the umpires think of themselves as being on a professional career path [to the majors], and the minor leagues consider them to be neither full-fledged professionals nor full-time employees. Rather, their time in the minor leagues, he said, is an apprenticeship; their contacts are for seasonal work.
“Our program is not designed for them to be able to live on their salaries for twelve months a year,” O’Connor said. “To want to change that is to change the financial underpinnings of the entire minor league system. That being said, not many employers pay seasonal workers what we pay them.” (p. 130)

This rings a bell…why does this ring a bell…think, think…

The book goes into tremendous detail about the long, hard path to the majors that umpires have to follow. Something about this passage sounded vaguely familiar, too:

Jimmie Lee Solomon, baseball’s executive vice president, who is himself black, acknowledged that the paucity of black umpires is a problem he’s determined to solve, though that won’t be easy. As of the 2008 season, in terms of seniority and experience, the next several Triple A umpires [the highest level of the minor leagues] in line for major league jobs were white, including at least three – Chris Guccione, Rob Drake, and James Hoye – who have worked more than five hundred games each in the big leagues [as subs]. If Solomon were to promote a black umpire ahead of them, several umpires – white umpires – told me, the resentment would be fierce. (pp. 296-7)

Hmm. A paucity of full-time positions leads to a backlog of very qualified and very frustrated applicants, making hiring for diversity even more politically charged than it otherwise would be. I’ve heard of that happening somewhere before…think, think…

Much of the book is primarily of interest to baseball fans, which is to be expected. (For fans of a certain age, there’s a laugh-out-loud funny explanation of the George Brett/Billy Martin ‘pine tar’ home run incident from the early 80’s.) But the collision of an overly long and inhumane training period with a clogged pipeline for good jobs was eerily familiar.

There’s even a variation on an academic freedom dispute. As longtime fans know, the strike zone defined in the rule book exists only in the rule book. In the early 90’s the strike zone the umps actually called on the field started to change, getting both shorter and wider. For a period in the mid-90’s, a pitch could be six inches off the plate outside and still get called a strike. (For my money, this was part of what drove hitters to go steroid-crazy in the late 90’s. They had to level the playing field.) Although the umps routinely denied that the zone had moved, they also rebelled mightily against any encroachment by the front office on how the strike zone was to be called.

The conflict came to a head in the early 2000’s, when Major League Baseball enlisted QuesTec, a computerized system for determining balls and strikes. Umpires were assessed on their outcomes; umpires who get ‘bad’ scores on QuesTec -- that is, whose calls differed from the computer the most – were pressured to toe the line. (Interestingly, MLB had rejected a high-tech pitch simulator – like a flight simulator, but for calling balls and strikes – as part of umpire training. The use of QuesTec was punitive, rather than formative.) For several years, a war of attrition waged between the umps, who took the position that they know better even if they all disagree with each other, and the league, which insisted on a uniform zone.

Here, too, the parallels were striking (no pun intended). Outcomes assessment was resented by the longtime practitioners, who asserted unaccountability as a prerogative of their station. The league used assessment in a hamhanded and even backwards way, giving credibility to some of the worst fears of the practitioners. Over time, an uneasy truce evolved in which the very worst excesses on both sides were curtailed, but nobody could really say anything was better.

Hmm. I can’t put my finger on it…

If nothing else, it’s comforting to see that some of the more persistent and annoying dilemmas of academia aren’t unique to academia. At least we don’t have our mistakes replayed endlessly on national television.