Traveling with Umpires
Don Denkinger died recently. Denkinger was one of the great baseball umpires, but he had the misfortune of making a bad call during the 1985 World Series that almost certainly cost the St. Louis Cardinals the Series. Here’s an obituary that describes his career and the famous mistake, shown here.
The obituary reminded me of a rare experience I had early in my career, when I traveled for a week with a crew of Major League umpires.
I was planning to write a series of baseball mysteries in which the detective would be—who else?—an umpire. First I needed to do some research, so I called my friend John Wiebusch, who had covered the Angels for the L.A. Times. John gave me a phone number, and the next thing I knew I was on a plane to Baltimore, having received permission to travel with an umpiring crew.
I spent the next week with Joe Brinkman, Tim Tschida, Rick Reed, and Derryl Cousins, first in Baltimore and then Milwaukee. Initially they didn’t like me, having been burned once too often by sportswriters. When I finally convinced them I wrote books, not articles, they didn’t so much accept me as forget me.
I became a fly on the wall—or, in the case of Milwaukee, a giant mosquito. I would show up at the stadium a few hours before the game, head for the umpires’ locker room, and hang out with them until game time, when I would find a seat in the stands, watch carefully, and jot down observations and ideas. Afterward, I would go back to the locker room and listen as the umpires discussed the game and figured out which Italian restaurant they would go to that night.
It was a baseball fan’s dream. Better than that, the umpires were a writer’s dream—loud, colorful, profane, and the picture of integrity. When I got home, I began planning the first mystery. It was a perfectly good story, but the more I worked on it, the more I felt that something was missing. Finally, I realized what it was: the umpires.
A week after returning home, I went to a play, and as I watched the actors move about and talk with one another, it hit me: This shouldn’t be a book. It should be a play, and it should take place where the umpires were most truly themselves—in the locker room before and after games.
When I got home that night, I hurriedly sketched out a story, which I titled Tough Call. A few days later, I stepped into a hot shower and the first two pages of dialogue dropped out of the sky. Dripping wet, I hurried to my computer and typed the beginning of Scene One. It remained essentially unchanged through every draft of the play, all the way to the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center, where it received a staged reading at the National Playwrights Conference.
My week with the umpires, instead of launching a mystery series, propelled me into the world of theater, where I wrote happily for the next ten years. You can read about my plays, books, and librettos in My Life with Books: Trips to the Library and Beyond.