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Interview with Gary Darling, because Umps Care

It’s time for the annual UMPS CARE auction. If you haven’t heard about it before, you haven’t been reading my blog for very long. UMPS CARE is a charity run by major league umpires and this annual auction is their main fundraiser. Everything from items autographed by Mariano Rivera and Vin Scully to meet-the-umpires ballpark vacation packages is up for bid from now through May 11th. (That’s not a lot of time so if you want to bid, get over there NOW.)

The best part about the auction for me is I usually get to talk to a major league umpire, though. This year I got to speak with Gary Darling.

Cecilia Tan: Umpires already have one of the toughest jobs in baseball. Why UMPS CARE? Don’t umpires already do enough?

GARY DARLING: We do a lot on the field. But most of us want to do some good off the field. That’s part of being a human. We started it years ago and it has grown into what it is today. We do a lot of good things, but to do that we have to raise the money and this auction is one of the biggest things we do. The last couple of years MLB has hosted it on MLB.com and I think that really helps us get a bigger audience.

CT: What’s your advice for that one kid out there who goes to a game and imagines themselves behind the plate instead of in the batters box?

GARY DARLING: You better love it! All of us at one time of another, it got into our blood. Not many kids grow up wanting to be umpires. I went to umpire school with a guy and that was all he had ever wanted to do since he was 12 or 13. But although he worked for years in the minors and hundreds of games in the majors, he never got hired to be a full time MLB umpire. It’s nothing you do for the money; you have to love to do it.

CT: What’s the best book about baseball you’ve ever read?

GARY DARLING: Quite a few of the umpire books out there are good. The Best Seat in the House, Men in Blue, Ken Kaiser’s book PLANET OF THE UMPS. Yogi Berra’s book was good. Ball Four. I read a lot of books, but probably not as many as I should. When we’re traveling on the plane I usually play cards with the guys. THE LAST BOY, the book on Mickey Mantle [by Jane Leavy] I really enjoyed that. Doug Harvey’s book was really good, too, the retired National League umpire.

CT: Most amazing thing you ever saw on a baseball field?

GARY DARLING: It was in ’98, during the home run race with Sosa and McGwire. The crew I was on was assigned to that series and we were on the field when McGwire hit #60, #61, and #62. That one really kinda stands out. They were using a special ball for the first time, with holograms on them, so everyone had to get used to that, and so many dignitaries, from MLB, and the league presidents. It was more like a World Series atmosphere. And now guys have gone past those records but that was the time when it was first done in a long time. That crew, we were all friends, and we had a great time that year. A nice time for all of us.

CT: Will we ever see female umpires in professional baseball?

GARY DARLING: There already have been. I did work with Pam Postema. I don’t think there is anyone in the minor league right now, but I imagine that someday there will be female umpires in the major leagues. It’s not out of the realm of possibility. You have to have a pretty thick skin and I don’t think someone would do it if they were only doing it to make a point. You’d have to love it.

CT: The past two seasons have seen an unusually large number of changes to the rules, blocking home plate, replay/review, ball transfer from the glove, etc… what’s your take on all the changes from MLB?

GARY DARLING: Replay was something that was coming whether we were for or against it. I’ve been on the disabled list so far this year so I haven’t been involved in replay yet except as the guy in the truck in spring training, not on the field. And in spring training there are only 3 or 4 cameras, not the 10 or 12 they have in the major league park. I think for the most part it shows how good we are. No one wants to be that guy, the one who blows am important call, like the Armando Galaragga situation, but if you have several big misses a year as a minor league umpire you’re not going to move up the ladder. When you go to umpire school you learn you’re supposed to be perfect and get better from there. They want us to be perfect and we’re never going to be. That was the only issue I had. I think overall it shows how good we are. I think everyone is still trying to figure out the situation with blocking the plate. It’s a work in progress. They’ve already seen a change on the transfer/no-catch. The umpires will run through a wall to get it done if we have the support of MLB, which right now we feel like we do. It’s just another change in baseball, that’s how we look at it.

CT: Bruce Weber wrote a book on umpires a few years ago (As They See ‘Em: A Fan’s Travels in the Land of Umpires) and he asked players and coaches what quality they thought was most important for a good umpire. He thought they would say “accuracy.” It surprised him, as it would most fans, I think, to hear they said “authority.” I think most fans assume the game could run itself, but if that’s what players and coaches say, clearly the fans are missing something.

GARY DARLING: The players can’t have an intrasquad game in spring training without some level of umpiring. The catcher will always say it’s a good pitch and the batter will always say it wasn’t. They’re there to compete. The umpire is there to be firm but fair. At some point you have to be that guy who isn’t going to be very popular, but if you do it with fairness in mind and are firm about it, everyone can respect you.

CT: Anything else we should know about UMPS CARE before I let you go?

GARY DARLING: We’re going to be giving up to $50,000 in scholarships this year, to young people who were adopted later in life and who need it for college funds. We’ll be taking over 750 kids to ballparks this year, too, where they get to visit the umpire room, and we have over a dozen hospital visits. We’re also adding a military initiaitive this year to visit rehabbing veterans. We had ten umpires come up to do a Wounded Warrior charity game and are planning visits to Walter Reed National Medical Center. So helping military vets and their families is a new area for us. We’ll be doing a lot in the minor league cities, too, as well as major league cities, with VIP packages where you can get hotel included and go to the ballpark and meet us. There’s even one where you can go hunting with some umpires.

The auction ends on May 11th.
If you missed out on bidding, you can also donate directly to UMPS CARE at umpscare.com.

Gary Darling’s Reading List:

(Did you enjoy reading this blog entry? Please consider buying me a hot dog.)

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