Calling 'Em as He Sees 'Em
When not running the Ump 88 bar and restaurant in Las Cruces, Doug Eddings serves up decisions as a Major League Baseball umpire.
by Jeff Berg
Question: What has two legs, two good eyes (sometimes subject to debate by the unknowing who are usually 50 or so yards away), has been around, nonstop, since 1876, usually exists only in North America, has only one gender, and numbers only 68 in total?
Give up? Major League Baseball umpires.
Las Crucen Doug Eddings on the jobz
as a Major League Baseball umpire.
Since William McLean of Philadelphia umpired a National League game between Boston and Philadelphia on April 22, 1876, umpires have been the bane and existence of baseball players, managers and fans.And one of them, Doug Eddings, was born, raised and continues to live (when not on the road), in Las Cruces.
Even though Eddings was a player when he was younger, he says he knew that playing baseball wasn't what he really wanted to do. He proved that after graduating from Mayfield High School and attending NMSU for about two years.
"I lived baseball, played all the time," Eddings relates at an interview at the smartly appointed bar and restaurant, Ump 88, that he co-owns in Las Cruces. "My parents were involved in Little League, and one day the umps didn't show up for one of the younger kids' games, and they told me that I was going to fill in."
That was all it took, plus the almost insignificant fact that a few days later Eddings was surprised to receive "$30 or $40" for his umpiring stint. His career path was set.
Despite the occasional outraged fan, umpiring is certainly a lot safer than his second career choice — that of a Secret Service agent.
"I would read The Sporting News, and see the ads for the umpire schools and at 15 or 16, I knew that was what I really wanted to do," Eddings says. "I graduated high school early, went to NMSU for a while and at 19, enrolled in the Wendelstedt Umpiring School in Florida."
That school is one of only three Major League Baseball (MLB)-approved umpiring schools in the country. Training there can lead to a job that pays a lot less than what MLB players get, as MLB umpires' salary range extends from $84,000-$300,000 annually.
Eddings says that his class had 200 students, and that he was "second runner up" in the graduation process, meaning that only two other grads better excelled in the skill of umpiring after the five and a half-week course.
After he graduated in 1989, Eddings went to work in the Arizona Fall League, a short-season instructional league based in the Phoenix area. There, the various MLB teams have co-op teams of up-and-coming minor league players play for a few more weeks after the regular season wraps up. Somebody's got to call those games.
From there, Eddings spent about 10 years working minor league games in the Florida State, Eastern, Texas, International and Pacific Coast Leagues, covering the spectrum from lowest to highest minor league baseball assignments. He also spent time in Central America, where he worked some winter ball in the Dominican and Venezuelan Leagues in the mid-1990s.
Finally, in 1998, Eddings made it to "the Show," working first in the American League and then, starting in 2000, both leagues.
It's a semi-frantic time for Eddings when we visit, since he's leaving for spring training in Arizona in just two days.
"I love what I do, but the travel can get to you after a while," he says. "I'm pretty excited now, but after about 10 spring games, I'll be ready to go for the regular season, and it continues like a roller coaster. In the off season, I'll be anxious to get back to work in spring training."
MLB umpires do get a couple of perks, including free lifetime passes to any MLB games after they retire and six passes for games for any family or friends who happen to be in the city where the umpire crew is working.
And in case you didn't think they were being watched by someone other than you, about 55% of all MLB games are monitored by an umpire supervisor (there are seven). All through their careers, the umpires are evaluated, with factors such as their pitch evaluation system, missed calls, ejections and demeanor being taken into consideration.
Each crew is made up of four umpires and they stay together throughout the entire season. Two members of the crew are picked by the crew chief, and the other two are assigned by the MLB office, which now handles the umpires, via the commissioner's office. It used to be that the American and National League presidents ran the show, but now it is all overseen by the commissioner's office. And the pay is a lot better than it was in 1878, when the National League began to require that the home team for each game pay umpires $5 per game.
Once again this year, Eddings will work in tandem with crew chief Dana DeMuth, who starts his 28th season of calling balls, strikes, outs and tossing managers and players.
"There are 17 crews, and 15 of them will be working at one time," Eddings explains. "And we're always on the road, not like the players who will play at least 81 games at home [MLB seasons last for 162 regular season games], so it's really tough. I'm single, but I'd guess that 95% of the other umpires are married and most have kids as well."
But Eddings brings up another perk of his job — namely that he gets several weeks of vacation during the baseball season as well. "It's tough to imagine that I'm doing what I really want to do and even get vacation time while doing it," he says.
In the off season, for the last three years, Eddings has returned to Las Cruces to work at Ump 88, which was named by his business partner.
"We have night and day personalities," Eddings says with a smile. "And running a restaurant is a lot harder than umpiring," he adds quite seriously.
The building was built in 2008 by the original owner, Patrick Hanlon, when the Picacho Hills Drive bar and eatery was called Brigid's Cross. Hanlon wanted to emulate a real Irish pub and grill, and imported all of the wood from Ireland to do so. The original bill of fare reflected traditional Irish pub fare, but after about 18 months, Hanlon put the place up for sale. Ironically, or maybe not, the restaurant is in the same neighborhood where Eddings lives, and the original owner was a neighbor. A deal was struck, and any spare time that Eddings once had for his other interests, such as playing golf or riding his Harley, was quickly sapped away by the day-to-day operation of Ump 88.
The new name of the pub/grill comes from Eddings' uniform number that he wears. "My partner suggested it," the umpire says. "I never even thought of it."
Eddings introduces me to his manager, a friendly young woman who is one of his best employees. Beyond her and a few other faithful and valued helpers, however, finding and keeping good help is an issue for the owners of Ump 88 — a problem that Eddings attributes to a different work ethic nowadays.
Although presently single, Eddings shares his home with his 84-year-old father, who comes to Ump 88 every day to do some light prep work in the restaurant, and maybe to offer bits of paternal advice. The place has a full bar and a varied menu that is a nice blend of Irish pub food and sports bar-type grub. The restaurant is dotted with sports memorabilia from Eddings' career and from meeting other non-baseball sports personalities, and has a lively but not overwhelming energy to it.
Umpiring crews will work both the National and American Leagues throughout the regular season. Those chosen to work the All Star Game are picked at random, and Eddings was selected to work on the 2004 game, which was played in Houston. He has also worked the 2005 American League Champion Series between the Chicago White Sox and the then-Los Angeles Angels, American League Division Series in 2000 and 2002, and the 2006 Japan All-Star Series.
A highlight of Eddings' career came on Oct. 6, 2001, when he was the home plate umpire for Cal Ripken Jr.'s last game. Ripken, who played an amazing 2,632 straight games as an infielder for the Baltimore Orioles (his streak was broken when he voluntarily took himself out of the lineup for the last Orioles home game of 1998), was also a favorite player of Eddings.
"Ripken was hard on new umps," Eddings says, "but after he knew you a bit, he was good to you. He didn't like it when you called a strike on him, either."
Longevity-wise, though, Ripken doesn't hold a candle to former MLB umpires Bill Klem, who worked 5,368 games from 1905-41, or Bruce Froemming, who was on the field for 5,159 games, until he retired in 2007.
A favorite manager whom Eddings had dealings with was Bobby Cox, who managed the Atlanta Braves team two different times, from 1978-81 and again from 1990 through 2010.
"Cox always looked like he was upset," Eddings recalls. "He was tough to work with but he'd not hold a grudge. He'd see you after a game and say, 'Have a nice evening,' as he left the park."
Eddings also has affection for several stadiums, including Boston's Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and the old Yankee Stadium. "I also like Pittsburgh [PNC Park] and Seattle [Safeco Field]. I also prefer working outside," he adds.
Umpiring, of course, has always been a critical part of the game, and umps, as Rodney Dangerfield would say, "don't get no respect." But that's just part of the game.
Often overlooked, since players have egos and salaries big enough for 10 people, umpiring has an interesting history to it. According to mlb.com, umpires were given jurisprudence to fine players for illegal acts in 1879, a power not revoked until 1950. In 1882, an umpire got the boot himself, when it was found that he was in "collusion with gamblers." The 1910 season saw the first manager in the World Series getting tossed out by the umpire. It was not until 1966 that MLB umpiring was integrated, when Emmett Ashford became the first African-American umpire; Armando Rodriguez became the first Hispanic ump in 1974.
So far, a woman has not umpired a regular MLB game, although two women, Pam Postema and Ria Cortesio, have done MLB spring training games in the past. Both probably encountered sexism in their attempts to become MLB umpires: Postema sued MLB and won an out-of-court settlement. Cortesio, who was released in 2007 from the Southern League, had even spent time as an umpiring instructor. But women have had little to say on the field over the years, and the last woman to work a game in a non-independent league setting was Shannon Kook, who spent two years in the Pioneer League, a short-season single-A league set up for new draftees each summer.
With spring training coming to or having ended as you read this, and the regular season opening April 4, Eddings is on the road somewhere, staying at still another hotel, ignoring the catcalls and cusswords, and doing what he wants to do and doing it well. Some umps will be experiencing the "big time" for the first time in 2012, since some will be promoted from AAA leagues, and others will be on call to fill in for vacations and emergencies.
When asked about boundaries — how far can a player, coach or manager go before he gets the heave-ho? — Eddings casually answers that they can't get personal.
"As long as they aren't saying anything personal to me, they can pretty much do what they want," he says. "After 24 years, I don't take most if personally, and I love what I do.
"After all, it's baseball. It is what it is."
For more info and directions to Ump 88 in Las Cruces, check out ump88grill.com.
Jeff Berg calls Las Cruces home plate.