Zalusky: Umpires are the third team on the baseball field

Former American League umpire Al Clark, the only ump to wear his name on his cap, once wrote there are three teams on a baseball field.

The third team is the umpiring crew.

Much maligned and often underappreciated by fans, the third team is as essential to the game as the other two.

Clark, in his book, "Called Out But Safe: A Baseball Umpire's Journey," co-written with Dan Schlossberg and published in 2014, explained the complex and specialized nature of the umpiring trade.

"Being an umpire takes poise, maturity, psychology, mastery of body language, and an ability to maintain composure when everyone around them has lost theirs."

Nothing less than perfection is expected from the men in blue, whether it's calling balls and strikes, ruling on bang-bang plays at first base or determining whether a hard-hit ball is a homer or merely a long strike. They are not only expected to exhibit impeccable judgment, but also to step in as peacekeepers when a confrontation between teams threatens to break out into a bench-clearing brawl.

When they fall short of the mark, they hear about it from fans, players and managers.

There are probably still St. Louis Cardinals fans stewing about Don Denkinger's blown call at first base in the 1985 World Series.

Cubs fans recall Milt Pappas' no-hitter in 1972 and how Pappas lost a perfect game, thanks to umpire Bruce Froemming marring the masterpiece by calling a walk with two out in the ninth to Padres pinch-hitter Larry Stahl.

On the other hand, without Doug Eddings' questionable call on a dropped third strike by Buffalo Grove native Josh Paul in Game 2 of the 2005 American League Championship Series, the White Sox might not have eventually won the World Series.

Umps run the risk of attacks from players and managers.

In 1996, Baltimore's Roberto Alomar spit in the face of umpire John Hirschbeck.

Managers from Leo Durocher to Don Zimmer have gone toe-to-toe and nose-to-nose with umpires, with skippers like Lou Piniella emphasizing their arguments by kicking dirt.

Fans have channeled their wrath toward umpires, heckling them from the stands, making optometrist referrals, and sometimes hurling promotional seat cushions onto the field. During a 2003 game between the Sox and Royals at U.S. Cellular Field, a fan bolted on the field and tried to tackle ump Laz Diaz by grabbing him around the waist.

Diaz, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, said, "I turned around and got him off me. The good hand-to-hand combat they taught me worked."

As Diaz's response demonstrated, umpires have often given back as good as they have gotten, often exercising their right to toss players out of the game, thus proving that while the players have the privilege of remaining in the game for nine innings, the presence of umpires during that regulation span is guaranteed.

In the words of former Sox broadcaster Hawk Harrelson, "There are three rules in baseball: Catch the ball, pitch the ball, and don't mess with Joe West."

West, who pursued a career as a country music singer-songwriter off the field, was one of many umpires known for their strong personalities.

The list includes Hall of Famer Hank O'Day. Prior to his umpiring career, the native Chicagoan won 73 games as a major league pitcher. As an umpire he was most famous for calling out the Giants' Fred Merkle in a 1908 game that helped send the Cubs to the World Series. In a brief hiatus from his umpiring work, he would later manage the Cubs.

Joining O'Day among the ranks of players who made the transition to umpiring was Jocko Conlan, who in 1935, as a member of the White Sox, was asked to fill in as umpire - still wearing his Sox uniform - in a game in St. Louis against the Browns when ump Red Ormsby was overcome by the heat. It was the start of a Hall of Fame umpiring career.

In 1945, Frank Secory played 35 games for the pennant-winning Cubs. He went on to umpire in the National League for 19 years.

Umpires have brought their distinctive styles to calling balls and strikes, including Dutch Rennert, who would drop to one knee and extend his full hand as he added one syllable and extended another in uttering the word "Steeeeerike."

If fans, players and managers have taken issue with umpires, even major league baseball has gotten into the act by allowing replay.

And looming on the horizon is the robot umpire relaying balls and strikes.

In his book, Clark wrote, "I think we started to earn respect on the field when advances were made in technology - when instant replay, stop-action, and slow motion were introduced to our game. Those innovations did not show how wrong the umpires were; it actually showed how right they were in a huge percentage of their decisions."

Umpire Al Clark calls Toronto's Devon White safe as he avoids the tag by Oakland's Lance Blankenship in the American League Championship Series Oct. 7, 1992 at the Sky Dome in Toronto. Associated Press
Atlanta's William Contreras speaks with home plate umpire Laz Diaz after being called out on strikes during the ninth inning July 3 in Cincinnati. Associated Press
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