George Will

Umpires still are custodians of decorum: "As the umpire," Weber writes, "you are neither inside the game, as the players are, nor outside it among the fans, but ... the game passes through you, like rainwater through a filter, and ... your job is to influence it for the better, to strain out the impurities."

Baseball is, Weber notes, the only sport that asks an on-field official to demarcate the most important aspect of the field of play -- the strike zone. Although defined in the rule book, its precise dimensions are determined daily by the home plate umpire.

Umpires are islands of exemption from America's obsessive lawyering: As has been said, three strikes and you're out -- the best lawyer can't help you. But because it is the national pastime of a litigious nation, baseball is the only sport in which a nonplayer is allowed onto the field to argue against rulings.

Umpires are used to having their eyesight questioned -- when someone criticized Bruce Froemming's, he said, "The sun is 93 million miles away, and I can see that" -- but their integrity is unquestioned. As Weber notes, players, not umpires, conspired to fix the 1919 World Series; a manager (Pete Rose), not an umpire, was banned from baseball for betting on games. As umpires say, "If they played by the honor system, they wouldn't need us."

Sport -- strenuous exertion structured and restrained by rules -- replicates the challenges of political freedom. Umpires, baseball's judicial branch, embody what any society always needs and what America, in its current financial disarray, craves -- regulated striving that, by preventing ordered competition from descending into chaos, enables excellence to prevail.

"You can't," Weber says, "hide on a baseball field." But a batter who fails two-thirds of the time for 15 years goes to Cooperstown. An umpire can fail once in a high-stakes moment and be remembered for that forever. It is amazing how rarely they fail as they strive not to be noticed in their pursuit of unobtrusive perfection.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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