Perry Barber Interview (Stories)

Her photo is the one with the mask at eye level.

In the final installment of the interview, I asked for a few stories that Perry Barber might be able to tell us. As you can imagine, I got a few detailed and interesting stories instead of the couple jokes that I expected. Before I give you her response, I would like to thank Perry Barber for sharing all her thoughts, insights, experiences, and pictures (I didn’t even have to ask. She just linked me some of her pictures to choose from. I always like to include pictures because I’m a visual learner and understand concepts and ideas better when I have something to look at and associate. You never know if people realize these things sometimes, but it appears that they do). Thank you again, Perry.

8) Are there any interesting stories you can tell us about your experience in the minor leagues as an umpire?

Any? How about gazillions? They’re all interesting to me; I see poetry and humor in the most prosaic of double plays. My first game in “professional” ball, back in 1983 in the Rocky Mountain League, which had a very short lifespan and still owes me and dozens of players quite a bit of money, I was on the bases in Tooele, Utah, and the home team manager came out to make a pitching change. I was such a raw rookie, just out of umpire school for the second time, and knew it was my responsibility to run towards the bullpen and inform the new pitcher that he was in the game. So I hustle down there, all professional and alert, and point at the player in the bullpen standing up with the baseball in his hand.”Let’s go, you’re in the game!” I shouted assertively. “Who, me?” the player I was pointing at yelled back, looking totally mystified. “Yes, you, let’s go!” I commanded. “But I’m the catcher!” he protested.

That’s one. Here’s another, which I’ve excerpted from my forthcoming memoir Kiss the Umpire (spelled Kill the Umpire, with the two “l”s in Kill crossed out and the two “s”s written above, which I don’t know how to reproduce here in this Word document.)

This wasn’t the nightmare where you walk into a room full of strangers and suddenly realize you’re naked, but it was close. What on earth had I gotten myself into? I was performing a public service, for heaven’s sake, making all of twelve dollars to umpire this peewee baseball game for a bunch of surly six-year-olds, and everybody was screaming at me! I was appalled by the venom in the jeers I heard spewing from the bleachers near the first base dugout. An insane impulse fueled by my mother, of all people, had brought me to this place, and I was regretting it more feverishly with every epithet hurled at me by some irate parent.

“Go back to the kitchen, you bitch!” a dainty matron shrieked, the incisive wit of her remark eliciting hysterical laughter that sounded like the howling of starved hyenas. My mother, stoic and silent in the front row of the stands, could restrain herself no longer and raised her five-foot-two-inch frame off the metal bench as I watched, transfixed.

“That umpire is my daughter,” she hissed, “and you will refrain from speaking to her in that manner!” She glared at the offending critic, seething, as a tiny child snickered at me bitterly, daring me to sneer back. “Surely you don’t want all these impressionable young minds here to be tainted by your language and behavior,” she added icily.

Bravo, Jack, I thought, grateful for the moral support. This was, after all, her idea, not mine. She was the one who had shown me the ad in the Palm Springs newspaper resulting in my current “employment,” if you could call it that. I turned my attention to the infield where a little cherub was tossing the ball up and down in a churlish snit. “Are you ready?” he snarled at me frantically, his angelic features distorted by fury and the frenzy of his impatience.

The turmoil around me was dismaying, but strangely, I was taking a perverse pleasure in this pillory disguised as the “baseball opportunity” promised so enticingly by the ad. Never in my life had I been vilified so up close and personally, in such a hostile arena, yet it was a peculiarly uplifting rather than degrading experience. Still, discretion being the better part of valor, I was judiciously plotting a quick getaway with my mother, who had kindly chauffeured me to the game because I, a lifelong New Yorker, had learned to drive only the year before and did not have a car. This made me, in all probability, the only living twenty-eight-year-old single white female, currently unattached but looking for love, whose mother had just driven her to her first little league game.

And this:

The prospect of working a major league intrasquad with Frank Umont, a former – very former – major league umpire, thrilled me. I had umpired dozens of spring training games for the Mets since 1985, but this would be my first with the Yankees and I definitely wanted to make a good impression. Having the septuagenarian Umont as a partner could only be a good thing for me in spite of his lack of mobility. There were bound to be people, coaches and some older personnel, who would recognize him and offer him the respect he was due from his decades of major league service. Being his partner would bestow a lot of credibility on Joe and me, two unknowns. What I was most concerned about was working the three-umpire system. I had very little experience with it at that time so we decided to make it easy on ourselves and not use any regular rotations, which are often complicated choreographies dictated by specific plays. The plan we devised was simple: Joe was to stay behind the plate, Umont would plant himself on the foul line behind the first baseman, and I would be ready at all times for plays at second and third. In other words, nobody had to move except me.

This strategy turned out to be a boon for all of us, but especially for yours truly. It also made me, temporarily, the apple of George Steinbrenner’s eye. Arthur [Richman, the newly-installed Yankees vice-president who hired me] had introduced me to the oft-maligned magnate before the game started. Steinbrenner was holding court in one of the dugouts and seemed pleased to meet me, but a bit confused about who I was. He called me “Pam” and I explained that I was Perry, not Pam Postema, who at the time was the only woman calling balls and strikes in all of pro ball and who looks nothing like me. I did a lot of spring training intrasquads and split squads but I didn’t count as a “professional” umpire because I wasn’t employed by a minor league during the regular season the way Pam was. The spring training games I work are often scheduled only a few days before they get played, sometimes even the night before, and local high school or college umpires like me get hired at short notice for them by the equipment managers or the traveling secretaries of the major league teams. I had friends in these positions all over the National League, but until Arthur switched his allegiance from the Mets to the Yankees I had no such champion among the American League clubs. This would be my first opportunity to test myself on unfamiliar territory, and I was determined to make the most of my audition.

It never hurts to be charming, even in the nondescript uniform of an umpire, so while I had Steinbrenner’s attention I thanked him for the chance to work the game. “Arthur says you’ll give him a lot of shit if I don’t do a good job!” I teased.

“I give him a lot of shit anyway,” he joked back.

I nodded, grinning. “He tells me about it all the time.” It was true. Arthur confided in me frequently about his spirited interactions with the legendary owner. Ranted, was more like it. According to Arthur, the two of them ranted frequently, chiefly about each other.

The game started off with a bang. The leadoff batter singled to right, which meant that as soon as he hit the ball I was sprinting towards the infield from my position on the third base line. The batter rounded first, looking over his shoulder, and saw the right fielder having trouble getting a handle on the ball. He speeded up and motored towards second as I settled in smoothly, waiting for the tag by the shortstop. “Safe!” I shouted, confident and alert.

I saw Umont beaming at me from behind first base, proud of his little protégé. A murmur arose from the crowd, signaling an ever so slight defrosting of their initially chilly reception. General reaction had been lukewarm at best when the public address announcer introduced the umpires, and I heard the usual shocked queries. “Look, is that a girl?” people asked, as if I were from Mars or the IRS.

“I didn’t know girls could do that, daddy,” a tot squealed. I have very mixed emotions about such comments. They should make me happy and proud, but my delight at hearing them is often tempered by regret because of the solitary nature of my calling. Umpiring may be a crowded fraternity, but for me it’s almost always a sorority of one.

Have you ever watched the movie Thelma and Louise? There is a scene in it where Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, on the lam from the law, are driving around the rim of the Grand Canyon. “I feel awake,” Davis tells Sarandon. “Wide awake. I don’t remember ever feeling this awake.” That’s the sensation I get, a sort of calm hyper-awareness, a hormonally induced high, when a game starts to flow. It’s like being charged with a low hum of focused energy. Once the Yankee pitchers found their rhythm, the pace of things picked up dramatically. I glided in and punched a runner out on a close play at second with an aggressive, strategically timed motion. Joe was nailing his plate game and Umont was still vertical. We were firing on all cylinders. By the fourth inning I knew I had the crowd in the palm of my hand, because everybody was pretty much ignoring me.

For an umpire, being ignored is a good thing. After watching me suspiciously up to that point, most people could tell I knew what I was doing so they started paying attention to the game again instead of scrutinizing every move I made. I was really beginning to loosen up when I found myself on the infield near second base with runners at first and second. This positioned me for a play at second or third while Umont was making like a statue at first and Joe, obviously, was home. The batter swung and bounced a double play ball, the umpire’s best friend, right towards shortstop Alvaro Espinoza.

There is something colloquially called a “phantom tag” that shortstops and second basemen apply on the front end of a double play in order to spare themselves unnecessary risk of injury from a runner sliding or crashing into the bag. The phantom tag occurs when the fielder motions as if he were tagging a runner but doesn’t actually touch him, or steps on the ground in the immediate vicinity of the bag rather than directly on it, to avoid getting hurt by a runner. Umpires will permit this and grant the out if a fielder clearly could have gotten it but chooses not to because of an oncoming runner. In other words, if the ball is there, call an out even if the fielder doesn’t actually touch the base or the runner. Fans might get upset when they see umpires allow a fielder this leeway, but it is a ruling generally accepted without protest by players and managers. Nobody wants to see a player get hurt for no reason, especially one making millions of dollars.

Espinoza decided to test this theory of sympathy for the irritatingly rich by stamping his foot on the ground expectantly as he snared the ball and whipped it to Steve Sax at first base. The only problem for me was that the spot he tapped was not all that close to second base. As a matter of fact, it was so far off the bag there was no way I could justify calling the runner out. I would look ridiculous if I did, and invite an argument. So I called safe, and wound up with an argument. Only it wasn’t mine!

A photograph memorializing that episode appeared in the local newspaper the next day. In it, I am dwarfed by pitcher Tim Leary, infielder Steve Sax, and base coach Joe Sparks. My back is to the camera as the three Yankees loom over me, and I remember taking a couple of deep breaths to steady myself as they ganged up and moved in on their prey.

But wait! They wanted to question me about Umont’s call, not mine. I did what any umpire in this situation should do. I told them to go away and leave me alone. “Forget it, guys,” I halted them, raising my hands palm side out as if emitting a force field. “I’m not going to talk to you about that play because I didn’t make the call,” I said firmly. “And since Frank Umont, the umpire over there who did, was in the major leagues for twenty years, I doubt he’ll want to discuss it with you either.” Umont was auditing this exchange with interest, barely concealing his mirth at the sight of me defending his decision to the menacing Yankee posse.

“I’ll talk to him,” I nodded towards Espinoza surveying our little tableau nearby. “The rest of you, go away.” Glumly, the trio dispersed. Like mischievous children, they were testing me to see how far they could get, but I was in no mood to be lenient. What I needed was to establish my boundaries and let them know exactly what I expected from them so there would be no future confusion.

Espinoza strolled over and eyed me without expression. “You don’t give me that call?” he asked, all innocent. “We don’t get too many umpires who make that call like that.”

“Oyé me, Alvaro,” I sighed, his newest ally. “I’m under the microscope out here. If you want me to call the runner out on that play, you have to help me. At least make it look legitimate so I can call him out and not look like an idiot. You don’t want me to look like an idiot, do you?”

Espinoza, no idiot himself, shook his head. I wouldn’t necessarily try this approach in a high school game. A fourteen- or fifteen-year-old might say yes; they’re little snots at that age. But the Yankee shortstop was all pro. “From now on, you have to actually touch the base for me,” I admonished him. “Entiendé? That way, neither of us will look like we’re trying to get away with something.”

Espinoza listened without comment and nodded. “Okay,” he said, and that was that. With one out and the bases loaded, the next batter grounded to him again. This time he stepped on the bag as deftly as a dancer before throwing to first for a thrilling double play that ended the half inning and had everybody cheering lustily. I breathed a sigh of relief at such a satisfactory dénouement, and jogged to the outfield. I had withdrawn my head unharmed from the mouth of the lion to emerge smelling like a rose, and the perfume of success was intoxicating.

I stood off by myself in short left center field while the next pitcher was warming up, and spied one of the ball boys running towards me from the first base dugout where Steinbrenner had enthroned himself. He raced across the outfield clutching a cup in his outstretched hand, his little legs churning as he struggled to balance it without letting a single drop of liquid spill, and I gratefully anticipated a tall sip of cool water as my reward for a job well done. (At least so far!)

The boy slowed as he approached me and shyly held out the cup. He appeared to be very young. “Mr. Steinbrenner says he thinks you made a good call on that play at second base, and he’s sending you this coke as a token of his appreci…appreciation,” he stammered adorably. I regarded the lad with amusement.

“Please tell Mr. Steinbrenner I said thank you, but I don’t drink soda during games. It’s bad for me and only makes me thirstier,” I advised him. “Take it back and tell him a nice cup of water would be great, but I really don’t want this.” No more than eight years old, he suddenly had the glassy-eyed look of someone who has just been condemned to death. His rosy little lower lip started to tremble, and I heard a sob catch in his throat as he envisioned the unspeakable horror that awaited him when he returned the despot’s offering and told him it had been spurned.

I thought better of my ingratitude, for the sake of the child. “Tell you what,” I said, taking the cup from him. I leaned my head back and slung the liquid in it over my shoulder and behind me so it appeared to the faraway spectators that I was drinking. I touched the cup to my mouth as I straightened up and licked my lips for effect. “Mmmm, good,” I said, smiling at the little tyke to ease his pain. “Just tell him I said thank you, and next time I’d prefer water.” I gave the empty cup back to him and sent him on his way. Umpiring is not just calling safe and out, after all. It’s protecting the youth of the world from the boogeyman, too.

After the game I changed into my street clothes and went searching for Arthur to give him a hug and thank him for getting me the gig with Joe and Frank. I found him in his office, where frequently he is so busy taking care of Yankees minutiae while a game is in progress that he doesn’t actually get to see much of what goes on. He smiled at me, relaxed, so I knew he had gotten good reports. “Dolly, there’s another intrasquad tomorrow. Will you be back? Do you need any money?” I giggled. Arthur always asks everybody if they need money.

“No, Arthur, the equipment manager already paid us, but if I do I’ll let you know,” I said. “And yes, I’ll be back a couple more times. I’m working the plate tomorrow.”

No sooner were the words out of my mouth than the phone on his desk rang. He picked it up. “Oh. Hi, Marty,” he said. Whoa. Could that possibly be Marty Springstead, American League supervisor of umpires? Arthur’s brow furrowed as he listened. “Yes, she did,” he said approvingly. Wow. Apparently word had already reached the higher-ups in the umpiring hierarchy. I could hear the pride in his voice as he spoke, and it made me feel like a million bucks. He turned to smile at me, but the delight in his expression was erased as his eyes narrowed and his lips pursed.

“But Marty,” he fumed, “everybody says she did a great job. What? Why not? We’ve already asked her to come back tomorrow…. Frank Umont and another guy… Marty, what’s the problem? You’re putting me in a bind here, Marty…” I listened to the mounting annoyance in his voice with trepidation. Just a moment earlier I had been on top of the world, and already it was spinning out of control from under me.

Arthur wasn’t going to let Springstead push him around without a fight. He didn’t work for the American League, he worked for the New York Yankees, and couldn’t understand any more than I did why the AL supervisor was being so intractable. “What do you mean, we have to use minor league guys?” he railed. “Since when? They can work any time. The dolly only has this game and a couple more.” I wasn’t the least bit insulted by his referring to me as ‘the dolly’; that was just Arthur. “Marty, why don’t you leave it alone?” he pleaded. “Even George says she did good. Marty, please. Give me a break, Marty…”

It was almost funny. Marty Springstead, head honcho of all American League umpires, was banning me from a Yankees game. How totally unreal was that? Intrasquads are traditionally “off-schedule” contests for which teams hire whomever they want. He had no business telling Arthur to take me off the game, but that hardly mattered. See, things like this have been happening as long as I’ve been umpiring. Since the beginning of time, actually. Like others before him, Springstead was clearly stricken by the benign torment of my estrogen, driven mad by its honeyed sting. And I wasn’t even in the same room with him! Against the grim reach of this terrible contagion, Arthur staunchly held his ground. At last he hung up, defeated. He shook his head, scowling unhappily. “Dolly, I’m so sorry…”

“Don’t worry, Arthur,” I consoled him. “You did your best, and you got me the one game. What about Umont and Stirone?” The look on his face said it all. Knowing Springstead’s interdiction extended to my partners gave me no comfort, for I understood he was punishing them collaterally just to camouflage his intolerance. This way he could quite plausibly insist he didn’t want “amateur” umpires working Yankee games, the ultimate slap in the face to Umont, and leave it at that. The heartless calculation of this rationale made my stomach churn. How was I going to break the bad news to Joe and Frank? For their generosity to me, they would now be forced to suffer. I wouldn’t blame either of them for despising me forever, especially Frank. Under my watch, he had been fired twice. All my compassion and care had not protected him. In his case at least, forever turned out to be little more than a year. The obituaries said he died the following spring from causes unknown, but I know what at least one of them was.


2 Responses to “Perry Barber Interview (Stories)”

  1. 20Tauri Says:

    Thanks for posting this interview. Great stuff!

  2. tHeMARksMiTh Says:

    No, thank you. 🙂

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