Working A Perfect Game by Bill Nowlin (Book Review)
by Mike Whiteman
“Nobody notices you until they notice you” – Major League Baseball umpire Tim Timmons.
Throughout my time as an avid baseball fan – over forty years – I’ve enjoyed many games, at many levels of competition. I’ve seen games in person, on TV, listened on the radio and recently online. I usually watch to see my favorite teams, or my favorite players play. Sometimes, I tune in because I just enjoy baseball.
Never once though did I think “I want to watch this game to see the umpires.” In fact, rarely have I noticed them. Most days, they seem to fade into the background, stepping back while the players are noticed and have the spotlight.
That’s OK. Really. The umpires like it that way.
I learned this and a lot more in Bill Nowlin’s book Working a “Perfect Game”: Conversations with Umpires. I was provided a complimentary copy to review. The book is basically split into two parts. First, there are numerous interviews with major league umpires from 2015-2019, where the reader hears the stories of umpiring directly from those on the journey. In the second part, Nowlin tackles relevant topics of the profession, including (though not limited to) umpire school, instant replay and ejections.
One of the criticisms of the current game as opposed to that of our fathers’ and grandfathers’ is the lack of relatability to the players. Players used to live among their fans, worked “real jobs” over the winter, and were very accessible. Today’s players live in a world of wealth, talent and privilege that most cannot connect with. I learned that’s definitely not the case with umpires. They come to their occupation from a number of backgrounds and even other careers. Many spend years and years toiling in the minors, winter leagues and as part time “fill ins” at the major league level until finally becoming part of the regular MLB umpiring staff.
Umpiring is a job unlike most. The majority of us don’t seek to work where we get recognized primarily when we make errors. Fans notice umpires not when they excel, but when they make a mistake. The failure isn’t revealed in an office, a shop or a cubicle like it is for most of us. It’s in front of thousands of people. Ask Jim Joyce, known for his missed call on Armando Galarraga’s near perfect game in 2010. Ask Don Denkinger about the threats he received after his missed call in the 1985 World Series.
Interestingly, Joyce didn’t grow up with a desire to umpire. He played baseball through college, then decided to go to umpire school as “it was a way to stay in baseball”. He later spent eleven years in the minor leagues before his promotion to MLB. His story isn’t unusual. Nowlin’s interviews reveal umpires who were (among other occupations) teachers, law enforcement officers, and radio disc jockeys before becoming deciding to go to umpire school and start the journey to major league umpire. For most, the investment was significant. There’s a whole chapter on umpires receiving “The Call”, when they are offered full time jobs. The stories are encouraging and inspirational.
The book gives an insider look at the umpiring profession. The travel. The rituals. The triumphs and at times the struggles. The mental and physical toll. The friendships.
Since I was a kid, I’ve devoured everything baseball, in any media format. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve thought there are not too many “new frontiers” for me as a fan. Sure, research reveals new and interesting looks at traditional topics, but I can’t say I’ve spent much time lately looking at truly “new stuff” within the game.’
This book really was a new frontier for me. I really enjoyed reading it – more than I thought I would. I recommend this book for anyone seeking quality baseball reading this summer.
(editor’s note – We were provided with an electronic copy of this book by Summer Game Books in exchange for an honest review.)