Friday, June 11, 2010

The man in the iron mask

Umpire Ian Lamplugh has been yelled at in five countries and in three different languages. Photograph by Deddeda Stemler.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
June 11, 2010


Ian Lamplugh is accustomed to being yelled at. He is often called a bum. His eyesight is regularly called into question. What they say about his parentage — well, that discussion is not fit for a family newspaper.

Mr. Lamplugh, 45, is a baseball umpire, the best ever to come out of British Columbia, and the only one from here to get as far as the major leagues.

Umpires say they are expected to be perfect on the first day on the job — and then they are supposed to get better.

The Pope is supposed to be infallible, too, but he gets to wear fancy clothes and does not have bottles thrown at his head.

An umpire dresses in a traditional blue work shirt and goes to a workplace where harassment is the right of any ticket holder.

“Everybody can do the job,” he says of the second-guessers, “but when it comes time nobody wants to do it.”

He has heard the cry “Kill the ump!” in ballparks from Albuquerque to Victoria. He has heard it uttered in Spanish and in Chinese and in English with a Texas drawl.

To be an umpire is to lead a lonely and itinerant life, where every game is an away game, every fan a critic, every player an enemy. Infamy is as close as the next decision.

Let’s go to the video replay.

Last week, Armando Galarraga, a hitherto unknown pitcher from Venezuela, was on the cusp of baseball immortality. He had retired 26 consecutive batters — no hits, no walks, no baserunners of any kind — and needed just one more out to complete a perfect game. These are so rare that only 18 have been pitched in the majors since 1880.

(Oddly enough, two perfect games were thrown in May, the only time perfection has twice been crafted in the same season, let alone the same month.)

The 27th batter hit a routine grounder, which was fielded by the first baseman. Mr. Galarraga raced over to first base to take the throw, catching the ball and touching the base before the runner arrived.

Perfect game!

Except umpire Jim Joyce pushed both arms out wide in the familiar safe sign. Only, in this case, the human semaphore stood for, “I’ve just made the most-boneheaded call in recent sports history.” Replays showed the runner was out and the Venezuelan had been robbed his deserved prize.

In the heat of the moment, the pitcher cast a you-sure-about-that smile.

After the game, the umpire acknowledged his error. He offered his apology to the pitcher for blowing the call, ruining what should have been a remarkable achievement.

The umpire, a striking figure with his white Fu Manchu mustache and his professed reliance on his Catholic faith, struck a chord with a weepy mea culpa, his sportsmanship coupled with death threats making this a uniquely American melodrama.

“I’ve been there,” Mr. Lamplugh said. “I know what he’s going through.”

More than once, he has needed a police escort to leave a baseball diamond in safety. In the Dominican Republican, where he umpired in winter, he got police escorts to the town line.

He could handle chickens in the outfield and the occasional power failure knocking out the lights. What was unnerving was the fanaticism of the fans.

On one unforgettable day, he ejected the manager and a player for the Leones del Escogido. An unsettled atmosphere quickly became ugly at game’s end.

As tall and lean as a foul pole at 6-foot-3, the lanky arbiter made a handy target.

“I was surrounded by eight police officers to walk me off the field. As soon as we got in range of the stands, fans began throwing beer bottles and rum and whiskey bottles. So, the police left me on my own.

“I had to make a 50-yard sprint from the grandstand to the bleachers, getting pelted by these bottles.

“As I got near the clubhouse, fans were trying to punch me.

“I was pushing people out of the way. I get to the locker-room and there’re two guys with machine-guns standing there guarding the door.”

He survived and after a nine-year odyssey on baseball’s back roads he earned a shot at a job in the National League in 1999. In September of that season, he had an enviable view of the home-run chase between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, working behind the plate in a game at Chicago’s Wrigley Field during which Mr. McGwire hit his 59th home run of the season, putting him one behind Babe Ruth’s famous total.

He worked nearly 200 games before returning to the minors. In recent years, he was umpire-in-chief of the Chinese Professional Baseball League in Taiwan. Not surprisingly, a country whose parliament features regular donnybrooks is not known for respecting authority figures, even if they’re wearing a mask and a chest pad. To his horror, he saw one manager race out of the dugout to deliberately crash into a home-plate umpire, the skipper dropping his shoulder like Pete Rose barreling into home plate.

Mr. Lamplugh, who was born in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, and came to Canada at age four, still works the occasional home game of the Victoria Seals of the Golden Baseball League, an independent professional circuit. Often, he is the only person with big-league experience on the field.

When not calling balls and strikes, he can be found doing road work, setting up barrels and traffic cones for road work, exchanging his umpire blues for an orange safety vest.

To be an umpire is to be a judge where there is no appeal court.

“Your harshest critic is yourself,” he said.

He has learned a valuable lesson from his years on the diamond.

When fans are throwing bottles, keep your mask on.

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