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Shining your shoes isn't just about shining your shoes

Generally speaking, I can tell from the moment I see an umpire on the field whether he is a top-shelf or lower-shelf umpire.

No, I don't have a special gift or special insights. It's an easy trick, and I can teach it to you with three words:

It's the shoes.

Before I explain, let me go off on a tangent for a minute. By the end of my digression, it will work itself around to explaining about the shoes.

I believe umpiring is mostly made up of a large group of little things. We, as umpires, do a lot of little things every game that almost never make any difference. For example, as plate umpire we keep our indicator in our left hand. We take our mask off with our left hand. On a ground ball with no runners we jog up the first base line. Every time. Then we turn toward the field and head back to the plate.


Calling balls and strikes is also a series of little things. Head height matters. Slot position matters. Timing matters. And on and on. And all those little things are required for every pitch. Again and again. Over and over. And for a lot of the time, we don't need to do those things. Did we really need to worry about our head height if the ball was swung at, or put into play? Did we have to focus on timing when the pitch was so high the catcher had to jump just to catch it?

On the bases, we get set and ready for every pitch. With a ground ball and no runners on base, we head inside the diamond to get our proper angle, starting with a step with the right foot. We work hard at getting a 90-degree angle. We focus on our timing. And, again, much of the time it doesn't matter. The throw is in plenty of time, so we could've made the proper call from the stands. Or the throw never comes, so we have no call at all.

Someone, in the heat of the moment, says something to an opponent or an umpire that isn't really inflammatory, but it has the earmarks of starting something. So we deal with it quickly and quietly so it doesn't escalate into something bigger.

The trick is, sometimes - sometimes - those little things are important. After hustling up the line on every ground ball for the last two years, all of a sudden there's a pulled foot or swipe tag appeal.

Or all of a sudden you have to bang out a runner on a close play at home, so aren't you glad your mask isn't in your right hand?

Little things are important. Like keeping our uniforms clean. And shining our shoes.

Ah, there it is. We're back to the shoes. You see, cleaning and shining our shoes isn't really about cleaning and shining our shoes at all. After all, unless you're on a turf field, your shoes are going to get dusty and dirty by the time you're done with the plate meeting.

So what's the real reason we shine our shoes?

The real reason is it tells everyone who cares about these things that we pay attention to the details. The little things. If we care enough to shine our shoes, we're probably not going out onto the field in a dirty, crinkled uniform and sweat-stained hat.

It tells everyone who cares about these things that we have respect for the game. That we care. And if we care, that means we probably care about getting the call right, about being in position, about hustling to get into position.

It says we probably care about knowing the rules and taking care of the game. We're not just there to grab a paycheck.

So the next time you come off a muddy or dirty field and start griping about having to shine your shoes all over again, remember: it's about more than the shine. It tells the people who care about these things that we care about doing a good job.


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In the early 1900s, the salary for a Major League umpire was between $1,500-$2,000. By 1910 the top salary climbed to $3,000, but only four of the seven league umpires made more than $2,000. Umpires received $00 for working in the World Series.


Two umpires were used through the 1920s, but often a reserve umpire was brought in for a critical game or series. By 1933 three umpires were commonly assigned to regular season games.

This Week's Umpire Quote

“Nobody ever works the perfect game. You strive for it, but there's always something to improve on. It's challenging, but fun. We love the game of baseball and we take a lot of pride in the game of baseball. We are baseball's greatest fan.”

- Dan Bellino

MLB umpire #2

This Week's Quote That Applies To Umpiring

Great things are done by a series of small things brought together."

- Vincent Van Gogh

Dutch Post-Impressionist painter

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