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Steeee-ryyyke three! Umpires' calls mix style with substance

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Umpires deliver theatrical strike-out calls to reduce the chances that coaches and fans challenge them. (Courtesy of Little League International)

The pitcher delivers a baseball that zooms down from the mound, sails directly over the meaty part of the plate and lands with a pop in the catcher's glove.

Umpire Tony Hill stands erect, pauses for a brief moment while the crowd's energy builds in anticipation. Then stepping back with his right foot, Hill brings his hands together and jerks them apart as if starting a chain saw. Within the same motion, he lifts his left leg slightly, delivers a swift kick like someone slamming on the breaks, and belts out a mighty “hah.”

“Like the ‘hah’ that cowboys make, but with a deeper voice, like they’re trying to round up cattle,” said Hill, founder of the San Diego Blues Umpire Association, which manages about 60 umpires for youth baseball games.

You wouldn’t know it just by watching him, but Hill has spent several years perfecting the call he has just made. It’s the call that signals the pitcher has just thrown his third strike and the batter has to head back to the dugout.

Hill is no different from any other umpire. Nearly every home plate official, in the Big Leagues or the Little Leagues, has devoted time and energy to the delivery of his strikeout call. In fact, that particular call is one of the most stylized actions that umpires perform during the course of a game.

But while spectators and fans might think it’s just a bit of officiating theatrics, the delivery of the strikeout call is geared toward achieving one goal: to squash any idea that the call is wrong.

Strikeout calls are among the most controversial rulings in baseball. They rile the fans and get “the dogs to bark,” which is how baseball players and officials describe the coaches who storm out of the dugout to argue a call, screaming in the face of the umpire and occasionally kicking dirt at his feet. As a result, umpires deliver their strikeout calls with confident gusto in hopes of eliminating challenges.

“I use a very strong, deep baritone in my verbalization,” said Danny Everett, founder of the Georgia Officials Association, an umpire staffing company that provides officials for youth and adult games. “I have to have an authoritative presentation. I just took the bat out of the batter’s hand and now he has to go back to the dugout.”

Everett knows better than most umpires how important it is to establish a dominant presence at the plate. At 5 feet 7 inches, Everett is shorter than most officials, players and coaches. So his strikeout call is particularly forceful.

Everett explains his delivery this way: “I’m in a crouched position. I then raise my torso so I’m standing erect. My left hand sticks out in front of me, at a 90-degree angle, with my palm up. My right hand is in a fist. And rocking my body backward, I pull my right hand back, as if I was pulling an arrow.”

Everett’s call is unusual in that he “stays with the play,” which means that he does not turn his body toward the left or right, but delivers the call looking straight ahead. That way, he keeps an eye on any runners on base and watches the response of the batter.

Umpires are granted plenty of room to be creative when delivering their calls, but there are a few general rules that must be followed.

First, the force with which umpires deliver a call is determined by the closeness of the play. For this reason, umpires tend to belt out a loud call when the batter is caught looking at the pitch, thinking it might be a ball. The umpire will often remain silent if the batter swings and misses, since the strike is obvious.

Also, while umpires will bellow out a guttural “huu” or “haa,” or maybe even an abbreviated “str," they will rarely yell out a full “strike.” The reason is simple: It would strain their voices to do so.

While umpires have overseen baseball games going back to the first games on record, they didn’t always deliver the colorful strikeout calls we see today, said Larry Gerlach, professor of sports history at the University of Utah.

Part of the reason, Gerlach said, was that umpires didn’t stand behind home plate until around 1908. Before that, only one umpire oversaw the entire game, and he stood about 10 to 15 feet away from home plate. Not only did he want to maintain good views of the bases, but he was also most likely to be wearing a top hat and coattails, so he wanted to steer clear of dust kicked up around the batters and catchers.

Umpires eventually developed more entertaining strikeout calls in the years following World War II, when television became commonplace and all of a sudden millions of viewers started watching baseball games at home. Around the same time, the owners of baseball stadiums started building bigger ball parks, which placed the fans further away from the action and forced umpires to become theatrical with their calls.

“That third strike call let fans know what was happening,” said Gerlach, who is also the author of “The Men in Blue: Conversations With Umpires.”

Since those early days, umpires have constantly perfected the art of the strikeout call, developing new styles and new techniques. In doing so, they have entertained fans and players, while sending thousands of defeated batters back to the dugout.

“You’re not going to like it, but the pitch was there,” Hill said. “That’s the art of the game.”

E-mail: tnt2105@columbia.edu