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A Writer Enters The 'Land of Umpires'

For three years, journalist Bruce Weber trained to be a baseball umpire. He went to a school for professional umpires, called games and interviewed dozens of present and former umps — as well as players, managers and baseball executives. The result is his book, As They See 'Em: A Fan's Travels In The Land Of Umpires, which was recently released in paperback.

In A They See 'Em, Weber gives readers an insider's perspective on the dedicated men (and the handful of dedicated women) who choose to face angry fans and disgruntled coaches in service to the game they love.

He tells Dave Davies that one of the hardest parts about being an umpire is actually something fans might not notice: When the mask comes off, it's extremely hard to keep the little black hat on.

"The umpire wears a hat under his mask, and it has a little bill on it, and you have to clear the bill before you pull it off, and there is actually a lesson in umpire school in this," he explains. "And the reason you have such a lesson is so that you don't end up looking like a jerk when your hat comes off when you're trying to call a play, or if it tips or — you don't want it tipping in your eyes."

Weber also learned to get over his fear of a 100 mph fastball coming directly at his head.

"Jim Evans — who ran the school that I attended and was a major league umpire for 28 years — was watching me one day in the cage as I was practicing calling balls and strikes, and he said, 'You're flinching,' " Weber recalls. "[He said] 'Here's how we're going to cure you of that,' and he took a basket of baseballs and took me aside. He said 'Look, you have to learn to trust your equipment,' and from a distance of about four or five feet, he started throwing baseballs at me, hard, hitting me in the mask — bang, bang, bang — and they were glancing off in all directions. By the time he got to, you know, the 12th or 15th ball, I was beginning to absorb the idea that, you know what, these things are not going to hit me in the eye, and I had stopped flinching, and I was cured."

Weber is a reporter and obituaries writer for The New York Times. He started as a staff editor on the paper's Sunday magazine in 1986 and has worked in the daily's newsroom since 1991. He co-authored the biography of dancer Savion Glover, called Savion! My Life In Tap.

This interview originally aired April 9, 2009.

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