The art of strike three: Why MLB umpires hope their signature punch outs survive automation

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The Athletic

Whenever Dale Scott went to work there were eyeballs zoning in on his every move, and metrics to rate each decision by the millimeter. That’s the nature of being a Major League ump. Scrutiny follows you in everything you do.

There was, however, no one watching his work in this moment — something for which he was thankful. He was about to do something that he says every umpire does, though not all would admit to it: practice his strike three call in front of a mirror.

Scott’s call was unlike anyone else’s. He pointed to his right side on strikes one and two. But on strike three, he took a step back, then geared up for a big uppercut right-handed punch across the left side of his body — delivering the final body blow on the at-bat. Boisterous and unmistakable. A call combining the likes of some of his umpiring mentors: Dave Phillips, Joe Brinkman and Rich Garcia. Practicing and refining it with no audience but his own two eyes was a regular part of staying sharp.

“You’re trying to see what it looks like,” said Scott, now six years into retirement. “And you don’t want to look like an idiot out there. Thank God there’s no camera, because that would be embarrassing.”

Dale Scott’s punch out. (Tom Szczerbowski / Getty Images)

Masked and wearing the same uniform every day — the same as everyone else doing the job in 14 other cities across the game — it’s easy for an umpire to remain anonymous. That is, until they call strike three.

Read more: MLB just tweaked Triple A’s electronic strike zone: What you need to know and why it matters

For any umpire, calling strike three is an art form. It is their signature, a reflection of who they are, a human element that can’t be replaced by a roboump. Some, such as 26-year veteran umpire Gary Darling, don’t see the need for exuberance. “It was just another strike,” he said. “I didn’t think I needed a major event strike three call.” But others like Tom Hallion — whose ferocious gesticulations became his calling card — dug deep for their motivation. In his case, his called strike three stemmed from a sense of being wronged.

“I called it ripping a phonebook,” Hallion said. “I take my arms and rip it.”

If you don’t look closely enough, it would be easy to think that some umpires have the same strike three call. But even if some are similar, the trained eye can spot the variations. And every umpire has their own story of how they developed their call. How they personalized it.

Fieldin Culbreth employed a signature leg kick. Jim Joyce screamed strike three for fans in the bleachers to hear. Joe West has a similar move to Gary Cederstrom, a look akin to revving up some sort of mechanical instrument. West called it the bow and arrow.

Even in the calls that seem similar on the surface, distinct differences can be found. The average fan might not see it, but umpires can point each other out simply by their calls.

Culbreth’s punch out looked like he was umping and playing rec-league kickball at the same time. It appeared to have some anger behind it, but the soft-spoken man with a thick southern accent said his call was borne out of necessity. He needed a motion that allowed him to keep the same strikeout mechanics, while enabling him to see the play in case anything further developed.

Fieldin Culbreth and Mark Teixeira. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

It was, in his words, an accidental result. The leg kick just kind of happened, and took on a life of its own. Even as he got older and his leg wouldn’t go as high, it remained a part of who he was.

Typically, there is a purpose to the sometimes over-the-top nature of calls. In the days before everything could be replayed or seen on an iPad from the dugout, the umpire kept control of the game by injecting confidence into their decisions. If they believed it to be correct, the thinking went, it was more likely the batter, pitcher, and everyone in the dugouts would believe it too.

“You were taught to sell your call, you were taught to be emphatic,” West said, before turning his attention to the current day predicament. “Why would you jump up and down and try to sell it if it’s going to get overturned? Calling balls and strikes is probably the most difficult thing to do in all of sports (officiating).”

The flamboyance of calls has seen its peaks and valleys over the years. Some generations have been more outlandish than others. The late Dutch Rennert would take a step back and shout in a comically loud way in the direction of the dugout. The 1971 World Series saw the ump Nestor Chylak viciously wave away a batter during the deciding Game 7. It was as if to say, “I’m done with you, now leave.”

Excitable or not, strike three calls have always been ingrained in the sport’s culture.

Umpires become their calls. The game is rigid in its rules. They are tasked with enforcing those rules. It’s their whole lives. City to city. Year to year. Their job is to do the same thing, rotating one base at a time.  Strike three is the one sliver of the game that belongs to them. It’s a chance to differentiate who they are, and show what they’re about.

Few stories better represent the idea of an umpire’s identity coming through than Hallion’s.

Hallion spent his first 14 years in the Major Leagues as an umpire with a completely different strike three call. Then in 1999, he was a part of an ill-fated mass resignation tactic by the umpires union, all in hopes of bringing the league to the bargaining table. The attempt failed, however, and the league accepted 22 resignations, including Hallion’s.

All of a sudden, Hallion’s entire career was in jeopardy. He called it traumatic and frustrating. And after working as a financial advisor for three years, he restarted his umpiring career in the minors.

Creating his new motion served two purposes. The first one was pragmatic. In the minors you ump home plate twice as often as in the majors. It was a way to help him stay sharp and engaged. The second one was more based on emotion. In his mind, he’d been robbed of his career. This was a way to take ownership of it again. If and when he ever got back to the majors, he wanted to have a statement to stand apart from everyone else. To show that he was back.

“I (wanted) to have something that stands aside from any other umpire that’s been in baseball, that’s currently in baseball or that may be in the minor leagues,” Hallion said. “That was my way of getting through.”

If you ask any umpire of this era for their favorite strike three call, they’ll probably say Hallion.

“It still makes my back hurt,” Culbreth joked.

However, the specter of a potential automated strike zone or challenge system has threatened to alter this part of the game. Umpires endeavor to never be the story. But they’re now at risk of not even being part of that story.

“If you’re waiting for a signal in your ear telling you ball or strike, it takes away from that adrenaline rush to call strike three,” Hallion said. “Why even do a big windup strike three if you didn’t even call it?”

Culbreth is retired now, but he suspects that if he were still an ump for any form of an automated zone, he’d call strike three the same way he called the first two. Why go through all the gyrations, and then be wrong, he wondered aloud.

“I’m still an old-school kind of guy, I liked the flair of the days gone by,” Culbreth said. “I kind of liked the argument a little bit. But if evolution is going to take it (in a different direction), that’ll survive too.”

There’s perhaps no umpire in the history of baseball who would have appreciated instant replay more than Jim Joyce. He famously cost Armando Gallaraga a perfect game in 2010 with an incorrect safe call at first base on the would-be final out. Joyce is one of the umpires that can see the value of a challenge system, but does not want the game to go full roboump.

For as much as he understands the value of replay, there needs to be room for umpires to have their signature.

“I watch these young guys and I can see personality,” Joyce said. “What I don’t see is the excitement of it all. I don’t mean jumping out of your boots and calling strike three. But it’s a lot more consistent. … Guys (used to) always want to separate themselves and be identified by a certain way they called strike three.”

Umps recognize the potential for an automated ball-strike system. Some even like the idea of a challenge system. But they don’t want to lose their place in the character of the game.

Umpires pay attention to the strike call mechanics of other umps. They’re developed over years of practice. Their inspirations are pulled from those that came before them. They come out in the sport’s biggest moments.

Brian Runge punctuated Jonathan Sanchez’s 2009 no-hitter with an absurd strike three call — lifting his right hand high above his head and punching it down to his feet as his body dipped down the third base line. The pitch looked well outside. No one seemed to care. 

Sam Holbrook worked the plate in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. He got to punch out Mike Napoli to put the Cubs within four outs of breaking their World Series curse. He was overcome with nerves that day. But he revved the chainsaw — calling the strikeout with a vigor that met the moment.

“In that situation, every pitch is a huge pitch,” Holbrook said. “You’ve just got to be confident in what you’re seeing and what you’re doing.”

It’s why Scott and many other umpires would spend all that time alone in front of a mirror. Not to become the story, but to match its moment. It’s a part of the game’s beauty, one that the stewards of the sport hope will remain for a long time.

“I never did these things to think, ‘Oh, everybody’s here to watch me,’” Scott said. “That’s not the mindset. It was more, kind of like an artist in a way. Your own personality that you let come out.”

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(Top photo of Tom Hallion, Joe West and Gary Darling: Dilip Vishwanat, Jim Davis, George Gojkovich / Getty Images)