With the MLB postseason on the horizon, veteran signal caller Gerry Davis talks about playoff protocol, Paul O’Neill’s crankiness, and why Willie Mays isn’t so great after all.
Watching high definition replays on that 60-inch LCD, it’s easy to spot a blown call. But when you’re crouched behind batters, as Gerry Davis is, with pitches crossing home plate at 95 mph, it’s infinitely more difficult. As a current National League crew chief, Davis is one of baseballs longest-tenured umpires. In addition to calling more than a million pitches, he’s worked nine Divisional Playoffs, eight League Championships, and four World Series. With the post season imminent, we spoke with the veteran signal caller about guessing, late season stressors, and whether make-up calls actually exist.
by Matt Berical
How does your role change during the post season?
Before regular season games begin, one of the things we do is look at the out-of-town scores on the scoreboard. But during the postseason, there aren’t any. The entire baseball world is watching us, and with all the electronic scrutiny these days, there’s a lot more pressure.
And there are six umpires on the field instead of four.
Yes. We have two additional sets of eyes – one down the right field line and another in left. This effects our rotation: For a postseason series, the crew chief starts behind home plate and rotates clockwise, moving from home to right field, left field, third base, second base, first base, and back behind the plate. What that amounts to is each umpire has a smaller area of responsibility.
Do you give players and managers more rope during the postseason?
We have meetings with the managers and general managers before each series to tell them we want the players to act professionally so that it doesn’t have to come to an ejection. Those meetings don’t take place during the regular season, but we have them during the postseason so everyone involved is aware of what’s at stake. We want the players to decide the outcome of the game.
So do you let players bark at you longer than usual?
Compared to the regular season, the percentage of ejections goes down during the postseason. But that’s not because we’re more lenient; it’s because players realize the stakes.
What’s the one thing a player or manager can say during a game that will immediately have them thrown out?
Anything that follows the word “you.” There are grown men playing, so you’re going to hear profanity. But if it’s directed at an umpire, that’s an automatic ejection.
You have one of the most consistent strike zones in baseball. What’s the key to calling balls and strikes?
I think the biggest key is using judgment at the right time. The phrase I use is “I want to catch the ball with my eyes.” I make sure I’m not leaving my eyes out in front of the plate, and that I see the catcher catch the ball. If I see him catch it, that gives me more of an opportunity to mentally decide what the pitch is. When everybody at home is watching from their sofa, they make a determination of what the pitch is after the ball hits the glove and they wait to decide. But when you’re behind home plate, you try to slow everything down so you can use your judgment at the right time.
To call balls and strikes properly, where’s the best position for an umpire to be?
I use what’s called a “locked box stance.” Behind home plate, you want to make sure you’re in the area that we call ‘the slot’. That’s the space between the catcher and the hitter. I place my eyes right at the corner, at the edge of the plate.
And that position was named the “Davis Stance” after you.
Yes. It allows me to maintain consistent head height throughout the game. I have my elbows locked and my hands resting on my knees. It’s comfortable and doesn’t place a lot of stress on your knees or back.
Do players tend to talk to you when they step up to the plate?
Some do, some don’t. It’s similar to any office environment. There are people that you enjoy spending time with, and others you don’t care for. I always had great relationships with Craig Biggio and Jay Bell — those guys respected the game.
Who were some players you didn’t care for?
There were a couple guys that were always hard to deal with: Chris Sabo with the Reds and Paul O’Neill with the Yankees. What they never realized was when umpires miss something, it’s because we miss it, not because we’re trying to stick it to them. They had a tendency to believe we called it that way because we didn’t like them.
Are players’ arguments ever convincing?
We have to know: What manager is the biggest asshole?
You’re not going to get me to name a manager, are you kidding?
If you miss a play, do you ever guess?
I say we use our instincts and try to determine what things are. But sometimes, we’re blocked out. So there are occasions where we have to use our instincts as far as calls are concerned.
Is there a missed call you always think back to?
During a Yankees-Mariners game in 2007, the Mariners’ Willie Bloomquist was stealing second and the catcher’s throw to the bag was coming at me, so I had to watch the ball a lot longer than normal. [New York second baseman] Robinson Cano went to his knees and tagged Bloomquist a foot before the bag, but because I had to stay with the ball, I didn’t see that Bloomquist hadn’t reached yet. Afterwards, I watched a replay and I knew I’d kicked the shit out of the call.
Is there such thing as a make-up call?
Not at all. The fans like to think that happens. But it really doesn’t.
What’s another misconception fans have about officiating?
I think they get the impression that we don’t care or we don’t like certain players, so we’re going to call them out. They don’t realize how much we want to get it right.
How did you first get into officiating?
Like every other red-blooded boy my age, I wanted to be a ball player. I used to play in a league around St. Louis – I pitched and played first base. One day when I was injured, my manager made me umpire. Afterwards, he said I did a decent job and asked me if I ever thought of going to umpire school. Quite frankly, I didn’t know there was such a thing. I knew I wanted to do something in sports, so I went to the school and just fell in love with it. And, you know, we go through the minors, have scouts that check us out, and move up to the majors just like the players do.
Are there any vision tests involved?
All umpires must have 20/20 corrected vision. But the biggest thing they look for is baseball instinct — if you understand situations, and how you handle them. And if you have the proper temperament.
How have you seen the game evolve throughout your twenty-seven years of officiating?
The quality of the play is much better. For years and years, many baseball fans thought the greatest catch ever made was the one Willie Mays made with his back to the infield in the World Series. Quite frankly, you see five or six plays better than that on SportsCenter every night.