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11/14/06 11:41 PM ET

Calling balls and strikes a tough chore

MLB.com reporter Steve Gilbert checks in from umpire camp

Major League Baseball is holding its first-ever Umpire Camp in Long Beach, Calif. Steve Gilbert, who covers the D-backs for MLB.com, is taking part and will be writing a daily diary of his experiences.

LONG BEACH -- Well, I put the gear on and got behind the plate for the first time ever, and let me say, it's a heck of a lot easier to call balls and strikes when you're in the press box looking at a monitor.

Seriously, though, it's a totally different perspective on the game, and you begin to understand while watching 75-80 mph pitches coming out of a pitching machine, how truly difficult it must be to call balls and strikes during a big-league game. Factor in the increased speed, break on the ball, not to mention battling foul tips, etc., and it's amazing that these guys get 95 percent of the calls right.

Veteran big-league ump Tim Timmons worked with me before, during and after my stint in the cage. I tracked the ball well (remember, you don't want to move your head, but rather follow it with your eyes) and my timing was good.

They emphasize timing here quite a bit. When people start out umpiring, they have a tendency to make the call too quickly whether we're talking ball/strike or safe/out. You want to pause for a second, see again in your mind what you just witnessed and then make your call. You want to be consistent with your timing, otherwise it looks like some calls you are sure of and others you're not. And if there's one thing the instructors emphasize, it is that you better be darn sure you project confidence in your call, even if you are unsure.

Let's say you're behind the plate and you're calling pitches right down the middle strikes almost before they hit the catcher's glove. And you're also calling pitches that are obviously outside balls as they hit the catcher's glove. Now what happens on that ball that is right on the corner -- the one where it's helpful to quickly replay the pitch in your mind? If you make the obvious calls quickly and the close calls slowly, it makes it gives the impression that you're unsure or are guessing -- either of which makes you look unsure.

So my tracking was good, and my timing was good. Whether my strike zone judgment was any good will be determined on Wednesday when I review the film that was taken.

One of the best things about the camp is the interaction you get with the umpires -- the guys that have seen so much in their time in the big leagues and have some really great stories. During the evening Q&A sessions, we have an opportunity to ask four or five of them questions for nearly two hours.

The stuff you can learn is fascinating, everything from how they deal with life on the road -- they get a $350 per diem with which they must cover their hotel, clubhouse dues and meals -- to how they handle a difficult player or manager.

Remember the play in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series when the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez slapped the ball out of Bronson Arroyo's glove? Randy Marsh was the first-base umpire in that game, and he was unable to see the slap because he was screened out of the play by the first and second baseman, along with Arroyo, who were all converging in the area around first. He initially called A-Rod safe.

Now, when Boston manager Terry Francona came out to argue, Marsh got the crew together and asked if anyone saw something different. Two of the umpires, the one down the right-field line, who was standing in foul territory and had a better angle than Marsh, and the home-plate umpire saw the slap and told him so.

As Marsh tells the story he said to the crew, "OK, I'll change it, but hang on, because this place is going to go crazy."

It's the kind of story and insight that you don't normally get, and it's one of the main attractions of the camp. The main feature, of course, is that this is the best way to get a head start heading into one of the two umpire schools. And since your ranking at those schools determines whether you will get a pro job, every edge is crucial.

Tuesday's morning session was spent going over the two-man umpiring system again, except this time, instead of there being no one on base, we talked about what happens when there is a runner on first or a runner on second. Just when I thought I had the hang of things, it suddenly got more complicated.

The nice thing, though, is they not only diagram on the board how things are supposed to go, they demonstrate it when we first get out to the field in the afternoon. Then we spend the rest of the afternoon rotating in groups taking turns being both the plate and base umpire. That way, the lesson gets reinforced.

On Wednesday, we get our first taste of live action when we umpire a game between Compton Community College and Palisades CC. For most of the guys here, it's old hat, but for me, it will be the first time I've umpired a live game. I'm not so much worried about my half-inning on the bases, though remembering all the various responsibilities and positioning could be tricky, as much as I am worried about my half-inning behind the plate.

Working in the cage is one thing. Crouching back there with a pitcher throwing in the upper 80s with a breaking ball, not to mention the possibility of foul tips rattling my cage, is a different story.

Steve Gilbert is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.