Baseball players, broadcasters and fans love to complain about umpires. "They blow calls all the time," people say. "They always want to be part of the show," people say. "They bait players and managers into arguments," people say.
Few, if any, ever said those things about Marty Springstead, who was an American League umpire (in the days when the leagues had separate staffs) for 20 seasons and then moved into management as an umpire supervisor, a job he held until he and two other supervisors were dismissed after some highly-publicized missed calls during the 2009 playoffs.
Springstead died Wednesday at 74; he had a fatal heart attack while swimming at a workout facility near his home in Sarasota, Florida. New York Times writer Bruce Weber recounts his impressive career:
Springstead was an American League umpire from 1966 to 1985 and worked in four League Championship Series, three World Series and three All-Star Games. He was behind the plate for two no-hitters, both by otherwise run-of-the-mill pitchers: Clyde Wright of the Angels, who no-hit the Oakland A’s in 1970; and Mike Warren of Oakland, who no-hit the Chicago White Sox in 1983.
His hometown newspaper, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, recounts stories of several run-ins that Springstead once had with one particular manager, a longtime nemesis:
How about the time Springstead, an American League umpire for 20 years and longtime Sarasota resident, threw out Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver?
During a rain delay.
Or the instance in 1977 when Weaver yanked his team off the field during a game at Toronto, believing a tarpaulin in the bullpen created a hazard for his players.
Weaver believed it. Springstead didn't. After a five-minute warning, he awarded the game to the Blue Jays.
"That midget can barely see over the top of the dugout steps," Springstead said of Weaver, "and he claims he can see the pitches."
In those days, umpires and managers often did these things for show, but Springstead had something that many umpires don't have today:
Former pitcher Gary Peters provided perhaps the finest compliment a player could an umpire. He called Springstead "fair."
"Marty was a good umpire," Peters said, "because if you threw a ball, he'd call it a ball. If you threw a strike, he'd called it a strike. He was one of the best."
Weber recently authored a book about umpiring called "As They See 'Em". He reminds us to remember the basic humanity of umpires, as personified by Springstead:
As an executive, Springstead was known for his support of the umpires on the field, often intervening on their behalf with major league officials. He also encouraged them to look after their lives away from baseball, perhaps remembering that he was working on second base in Anaheim, Calif., the day his son was born in 1975. He learned about it from a congratulatory message flashed on the scoreboard.
In the heat of baseball moments when umpires blow calls that cost our favorite players hits or home runs, or cost our teams games, it's easy to forget that these men also devote their lives to the game we all love and no one roots for them. That's why it's worth remembering a good man like Marty Springstead.