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Interview: Fieldin Culbreth

Fieldin Culbreth is a native of Spartanburg, South Carolina where he still lives with his wife and three children. He is also a rabid baseball fan who is presently in Spring Training preparing for his twelfth season as a Major League umpire. The coaches who frequent our site and many of our readers deal with umpires on a daily basis. But how many of us have ever taken the time to get to know a man in blue? This two-part interview with Culbreth was among the most interesting we’ve done at DP and is a must-read piece for any baseball coach or fan as you may just see your daily enemy in a different light!

Culbreth played high school baseball at Chapman High School before moving on to play in college at UNC-Charlotte before injuries derailed his successful career. Culbreth worked second base at the 2006 All-Star Game, the League Championship in 2000, 2003 and 2006, and a Division Series in 2002 and 2004. He’s also had a good view of some major moments in MLB history.

Enjoy Culbreth’s Q & A with DP as his passion for baseball and the umpiring profession shines through.

DP-We know you played high school ball at Chapman and in college at UNC-Charlotte. How has your playing experience helped you as an umpire?

FC-It was vital to have played at a high level, it gives you a much better understanding of the game. More so with instincts, on a given play, I know where the ball should be and that helps me get closer to the play.

DP-You are in your 12th year as a MLB umpire, where did it all start and what was your road there?

FC-My college baseball coach was Gary Robinson and he had umpired up to the double-A level. He often spoke of umpiring and he always had friends stopping by the field who were umpiring minor leagues games in Charlotte for the Charlotte Orioles. My senior year I injured my arm and had it in a sling so I called balls and strikes from behind the mound during intra-squad games. My arm never recovered by the end of the season and I’d always wanted to play Major League Baseball so I went to an umpiring school in 1987. Out of a class of 150, I was in the top five or six and off to the minor leagues. Climbing the ladder in umpiring is the same as players getting to the big leagues. Scouting supervisors came in to evaluate us and you move up just like a player through the different levels. Just like a player can be released at anytime, so can an umpire. The only difference is that an umpire has to go through each level of the minor leagues whereas a player can be called straight to the big leagues from single-A.

DP-What is the difference between umpiring in the minor leagues versus the major leagues?

FC-The conditions and travel is much better in the Major Leagues, we are treated like a Big Leaguer. In the minors, you see some good baseball but also come across the pitcher who can’t throw a strike sometimes. You also come across some bad baseball. In the majors, you’re looking at polished stone. They are all incredibly talented and their greatest challenge is learning to play with pressure, it’s a matter of who can withstand pressure the best. Some are better at it that others. Rafael Palmeiro never let a call shake him up. He had so much confidence in himself as a hitter that no call would phase him. Most of the true stars of the game are that way.

DP-Generally speaking, do you think most umpires have the respect of players/coaches?

FC-I think so. Television gives us credibility. Major League umpires are right 99.4 percent of the time, that’s a fact. When I have to make a close call it will be replayed over and over and there is proof as to whether it was the right call or the wrong call. Because we are correct almost 100 percent of the time, I believe that helps build respect among coaches and players. At a little league game when little Johnny is involved in a close play and the umpire makes a call, there will never be any proof that he was safe or out. We have proof on every single call we make but even if you are right 99.4 percent of the time, you are only as good as your last call. If you blow the last call you made, coaches, players and fans don’t care about the last 99 that you got right!

DP-Have you worked any monumental games and/or what special baseball moments have you witnessed on the field?

FC-I was behind the plate for Rafael Palmeiro’s 3000th hit and on the bases for Cal Ripken’s 3000th hit. I was also behind the plate in the last game of Ripken’s streak, I had third base in the first game that he sat out. In 2003, I had third base in the Steve Bartman game at Wrigley Field.

DP-What was your take on that play, do you still feel the right call was made? Do you think Moises Alou could’ve made that play?

FC-The right call was made. With the angle you saw on TV, you probably couldn’t have seen that the ball was a foot in the stands. I feel so bad for that guy, there were a lot of other hands in there going for the ball too. Do I think Alou could’ve made the catch, yes. Do I think he would’ve made the catch, I just don’t know, there were so many hands going for the ball. We see this play every other game, this one just happened to be in the playoffs.

DP-What are the responsibilities of a crew chief?

FC-A crew chief is in charge. It’s usually a senior guy, he handles rain situations. He gets input from the other umpires and makings rulings on important decisions.

DP-Tim McClelland is your crew chief, what have you learned from him and why has he been so successful over time?

FC-He is such an even-keeled guy. He doesn’t ride the rollercoaster. He is never too high or too low. There are too many plays and situations over the course of a season, you can’t let a bad call you’ve made beat you up.

DP-What goals do you have for yourself?

FC-I have accomplished everything I set out to do except work a World Series game. Maybe be a crew chief. I’ve always just wanted to be as good as I can possibly be.

DP-What do you have to do to get the opportunity to work a World Series?

FC-Nothing. I’ve worked everything there is to be worked, now it’s up to our supervisors and the Major League Baseball commissioner’s office.

DP-What is a typical in-season gameday (night game) like for an umpire?

FC-Well, it depends on whether it’s a travel day, a getaway day or the middle of a series. If it’s a travel day, we’ll get up around 5:00 a.m. to hop on a plane. We usually arrive around noon, some guys like to grab a nap or workout. Then it’s time to go to the park, we have to be in the stadium an hour before the game. If it is a day in the middle of a series, I get up early, workout, walk around the city, have lunch and come back to the hotel to do some work, like pay my bills. Then it’s time to head to the park and prepare for the game. If it’s getaway day, we have to get up early to pack and checkout. We usually get to the ballpark earlier on these days to get our stuff together at the ballpark so we can take off after the game.

DP-What do you and others do in the hour before a game to get ready?

FC-Some guys play cards and relax, some get in a corner and are already a part of the game before it starts. I really don’t think about the game too much. When I walk into a Big League stadium for a Major League game, I am able to get focused real quick. I just don’t like to work up any more energy before I have to. Umpires are much like players. Some use video to get ready for that night’s game, some really withdraw from others, some just go out and play. We are the same way. Every once in a while we may take a look at some video of a left-hander’s pick-off move and some umpires want to see what that night’s starting pitcher’s curveball looks like. But that’s about it.

DP-What is a typical in-season schedule for an umpire?

FC-I will work 135 regular season games this year. I’ll leave for Spring Training on February 28. I really enjoy Spring Training. Players are having fun, everyone is looser, and the fans can get closer. It’s a really fun time and I look forward to it every year. During the year, we get four one-week vacations, three of them we take off as a crew. The other week is whenever I choose to take it. They’ll get an umpire to come up in my place, which is a really good system. It serves as an internship for him, it breaks him in a little at a time. As the season progresses you turn it up a notch. By the All-Star Break, all but about five or six teams are still in the hunt. Most games we work have at least one team that still has a shot at the post-season. That’s when it really gets fun, every game matters, every game means something.

DP-What do you do during the off-season?

FC-Raise my kids, play golf and fish. I’m gone so much that when I’m home I really want to spend quality time with my family. Even though my schedule is really busy, I let them know they are very important to me when I am there.

DP-How does your family cope with you being away for extended periods of time?

FC-My wife stays at home and does a great job raising the kids by herself. My boy will visit me in Spring Training and when I’m in Atlanta they’ll come visit me. But they are getting older and beginning they’re own lives so they are getting more and more busy back home. It’s really hard being away so much and that is the part of this that the fans don’t see. They see us as four villains to have come all the way across the country to ruin their night. Once I got a call 20 minutes before doing the plate in a match-up between Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson. My wife was stranded on the side of the road in the van with my three kids. She was helpless and I was 3000 miles away. We are real people with real problems but we have to walk out there and do a job and no one can notice that I am torn up inside worried about my family.

DP-What is Spring Training like for an umpire? What do you have to do to be prepared for a baseball season?

FC-Put the gear on, squat behind a catcher and see Major League pitches. There is no way for me to simulate a Major League fastball or breaking ball. I just need to see pitches and see plays. Once I get back there and see a few, I think, “Yep, there it is.”

DP-What is the best conversation you have ever heard between a hitter and catcher or runner and first baseman?

FC-I’ve never heard a great conversation but one guy does really stick out, Luis Gonzales. Luis is a really good, classy guy. He’s a nut, he’s talking all the time. A lot of the time he’s still talking while the pitch is on the way. When he comes to the plate, he’s always busting somebody’s chops. It may be the catcher, it may be me, it can be his leftfielder or another player on the other team, whoever…The guy never stops talking.

DP-What is some advice you’d have for an amateur coach/manager, catcher and pitcher in dealing with umpires?

FC-These guys are not the best-trained umpires in the world. They are doing the best they can, at least nine out ten are. Remember that, be respectful. Yelling and hollering during a game WILL NOT make him better, in some cases you may make him worse. You’re never going to jack a guy up to bear down more because you are on his case.

DP-What does a pitcher/catcher need to do in order to earn the next call?

FC-At my level, nothing. The only thing I’d tell a catcher is that the better he catches the pitch, the cleaner he sticks it, the better of a look I get at it. It’s like anything else, the nicer it looks to you, the more inclined you’re going to be to like it. To pitcher’s, throw it over the plate!

DP-Does arguing with an umpire affect a call later in that game? Next week? Next year?

FC-Absolutely, without a doubt, no. I get paid to do a job. Clashing personalities are as much a part of the game as hotdogs and the seventh inning stretch. If you say enough to get ejected and I eject you, that’s it, it’s over. If you say enough to get ejected and I don’t eject you, then that’s the call I missed that day. It doesn’t matter who it is, when it’s over, it’s over. It would be career suicide to try to cheat you. My livelihood is on the line, I’m not going to sacrifice that to settle a score.

DP-What advice would you have for young umpires at the high school and college level about dealing with coaches and players?

FC-Two things: 1) Any opportunity you get to attend a Big League umpiring camp, go. We can’t teach somebody to become a great umpire in an afternoon but we have had a lot of experiences to pass along that will help young umpires. 2) When you show up to work, work hard. Care, take it serious. Realize that no matter what level you are umpiring, the people on the field have a lot invested. If you are working a game with seven year-olds, work as hard as you can, this level of play may be as good as it ever gets for them in baseball.

DP-What do you think is the biggest misconception about your profession?

FC-That each umpire has his own interpretation of the strike zone. With Questech (a computerized device to measure balls and strikes) in half of the ballparks, each umpire is graded and evaluated. There is no way an umpire can have his own zone.

DP-Will you admit to a catcher when you’ve missed a call?

FC-No, not because I cannot recognize I made a mistake though. I have to call it the way I see it at that moment, as long as I care 100 percent, I won’t apologize for missing a call. When Derek Jeter makes an error he moves on, he doesn’t get on a microphone and announce it to everyone.

DP-We all know about what happened to Don Denkinger in 1985. Does it ever enter into your mind that a blown call could go down in history?

FC-I can’t consider failure but have to realize it’s always a possibility. When the human element is there, there is always a chance of it, absolutely. My mindset has to be 100 percent to get the call right to the best of my ability. Going into the season, I know I’m going to miss a call or two, I just have to hope and pray it doesn’t really hurt somebody. I know how much everything means to the players, coaches and fans but no one puts more pressure on me than myself. Not Randy Johnson, not Paul O’Neill not 50,000 people, not all the people in all the stadiums combined, cannot make me feel worse for a missed call than myself. You have to have a different personality to do this job. You know what you are getting into. When you make a great call there will be no cheers. The only other people who will recognize a great call are the three other people on the crew.

DP-So in a sense, the brotherhood among umpires is stronger than any other kind of team?

FC-I’ve been a part of plenty of teams, there is no question that this type of teamwork is different. Every call that someone on our crew makes affects everybody. If a buddy gets a tough call right, that’s a feather in the cap for all of us.

DP-How does a strike zone change in a 10-run game versus a tie ballgame?

FC-It doesn’t, it can’t. These player contracts are laden with all kinds of incentives. Every at-bat matters, there are no gimme’s anymore. Some guys have plate appearance incentives, strikeout or walk incentives, today’s contracts make every pitch important.

DP-Is it hard to determine intent as to when a pitcher is throwing at a hitter?

FC-Absolutely. You try to see everything, recognize the situation, any history that may exist between those two players or their teams. You have to process it all very quickly. You can try to climb into the pitchers head but you’ll never know for 100 percent. You’re like a judge. You look at the evidence, render a decision and hope you are right. It is one of the toughest calls you have to make because of the scrutiny that generates once a decision is made or not made. Your decision could be the difference between grown men fighting versus not fighting.

DP-What is your favorite base to coach?

FC-Don’t have one. Every base is so different. You really, really get jacked up if you have the plate because you’ll make anywhere between 150 and 300 important decisions which can physically drain you.

DP-What is your philosophy on the neighborhood play at second base?

FC-If I call it an out, then I believe they touched the base. These guys so quick it is ridiculous, they touch it (on the pivot) and it’s gone.

DP-Who is the nicest player in the Big Leagues?

FC-Too many to name, a number of them are great. Nomar Garciaparra has not changed since he was in the minors, Derek Jeter handles everything like a gentleman. What you see on TV with him really is the way he is. Baseball players are just like regular people, they aren’t all choirboys but there are no devils either.

DP-What catcher is the most talkative? Least talkative?

FC-Most just sit there and do their job, most are quiet, actually. I used to have some really good conversations with John Flaherty.

DP-What manager is the best arguer?

FC-Lou Pinella is one of the best because he knows how to argue. He allows you to work the game. I enjoy working his games. He’s not waiting for you to make a mistake…if you do and comes after you, he’s going to put on a show!

DP-What manager chirps the most?

FC-The Billy Martin’s are gone. By in large, most of them let you work.

DP-What city is hardest on umpires?

FC-None of them let you slide (as he laughs). Fans in Yankee Stadium and St. Louis really are knowledgeable fans. They know how to cheer for a baseball team and when to be hard on you.

DP-What is your favorite ballpark to work in and why?

FC-I divide the ballparks up into old ones and new ones. The parks that are just magical are Wrigley, Fenway, old Tiger Stadium and Yankee Stadium. When you walk into these stadiums it’s just unbelievable. Fenway is absolutely beautiful but is an umpire’s nightmare with the ground rules. Of the new ones, Pittsburgh is quaint and Safeco Field.

DP-What ballpark has the toughest ground rules?

FC-Minute Maid (Houston) has some real, real challenges. Homeruns at most places are usually gone and easy to call. There is a line on the cement in left which can make it tough. But it’s a beautiful place that was built with the fans in mind but it is tougher for us.

DP-What pitcher has the best command?

FC-Maddux, Glavine…they just don’t quit throwing it where they want to. They just will not give in to a hitter. They have the confidence to continue throwing it where they want and just will not give in.

DP-What LHP has the toughest pick-off move to 1B?

FC-Pedro Martinez is quick and throws it so hard over there. There are no gimme’s when he decides to throw over. Andy Pettitte has a good one. If he’s balking, he’s fooled 68 of some of the best umpires in the world. The difference is that he’s taken time to get very good at something, you can’t penalize a guy because he’s worked hard enough to perfect something.

DP-What pitcher has the most movement?

FC-It used to be Scott Erickson, everything he threw looked like a Whiffle Ball. It was unbelievable what his ball would do every time he threw it.

DP-Who is the most talented player you have seen play?

FC-Jeter, A-Rod. They are gifted beyond most because everyone has talent in the Big Leagues. Jeter was touched by the hand of God and makes it look so easy. Rafael Palmeiro was such a good player, he could fall out of bed ten years from now and hit .300.

DP-What player plays the hardest? Who is the guy you’d point to and tell your son, ‘that is how you play the game’?

FC-Eckstein. David wasn’t touched by the hand of God. He has made himself a player and he’s a good player. He doesn’t do anything that a Major League player does but he has worked his ass off.

DP-What do you want people to know about your profession, that the casual observer may not be aware of?

FC-That umpires do care. People get the feeling that we make a bad call, pack our bags and go to the next city where we’ll make our next bad call. We care as much as Jeter. The difference is that he is trying to get on Sportscenter, I’m trying not to get on Sportscenter. We are passionate about what we do, we don’t just rise up out of the ground at 7 p.m. at homeplate at night to work the Braves-Reds game.

DP-Fieldin, thanks a ton for your time and providing our readers with a very unique perspective into your profession and Major League Baseball. We wish you continued success as we follow your career.