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Why isn't there a great movie about baseball umpires?

June 3, 2010 |  3:00 pm

There are many worthy films about the farce and tragedy of playing Major League Baseball -- "Field of Dreams," "The Natural" and "Bull Durham," to name a few. But after Wednesday's debacle at Comerica Park, it bears asking why there's no great movie -- or movie of any kind, really -- about being a Major League Baseball umpire.

On Wednesday, veteran official Jim Joyce openly blew one of the biggest calls in recent baseball history when he called Cleveland Indians shortstop Jason Donald safe at first base with two out in the ninth. Donald was clearly out, and Joyce's call swiped a perfect game from Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga.

Unlike the usual reticence and spin of a pro-sports officiating crew, Joyce immediately copped to his mistake.  "It was the biggest call of my career and I kicked it. I just cost that kid a perfect game," he said, adding a human -- and cinematic -- dimension to a part of sports most of us never see.

And yet despite the emotional depth, baseball umpires have stayed out of not only the glare of fans but of Hollywood as well. There's been just one movie that we can recall about an umpire, a William Bendix film from 60 years ago about a retired baseball player, who, running out of career options, reinvents himself as an ump. It's titled "Kill the Umpire" (rentals for it have apparently soared in the Detroit metro area).

Yet as Wednesday's high drama points up, umpires are fascinating, filmic figures.

One can imagine a great character drama that centers on an umpire. Their itinerant, frequently thankless life -- most of us don't notice an umpire until they mess something up -- along with the requirement to maintain a stoic public face while perhaps inwardly resenting their judge-and-jury role is pure George Clooney in "Up in the Air."

You could go even darker with it, take it in a "Big Fan" direction. Joyce-gate has brought back to the surface, and elicited interviews with, Don Denkinger, the umpire who famously took the 1985 World Series from the Kansas City Royals and gave it to the St. Louis Cardinals. [Update -- Oops, Freudian slip -- of course he took it from the Cardinals and gave it to the Royals]. Denkinger received numerous death threats from St. Louis Cardinals fans, and one can think of a story about an umpire who blows a call forced to go into hiding from bloodthirsty fans calling for his head. "[I]t will never go away. It will be there at every turn," Denkinger told the New York Daily News , describing what Joyce can now expect.

And if you want to get into a genre film, into conspiracy theories and corruption, there's a Scorsese or Coppola or James Gray film in the story of umpires caught in the cross-hairs of some brutal forces; the men in blue are, after all, in a unique position to affect outcomes and thus control huge sums of money, and could do their damage well outside of public view.

We combed development slates looking for movies about umpires, and couldn't find anything. But producers and executives looking for a film containing a tragic figure, a searing sense of injustice and an angry mob wouldn't need to look through the slush pile. They could just watch "SportsCenter."

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Jim Joyce, the day after his major league gaffe. Credit: Paul Sancya / Associated Press

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