I'd met Bruce Froemming and his wife one off-season on a baseball cruise. I got to know Bruce away from the ballpark and where it was more relaxed. Good dude. So, later on, when I'd see him before a game, I'd say something to him like, "Where's your Speedo?"
"You look a lot different in your umpire uniform than you do in your Speedo."
I was just giving him hell. I never saw Bruce in a Speedo.
Durwood Merrill and I'd talk OU football. Wood knew I was from Oklahoma, and he was a big Sooners fan. Wood was from Hooks, Texas, same hometown as Billy Sims, OU's running back who won the Heisman in the '70s. Wood said he was the reason why Sims decided to go to OU instead of Texas.
With Frank Pulli, I'd point out pretty girls in the stands. Or, we'd talk about the game. Have a nice give and take going. Sometimes, he'd slip a punch in right to the kidneys. Then I'd say, "Hell, maybe I need to let one of the balls get past me and hit you."
"Nah. You wouldn't do that," he'd say. "You're too good for that."
Don't get me wrong: it wasn't all buddy-buddy. A lot of times, if I was talking to an umpire, I was chewing on his ass about missing balls and strikes. I wouldn't bitch just to bitch, though. And, I never showed anybody up. Never turned around. Always faced the pitcher. With my mask on, nobody could tell that I was saying anything to the umpire. Because of that, catchers get away with saying more than pitchers or hitters. When those guys get on an umpire, it's obvious to all fifty thousand people in the park. Umpires are people, too. They don't want to be called out or embarrassed in front of a crowd. They don't like it, and their fuses can get pretty short.
To challenge an umpire, you have to know the guy's personality. Know how to approach him. Some guys, you can say, "That's a pretty good pitch there. My pitcher's going to need that pitch tonight," and the umpire'll say, "All right. I'll watch it a little closer." The good ones'll even say, "You know what? I missed that one." That's the right attitude to have. Guys like Doug Harvey, Harry Wendelstedt, and Frank Pulli, that's how they approached the game. They loved to umpire. Loved the game. Wanted to do a good job. And, they'd admit when they were wrong because it was about the game, not them. They're like players – they can have good games, and they can have bad ones.
Some guys, though, if you asked a question about a pitch, they'd get defensive. Act like you're challenging their authority.
I tried to use humor. Get on guys in a way so they didn't really know you were getting onto them. Say something like, "Damn, Bob. You don't usually miss shit like that." That usually made umpires laugh but also grabbed their attention so they'd watch for the pitch you just pointed out.
Because I had credibility, because I didn't complain about bad pitches, that gave me room to ask questions when I was hitting. I remember one time, Durwood Merrill was the home plate umpire and I was hitting. He called a strike.
I said, "What was that?"
"Hall of Fame pitch, O.B.," Wood said.
"Shit. This guy ain't going to the Hall of Fame."
"Hall of Fame pitch."
When I was behind the plate and the umpire and I butted heads about balls and strikes, sometimes I'd catch the pitch and hold it. Everybody's watching, everybody's screaming, but I'd just hold the ball in my glove and then take my time throwing the ball back to the mound.
Some umpires told me not to hold the ball like that.
"Here's the deal," I'd say. "If you're not going to call it a strike, I'm holding the ball."
"Do it again, and I'm throwing you out of the game," the umpire said.
If it happened again and the umpire called a ball when it really was a strike, I'd hold it again. See how the conversation went. I was thrown out of only one game, and that was by a replacement umpire up from Triple A. Generally, you know where the line is and where you shouldn't cross it.