by Editor Rick Cabral

Man in Blue: Gary Darling 

Gary Darling, MLB Umpire
Photo courtesy of 

In 2011, Sacramento native Gary Darling celebrated his 25th year umpiring in the major leagues. The former Luther Burbank High graduate served as the crew chief in this year’s National League Championship Series and over his career has been in two World Series. He was behind the plate in St. Louis when Mark McGwire hit home run number 61 to tie Roger Maris for the single-season home run record in 1998. In all that time in the bigs, he’s never worked a no-hitter behind the plate (although he had a perfect game in Double-A ball).

In youth sports, Gary’s claim to fame was playing on the 1975 Southside American Legion team that won the area title. After playing two  years at Cosumnes River College he realized his career in baseball might be better suited behind the plate, so he began umpiring around town.

In fall 1978 Darling had one of those life-changing moments when he climbed a power pole for kicks. Midway up, electricity arced and threw Darling 75 feet in the air. He landed on the ground face first and spent much of that autumn recovering in the hospital.

Eventually he returned to umpiring around the local sandlots, including college games. Finally, he decided to attend umpire school in 1980. There Bill Spooner, who is now an NBA official, gave him the nickname “Zap” to forever honor Darling’s electrocution.

The following year, he started umpiring professionally, beginning in the Short-A Northwest League. In short order, Darling found himself in the big leagues serving as a substitute. By 1988, he had become a full-fledged, permanent major league umpire.

He is currently the president of Umps Care, a fundraising group comprised of major league umpires who stage a number of worthwhile fundraising activities throughout the country to benefit at-risk kids and adopted children, often in concert with Major League Baseball and the 30 MLB teams. Two of the group's major activities include an online auction and a marathon 100-hole golf tournament which raises $50,000+ annually.

With nearly 3,000 games officiated in his big league career, Darling ranks 11th on the list of active MLB umpires. A resident of the Phoenix area, in the offseason he sells real estate, something he took up in 1999 when he "hit a bump in the road" and his contract wasn't renewed for a brief time.

Darling agreed to a Q&A by telephone to provide greater insight into the mind of the men in blue (Just don’t call him that. He says “In professional baseball, you won’t hear one player ever calls us ‘Blue.’ But everybody else in the world does.”)

Several of his comments refer to a momentus change at the turn of the century when Major League Baseball conducted what Darling terms a “corporate takeover” of umpires by erasing the division between National and American League umpires, reconstituting the strike zone parameters and implementation of strike-zone technology (QuesTec which gave way to the current Zone Evaluation or Z.E. system in 2009 in all 30 MLB ballparks) to evaluate home plate umpires accuracy and consistency. Like the “K-Zone” on television, umpires today view an online replay of their home plate accuracy, and are assigned numerical grades for their performances by Major League Baseball.

Did Jim Joyce do umpires a big service on that play in Detroit last year (calling the runner safe at first base when it appeared he was out, thus foiling a perfect game by former Detroit pitcher, Armando Gallaraga). I think umpires garnered good feelings as a result of Joyce’s personal, honest reaction (apologizing and bonding with the Gallaraga post game). Would you agree?

“I guess in that sense I’m glad it was Jimmy Joyce. Because if it would have been a different umpire, the response might have been different. I think what you’re starting to see now with Joe Torre (former manager of the Yankees and Dodgers) taking over, he’s seeing umpiring from a different side. He sees that we’re every bit as competitive as the players are. We’re all professionals.

Jimmy missed the play, but at the time he didn’t think he missed it. Then he looked at it, and he felt terrible. Jimmy’s that kind of guy. He’s passionate, he’s very—not to be disrespectful to any ethnicity or whatever—but he’s very Irish. He’s just an emotional guy. The way he handled that was he spoke emotionally on TV. From what I understand he went over and met with the Tigers that night and apologized. He got a standing ovation the next day.  Plenty of times in my career I’ve missed a play and nobody’s even asked about it. Or if they have, in the old days, when I first came up there wasn’t as much ESPN…it was just the way Jimmy handled that.

But would you agree that umpires as a group got a little bit of a benefit as a result of how he handled things?

I would think in the public life, for sure. Nobody on our (umpires) side disrespected Jimmy for the way he handled it, but not everybody would have handled it that way, I guess. I don’t think I would have handled it the exact same that Jimmy did. Like I said, I’ve missed plenty of plays in my day, but none had the fall0ut of Jim Joyce's call.

I think we saw another time this year when an umpire came out and apologized for missing a play. I can’t remember seeing that in the past.

It’s happened before. Ever since they started bringing umpires into the interview green room after a game. They get a chance to see it. ‘Yeah, I missed that. Or ‘No, I got that right.’ Or, ‘You can’t tell.’

Is that with journalists, you’re saying?

As an umpire you don’t want to go into that green room where they interview the players. You don’t like to be that guy as an umpire, because generally nothing good comes out of it.

Is that a formal process now where umpires sometimes can volunteer to be interviewed?

In the playoffs they have; in the past they try not to. This year, was a pretty clean playoff, there were no really big snafus. But in the past, guys had more TV interviews. But this year there weren’t any. There were interviews after games and quotations. I was working during the NLCS (2011 playoffs) when we had warnings in the first inning. That was somewhat of a big deal.

Guys have…not apologized, I mean admitting mistakes, that’s not uncommon. It’s just to the extreme that Jimmy did, that’s rare. But we all feel bad when we miss a pitch or a play. I mean you kind of know at the time. Nobody wants to be the guy that had that play. You do this job long enough you’re gonna be that guy at some point.

That play was magnified because of the situation, it being the last play in a perfect game.

Yeah, but you know, not for nothin’ but if the first baseman would have just gone to first base (instead of trying to snare the grounder) it was a ground ball to the second baseman, the guy’s out by twenty feet. Jimmy never did blame the first baseman (Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera). And I’m not sayin’ the first baseman was wrong, but a lot of times, when umpires have a play, a funny play, it’s because it wasn’t a perfect throw. Which is part of the game. Lot of times our missed plays usually happen as a result of something funny that happens out on the baseball field.

Normal plays at first base, if there’s a perfect throw and it’s a close play umpires get those plays and the general public would say miraculously correct most of the time. And even most people would say ‘We’re watching on HD now. I can’t believe how many times you guys are right.’ I think data supports that. There’s different data between teams, and what the league keeps, I don’t know what the exact numbers are, but our getting plays right are way higher than most people think. It’s just the ones that are missed are magnified. And situations get magnified and I don’t think that’s good for anybody. None of us want to be the story in a game.

(Editor's Note: Darling found himself the story of a game in April 2008 for a purported "phantom-balk call" on Giants' pitcher Tim Lincecum. To read a Bleacher Report blog of that moment, go here)

In that play, how does an umpire position himself on the field; a few steps to the side of the base line, and he’s watching the bag?

As an umpire you pick up on the bag and then read what the first baseman’s doing.

When you say ‘read’ what do you mean by that?

Whether he stretching for the ball, or coming off the base for a ball, or read a bad throw in the dirt. You learn to read the first baseman as a first base umpire. You see the whole play, because you don’t want to be too close or too far, you see the whole play, but you hear the different sounds.

So, listening is a part of that particular play?

On a normal play at first base, absolutely. But in this case, there was no pop and thud. There weren’t the two sounds. It was just the two feet on the play that Jimmy Joyce (miscalled). But that’s one play in a million. That’s a long time ago. I know that’s what people like to see. But on routine plays at first base, we get most of those right. And I think most people in baseball would agree with that.

Behind the plate, do you feel bad after you’ve blown a pitch?

‘Blown’ is a bad connotation. Sure, sometimes a pitch is ‘missed.’ If it’s 3-2 bottom of the ninth and a guy throws a knee-high slider and you say ‘Ball’ and it’s a strike, well, s**t yeah you’re gonna feel bad about that. But there’s 250 pitches a game, and (umpires) guys are getting 95-98 percent of them right. But every year there’s going to be a few misses…

In the World Series, we saw where the umpire didn’t call a close pitch a strike, but yet on TV the K-Zone (the imaginary box that shows where the ball lands relative to the strike zone) showed it probably was within the box. On the very next pitch the ball seemed to land in the very same spot and then the umpire called it “strike three,” and the batter went crazy, he turns around and complains ‘You didn’t call the last one a strike.’ I think that irregularity upsets either side, the batter or the pitcher.

Yeah, true, I can appreciate that. That happens. I’m not saying it happens on purpose. Nobody does it on purpose. But we’re not robots. And neither are they. We’re human beings. Do we miss a pitch every now and then? Yeah. We’d like to be perfect. Lots of things play in to what is a ball or a strike. And sometimes we miss one.

In the playoffs I don’t think there was one game on TV that didn’t incorporate the K-Zone. In some cases, we (the viewer) can see the ball landed in the strike zone, but it was not called a strike by the umpire. How can umpires overall improve their strike zone consistency?

Well, I think it is pretty consistent. We’ve proven that with the data that baseball keeps on us. We’ve done studies as a union, that I wasn’t a part of, but it extrapolates and guesses the last whatever percentage, or six to eight feet of the pitch, it guesses that. Just because it can’t track it the whole way. Different things pertain to what is a strike: Is he a big guy or a little guy? But you notice that box never changes, never adjusts to where the guy’s standing, how the catcher catches it. According to our data and how they rate us, we don’t miss too many.

It used to be if it was close, you’d call it a strike. Now, if it’s close, more times than not, on the inside or outside part it’s a ball by the way we’re rated. By the way our machine tracks us. And TBS had it up there all the time, and FOX had it up some of the time, and even (FOX color analyst and former MLB catcher Tim) McCarver looking at it, here’s a ball and the umpire calls it a strike and he says ‘It looks like he might have missed that.’ And I’m looking at that the same thing, and it’s a good pitch in the umpire world. Yeah, sometimes there’s close pitches that are balls. But that happens.

It’s a helpful tool. It’s done its job. It shows that umpires are calling pretty much the same strike zone for the most part.

When I first broke in there wasn’t anything (technology). It was Al Barlick or Eddie Vargo (senior umpires) or somebody along those lines, nothing was on TV, and they would talk to the catcher (to get feedback on the previous day’s home plate umpire's accuracy).

The manager calls time out for a conference on the mound. How long do you give him before going out there to break it up, and how do you count it?

If they do it quickly, if they’re not stalling, they haven’t snuck the catcher or the shortstop to talk to the (pitcher), if it’s a normal pitching change I’ll count to eight or ten, depending on what part of the game it is. If I feel it’s a legitimate conference. But if I think they’re stalling, I’ll break it up a little bit quicker.

So, it’s a judgment call?
Yeah, there’s no set clock.

Wasn’t there a recent rule implemented to encourage pitchers to deliver the ball in a certain timeframe?

That’s with no runners on base, yeah, the pitcher has 12 seconds to deliver the pitch. But once the hitter’s in the box and the pitcher has the ball and is ready to go. One of the guy’s on the crew has a watch. If we think a guy’s abusing it, we’ll pull the watch out. You don’t see it called very much. Maybe not enough. But if you do call it, you’re gonna have a bigger delay over the argument about calling a ball on somebody. Lot of times, it’s the closers who are real slow, real deliberate. Certain pitchers: Valverde, Papelbon’s very deliberate. We try to joke to get them to pick up the pace a little bit.

You give them a warning in advance before calling a ball?

Yeah, I wouldn’t just do it out of the blue. I’ve got a pretty good whistle. I can get someone’s attention and show them the watch, ‘You’ve got to pick it up a bit.’ We’re not trying to be a******s about it. At some point you’ve got to pick up the pace a little bit. 


Similarly, with a runner on base, and the pitcher’s gone into a stretch while holding the runner, when is it too late for the batter to call time? I’ve seen it sometimes when the pitcher’s midway in his delivery, and he has to stop, and the umpire signals the batter has asked for time. What is the guideline? Seems the batter is being granted time-out way too late.

We try not to give them time, but at some point, if the pitcher’s getting an advantage by holding the ball, that’s not fair to the hitter. So we try to look at it that way, too. It’s a judgment call. There’s no clock. (We need to ask) What’s the intent? What’s the spirit of the situation?

I’ve noticed what I think is an uptrend in batters turning around to question the pitch location. The commentator will say, ‘He’s asking was that high? Or Inside?’ Is there more of that going on now?

No, just depends on the situation, the hitter, the umpire. It depends on a lot of stuff. You didn’t see a lot of grumbling during the 2011 playoffs or World Series. Every now and then you see guys question a pitch, but I don’t think it’s a trend by any stretch.

At what point has the batter crossed the line, since players and coaches not supposed to argue balls and strikes?

It depends on their tone of voice, their arm action. You saw Yadier Molina (in August), he turned around and jumped in the umpire’s face and bumped him three times and spit on him twice (Editor’s Note: the video is inconclusive whether Molina spit or moisture may have been unintentionally exchanged). That’s over the line. That’s an ejection, he was ejected as soon as he turned around and came at him aggressively.

That happened with your crew?

Happened to our crew, yeah.

But when a guy says, ‘Wasn’t that inside?’ ‘No, that’s a good pitch.’ ‘Alright.’ If they leave it at that, that’s not arguin’ the pitch. But if they continue it, or take a long walk after we tell them to get back in the batter’s box, they wanna continue arguing the pitch, that’s crossing the line. In the big leagues, there’s not many ejections where the hitter says ‘You’re f****n’ horseshit.’ In the minors, you get those kind of ejections. In the big leagues it’s more about actions, delays and subtleties that get guys ejected.

Generally, I would say the relationship between umpires and players is very, very good.

You had the NLCS this year (crew chief) and would have had Game Seven (The Cardinals defeated the Brewers in six games). Were you disappointed it didn’t go that long?

Um, I don’t know if disappointed is the right term. I was ready to work it, though that’s for sure (he also worked Game One in that series).

Is that an assignment issue, the crew chief determines who works behind the plate to start a series?

No, MLB designates the rotation, and almost always the crew chief will have Game One and Seven.

I have another trend question. Barry Bonds, I think most would agree, was the epitome of modern-day hitters who stop to watch the ball in flight (on a home run), or they flip the bat. Basically, it’s showmanship. Similarly, umpires seem to have become more demonstrative in the last few years, especially on the called third strike. You know, they turn, pivot and do a lawnmotor pull on a strike three call. Would you agree that’s (a trend)?

You know what my strike three call is? 

Gary Darling displays his
called third strike pose.

No, I don’t.

(Laughs) It’s as basic as you get. It’s the same as my strike one call. In that case, I guess you’re asking the wrong guy. Everybody has their own little style. There’s some that are more demonstrative than others. But everybody’s got their own style.

Years ago you had Ron Luciano, he had his own shtick when he was working first base. And Dutch Rennert, the way he called balls and strikes back in the seventies and eighties. He was one of the best balls/strikes umpires, but he had a very big, demonstrative ‘Strike THRRREEEEE.’ Nobody does that anymore.

When I watch replays on ESPN Classic from the ‘50s and ‘60s, the umpire just seemed to hold up his right hand and say ‘strike three.’ It just seems that umpires now are doing what ballplayers have done, and that is calling attention to themselves, ‘Look at me—I’ve got a great called third strike.”  

No, not really. If you go too far we’ll try and tone down a young guy when they’re really sticking it to them. I think the players, for the most part, enjoy a good called strike three call, as long as they’re not showing them up. No umpire is showing a player up by having a different strike three call. Some people think that’s part of the game.

As a crew chief, you’re saying if you saw a young umpire in your crew do an over the line call, you might talk privately with him?

We had a young guy for a couple of months this year, and we changed his strike three call and just kinda calmed him down. That’s the job of the veteran guys that do it with the young guys.

Another trend question: I think the catcher appealing the check swing has really been on the rise in the past 25 years. I don’t remember it happening as much when I was a kid.

When you were growing up, there was just one game of the week on TV.  Certain catchers ask more than others. As a guy working third and first base, I don’t think I’m asking for more or less than I ever have. And I have 25 years. As a home plate umpire you try and get them right. Once again, you have a trend, but I don’t see it as an issue.

I would limit the catcher’s appeals, like NFL challenges, to three a game. Make it count, make it important. Leave it to the home plate umpire to call down there.

There’s no time factor that slows the game down. If anything, I would limit the number of trips the catcher goes to the pitcher to talk about signs. That’s where you need to limit something. Not check swings. So, you’ve used up your allotment of check-swing appeals, and in the ninth inning the catcher jumps up, and the home plate umpire is blocked out and doesn’t see it and the batter takes a pretty full swing at it. Now, there’s no one to ask. That’s not realistic to limit something like that. If anything, I’d limit the catcher’s trips to the mound.

How about this one: the pitched ball hits the dirt around home plate and (the home plate umpire) automatically rejects the ball.

That has gotten to be more. We have an unlimited supply of baseballs. And a lot of home plate area scuffs the ball and makes the ball do things it’s not supposed to do. Once again, it doesn’t take that long. As a home plate umpire, I look at it, inspect it and now I decide if I’m going to change it. Before, the catcher threw the ball back normally (to the pitcher). Now, I’ve already handed him a baseball and we’ve exchanged the balls…

This is not a time-wasting question. The issue is every time the ball hits the dirt, the catcher catches it, you automatically reject it…

Naw, it’s not automatic. It depends on the ballpark. Some ballparks, Yankee Stadium, don’t scuff the ball so much. And we know that. It’s a habit now, and I’ll look at the ball; I don’t automatically throw it out. I’ll take a look at it. If I can keep it, I’ll keep it. But if it’s not up to major league baseball standards of a new baseball, then it needs to be exchanged.

Why is it then when a ball is hit in play, rolls on the dirt toward the shortstop and it’s thrown to first base, it goes back to the pitcher and put back in play. That ball might have as much dirt as any ball that hits around the plate…

I agree. But sometimes the dirt is different around home plate. And also lot of times I’ll leave a ball in play, and the pitcher doesn’t want to throw it. Most pitchers aren’t used to throwing a scuffed ball. They’ll throw it out. That’s why if we know if the pitcher’s going to change it out, you might as well change it out right away just to keep the game moving. There are some umpires that check every ball. And to me that’s over the top, I agree with you there.

Baseball players are some of the most talented athletes in sport. At minimum they are in great shape, and most in good shape. I would argue there are some umpires who aren’t in good shape, healthwise. It seems some umpires are vastly overweight. Wouldn’t that affect their overall performance?

There’s not too many umpires vastly over weight. There’s some heavier than others. You’re going back 15 to 20 years ago to the Eric Gregg’s, the John McSherry’s. Most guys now, we have to take physicals, we have do conditioning. We may not be world-class athletes. But Major League’s got a lot of guys who work out in the off-season, work out every day during the season. Push-ups, stretches. There’s a few of them overweight. For the most part, they’re in pretty good shape.

Is that an umpire union requirement?

It’s a CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) issue. We (umpires) have a working agreement like the players do with Major League Baseball. Used to be before 1999 there was a National League and an American League. Now, since 2000 there’s a corporate takeover. Now, all the umpires are under one roof and MLB made it a little stricter. That’s when the QuesTec came in, the original machine that graded us on balls and strikes. I think that started in 2000 (2001 according to New York Times). As long as you showed up for work, it was pretty much okay. But since baseball’s taken over, you’ve seen more uniformity in the size of the umpires, the mechanics of the umpires, the strike zones, everything’s more—not cookie cutter—but a little more uniform.

Do you think we’re going to see instant replay become more of a factor in games?

I’d be surprised if it didn’t. But I don’t think anything’s imminent. There’s nothin’ in play for next year, or I’d say within XX amount of years there’s going to be replays at the plate or replays on field plays or replays on catch-no-catch in the outfield that’s just a normal catch-no-catch situation. Next year, I’d be surprised if there’s any changes.

One of the uses of instant replay pertains to home runs…

…whether the ball is going to leave the ballpark and be a home run or not. Whether there’s fan interference. A bounding ball and you cannot tell whether it hit in the stands on the yellow line, we can’t look at that. A ball in flight, whether it’d been a home run or not, is really the only thing we can look at, replay-wise.

…I was trying to get to the idea that now you walk off the field, go down to view the replay and reappear to make the call. That’s gotta be different for you.

That was definitely new a few years ago. We had some places where (the viewing area’s) right off the field in the hallway, where the grounds crew might be, but some are all the way up in our clubhouse. Most of the TVs are HD now but before, lot of the TVs weren’t in HD, so it wasn’t a very good look at the replay you had. But it’s gotten a little better. Once again, it’s just change, and we just deal with it.

Now, the whole crew goes to view that at the same time? Everybody leaves?

Three of the four guys go. One guy stays on the field to make sure nobody’s sneaking warm-up pitches or that there isn’t a fight, or whatever.

Umpires have always incurred the wrath of the fan. Is there anything you or other umpires you know of have done to train your ability to control emotions or your anger and to deal with that kind of abuse?

That’s just part of the job. You learn to deal with it. The guys that learn to handle it are the guys that, coupled with some ability, are the guys that make it to the big leagues. If you are always yelling at the stands, always, always, always in arguments with the players you’re probably not going to make it. You learn to try and stay calm. Every once in a while you’ll see an umpire snap, but you don’t see it too often anymore. It’s a kinder, gentler world out there. Well, there’s arguments, but you rarely see those big donnybrook arguments out there anymore with us involved.

God bless Billy Martin, huh?

(Laughs) He was the kind of guy who, if he saw an umpire in a bar, he’d probably buy him a drink. Earl Weaver wouldn’t. Billy Martin was just competitive. Earl Weaver didn’t like umpires.

In your mind is umpiring an honorable profession and why?

Without a doubt. We’re the arbiters of the game. We keep the game fair and square, and sometimes make unpopular decisions. We do it with fair play and common sense in mind.

When I 1st broke in a senior umpire was asked what he did for a living and he replied that ‘we babysit millionaires.’ He was just trying to be cute. Professional and amateur umpires alike take pride in the work we do. So, yes, I feel umpiring is a very honorable profession.


None of us have ever been caught up in any betting scandals, you don’t see any drug scandals. You know, guys have normal issues that anyone else does in life. But for the most part, yeah, we’re upstanding, honorable family people. Raise kids in communities and do charity work. I’m fortunate to be involved in the Umpscare charity. We do a lot of stuff around the country, different ballparks, different hospitals.


Reasons for getting into umpiring…

We’re (umpires) unique and dynamic individuals. All somewhat strong willed. But don’t necessarily want the limelight. You don’t become an umpire to become rich and famous. You do it because you like officiating, and baseball happens to be the sport.

Uploaded 11/30/11
All contents © Rick Cabral 2011