Saw something in last night’s Mets/Yanks game I’d never seen before: Home plate ump Alfonso Marquez, who wears No. 72, had his uniform number on his chest protector. This is the first time I can remember seeing an MLB umpire wearing his uni number anyplace other than on his jacket sleeve or shirt sleeve.
All of which raises the question of why umpires and referees need uni numbers in the first place. Like, seriously, can you identify a single ump or ref, past or present, by number? Consider MLB’s senior umpire, Bruce Froemming, who’s been on the job since 1971 — quick, what’s his uni number? Granted, Froemming’s number (which happens to be 6) is sometimes overshadowed by his Adonis-like physique and legendary tact, but I trust you get my point.
(Speaking of Froemming: I was once at a game where he split his pants while bending over to dust off the plate — truly en epochal Uni Watch moment. For the next several innings he kicked the plate clean with his feet. When even that proved too strenuous, he had the grounds crew bring over some baseline chalk and, I swear, had them scatter it on top of the plate, so it would look white without his having to do anything. Some clown in the stands — who happened to look and sound a lot like me — spent the rest of the game screaming, “Froemming, you fat fuck, clean bend over and clean it yourself!”)
MLB umpire numbers are a fairly recent innovation. They were first worn by National League umps in 1970, and the American League followed a year later. (For more on the history of umpire attire, look here.) More than three decades later, I’m fairly certain not a single fan can name a single umpire by number. After John McSherry died of a heart attack at Shea Stadium in 1996, the Mets wore a memorial sleeve patch that included his uni number — an empty gesture, since nobody ever knew his number in the first place. Similarly, NHL officials have been wearing a “72” sleeve patch sleeve patch this season in memory of linesman Stephane Provost, who died last year, but I bet even most NHL officials never knew what Provost’s number was.
The smartest approach is taken by the NCAA, which has its football officials wear letters instead of numbers — “S” for the side judge, “B” for the back judge, and so on. That’s way better than the situation in the NFL, where officials wear their numbers fore and aft — a double dose of numerical pointlessness.