CINCINNATI – Those summer scorchers don't make umpires melt down anymore.
Cooling technology that's been used by the military for years has started helping umps get through those days when the temperatures flirt with triple-digits and the humidity makes handling home plate duties a sweaty job. They can wear a vest with cooling packs on the front and back, or slip a pack into a special pocket in their shirt when they're behind the plate.
They're a lot cooler these summer days, which is no small thing. Unlike players, who can escape the sun and duck into the air conditioned clubhouse between innings, the men in black don't get a break.
"It can really be the difference-maker in finishing the game when the conditions are that difficult," 13-year veteran umpire Bill Welke said.
It's a vast improvement over the days when umpires got so dehydrated on broiling afternoons that their fingers would wrinkle. All they had back then to fight off the oppressive heat was sips of water between innings, a soaked cabbage leaf under their hat and quick dousing with ammonia water between innings.
It's especially tough for plate umpires, who have to wear that protective equipment and do more than 300 knee bends per game, making a fraction-of-an-inch decision on each pitch. A clear head is needed. And there's no time to duck into air conditioning and cool down.
All major league umpires have access this summer to technology that was developed for the military during the first Gulf war. It has spread into industries that involve heat, and filtered down to law enforcement and firefighters who need to stay cool to do their jobs.
"This technology is not new," said Kate Doherty, spokeswoman for HTFx, Inc., which developed the equipment. "It's only new to sports."
The umpires were skeptical at first.
There have been other attempts to adapt cooling equipment to umpires. About 20 years ago, they experimented with a liquid-filled vest that was bulky and didn't stay cool long enough. Cooling packs would get wet and heavy as they thawed.
When much of the country sizzled last summer, umpires started trying the HTFx equipment — marketed under RiteTemp Athletics — and loved it.
"This stuff really works," said Tim Tschida, a 26-year veteran and crew chief. "When I first saw it, I was like, 'I don't know, that sounds like a gimmick.' The first two or three guys on the staff that used it, they couldn't stop raving about it. They said it's like dropping the temperature outside by 20 degrees."
Now, every umpire room in the majors has the cooling equipment, stored in a freezer for ready use. There's a vest with pads front and back that can be worn on the bases. Umpires' shirts now have inside pockets for a pad with a home-plate insignia, providing a layer of cool under the chest protector. The pads can be quickly swapped for colder ones out of the freezer every few innings.
There's a cooling cap and another that an umpire can sit on after the game to quickly lower their core temperature.
To a fan or player, it may not seem like much. To umpires, it's a godsend. Veteran umpires have stories about getting lightheaded in the heat and so sweaty that even the bag of baseballs attached to their waists got soaked.
"You get some scorcher days out there, I'll tell you," said MLB Director of Umpiring Randy Marsh, who worked major league games for 27 years. "I've got some old pictures of when I worked. When you walked off the field, your uniform was completely soaked."
When Marsh started working in the majors, there wasn't much help with the heat. Teams would soak towels in cold ammonia water that umpires wrapped around their necks between innings. Cabbage leaves soaked in the water could be tucked under caps.
"I learned that from Paul Runge," Marsh said. "He used to put cabbage leaves in the hat. He had me do it when I worked with him. I don't know if I noticed it, maybe psychologically. But a lot of guys thought that it worked better than the sun beating on your head."
The multipurpose stadiums with artificial turf that came into vogue in the 1970s were especially brutal. On-field temperatures at Riverfront Stadium, for example, were measured above 150 degrees. Waves of heat snaked off the field like a griddle.
During one series in Cincinnati in July 1997, Greg Maddux got so hot and mentally discombobulated that he took himself out of a game after six innings. The plastic on the bottom of infielder Jeff Blauser's cleats started to melt. Players said it burned their hands to touch the turf.
"George Hendrick used to tell us when he played in St. Louis, he used three pairs of shoes," Marsh said. "He kept two on a big bucket of ice and would change shoes every inning because it was so hot on that turf."
Umpires could get so dehydrated that their fingers would wrinkle. Sometimes, the plate umpire overheated and had to be replaced. Now, training staffs are aware of their need to keep drinking fluids. Plus, with the multipurpose turf stadiums replaced by grass fields, those blistering days aren't nearly so bad.
"When they went to grass, it made all the difference in the world," Tschida said.
The high-tech cooling packs have ramped down the heat even more.
"It's been a welcome, welcome addition to our equipment bags, that's for sure," Tschida said.
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