John Tumpane: America’s Favorite Umpire

We’d all like to think that we’d act as MLB umpire John Tumpane did this past Wednesday at around 3 p.m. while crossing the Roberto Clemente Bridge in Pittsburgh.

Tumpane was returning from an atypically late lunch and jog across the gold-painted steel suspension bridge. If you don’t know the bridge by name, you’re probably familiar with it anyway: it serves as the iconic backdrop beyond PNC Park. One of three sister bridges, it connects downtown with the North Shore of the city. At its apex, it sits 79 feet above the Allegheny River, which it spans. As the 34-year-old Tumpane crossed the structure on Wednesday afternoon, the Chicago native watched as a woman climbed over one of its railings, preparing to jump.

Tumpane asked a couple near him what was going on and, rather than wait around as a bystander, ran toward the woman as Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Stephen Nesbitt and photographer Stephanie Chambers remarkably documented. (Nesbitt is a friend and a Pirates beat reporter.)

From Nesbitt’s story on the encounter:

Tumpane mouthed to a passer-by, “Call 911.” As they spoke, he said, the woman became more emotional. She cried and tried to slip from his grip. He locked both arms around her back. At times, she dangled both feet off the bridge’s edge, putting her full weight in his arms.

“I was thinking, ‘God, this has got to be a good ending, not a bad ending,’ and held on for dear life,” Tumpane said. “She said, ‘You don’t care about me.’ I said, ‘I care.’ She said, ‘I just want to end it right now. I want to be in a better place.’ I said, ‘You’re going to be all right.’ ”

One man helped grab the woman’s arms, and another pinned her ankles against the bottom rail. Eventually, a police boat arrived, then a helicopter, an ambulance, a fire truck and a police officer. They put a life preserver on the woman and handcuffed one of her wrists to the bridge.

Tumpane might have saved a life on Wednesday. That’s an amazing story, a truly heroic act. I would hope most of us would have the courage, conviction, and decisiveness to act in such a manner. But I suppose we really don’t know what we are capable of until we are confronted with such a situation. We know not everyone would act in such as manner. Consider Tumpane’s response to Clint Hurdle when asked by the Pirates manager if anyone had walked by the scene without offering help.

“Quite a few.”

While bystander effect is real — if ugly — why did Tumpane feel a sense of responsibility?

It was a more meaningful act and decision compared to any on-field event in his umpiring career, and will likely remain so, but I wonder if the conviction and courage in that moment speaks to a particular quality that might also benefit those who rise to the majors, whether it be as a player or an umpire.

Umpires have to be decisive; they benefit from a certain amount of fearlessness. Umpires have few friends on a given night of work. Both dugouts, and thousands of people in the stands, second-guess and criticize dozens of decisions, particularly ball-strike calls. And those calls must be made quickly and decisively. A percentage of decisions will be wrong, but umpires must have conviction in their judgment. We rarely saw calls overturned before the advent of replay. On the one hand, that might be a regarded as a product of stubbornness. On the other, it’s a sort of stubbornness that lends order to the game — and games, at their heart, are collections of (somewhat arbitrary) rules upon which everyone agrees. Whatever the case, I suspect it takes an unusual personality type both to become and remain an MLB umpire. Remember, it was the late Steve Palermo who’s own career ended when he was shot trying to break up a robbery.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that major-league players and umpires are the only sorts who possess this brand of courage and conviction. There are many vocations that require a similar sort of decisiveness under even more hostile conditions. My point, merely, is that many of the league’s arbiters are possibly wired with this quality, as well.

John Tumpane under less fraught conditions. (Photo: Keith Allison)

To make a living on a major-league field, a prerequisite is to act decisively, to have certain amount, or form, of courage. It might not be “battlefield” courage, per se, but still qualifies as some ability to face danger, pain, and difficulty. And when every act and decision is under a microscope and now tracked by Statcast, when objects are deflected off face-masks and chest protectors and exposed parts of the body at 100 mph an hour, it takes a type of fearlessness to regularly step on a major-league field.

While major-league players have to have thresholds of physical skill to advance to the pinnacle of the sport , the first prerequisite in having a career is a simple one: not fearing the ball. Fear of the ball has undoubtedly ended thousands of potential careers before they ever began. Several years ago, Buster Olney reported on the fear of the ball for ESPN.

“To me, the hit-by-pitch epitomizes the game of baseball,” Padres catcher John Baker said. “The hit batsman, and the game, is all about, How much can you handle? How much pain can you handle? How much failure can you handle? How much embarrassment and fear can you handle? Those that handle it best are the ones that play the game for a long time.”

The point is there are special qualities, beyond physical skills, required to make it to a major-league field. Perhaps we saw a manifestation of that off the field on Wednesday.

We certainly know that Tumpane acted courageously Wednesday. I would like to think I, that everyone, would have acted in the same way, same manner as Tumpane. I have walked across that bridge dozens, if not hundreds, of times. But we also know that others walked by uninterested in acting or helping. Tumpane may not be representative of umpires as a whole, but I do think it is a job that requires a different personality type. So of all the people on the bridge, perhaps it should be no surprise that a MLB umpire was the first to act. Perhaps it should be no surprise it was an umpire who saved the day.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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6 years ago

What a hero. Faith in humanity restored. I think it’s also worth mentioning Tumpane has done remarkably well handling the press attention associated with this story. Always came across as modest and made sure it wasn’t about him.