The state of umpiring
Bad calls putting a strain on player-ump relations? Is more replay the answer?
We all have bad days at the office. On the afternoon of May 2 at Coors Field, umpire Tim Welke jammed the printer, spilled the toner and forgot to mail the invoices with 30,276 observers diligently taking notes.
In the sixth inning of an 8-5 Colorado win over the Los Angeles Dodgers, Rockies third baseman Chris Nelson made a diving stop on Jerry Hairston Jr., jumped to his feet and threw across the diamond to Todd Helton, who made a deft pickup at first base. Problem was, Helton was half an Altuve removed from the bag when Welke signaled "out."
Tempers flared, words were exchanged and the incident was quickly forgotten by everyone except the principals, who waited three weeks before making their peace during a Dodgers-Astros game at Chavez Ravine. Before his first at-bat, Hairston stepped into the box and had a brief, respectful exchange with Welke, a big league umpire since 1984.
"He said he had a tough angle on it, and he just missed it," Hairston said. "Hey, you move on. I joked with him. I told him, 'If I'm stuck on 2,999 hits at the end of my career, I'm going to give you a call.'"
Umpires make mistakes in the course of doing a very difficult job. Players and managers dissent, and in the vast majority of cases they swallow their anger and move forward. But this year, umps and uniformed personnel are on their way to setting a record for peevishness. They're baseball's answer to the Hatfields and McCoys -- or George Will and Donald Trump.
Toronto third baseman Brett Lawrie recently flung his helmet in anger over two suspect called strikes by umpire Bill Miller, and a Twitter civil war erupted over who was most at fault. White Sox broadcaster Hawk Harrelson questioned Mark Wegner's competence and received an admonishing phone call from principal (aka commissioner) Bud Selig. And during a Tigers road trip, manager Jim Leyland and third-base coach Tom Brookens were ejected twice and fellow coaches Lloyd McClendon and Gene Lamont were each tossed once for arguing calls. It was like an eight-game tribute to Bobby Cox.
How's this for weirdness? On May 30, home plate umpire Laz Diaz insisted on throwing the ball back to the pitcher because he decreed it was a "privilege," prompting Yankees catcher Russell Martin to burst into the clubhouse in a lather after the game. After referring to Diaz by a certain vulgar epithet, Martin expressed concerns over the incident because Diaz "can hold a grudge with the best of them."
Three weeks ago, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel received a one-game suspension for a heated exchange with umpire Bob Davidson. Surprisingly, Davidson also incurred a one-game suspension for repeated violations of the commissioner's office's standards for "situation handling."
What in the name of Augie Donatelli is going on here?
Ratcheting up the scrutiny
Judging from all the pained expressions, clubhouse rants and online outrage, you might get the impression that umpiring has reached a crisis stage and fallen into complete disrepair. It's similar to the lament about political mudslinging being at an "all-time low," even though negative campaigns have been a staple of American politics since John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson went at it in 1828.
Even Boston manager Bobby Valentine, an advocate of calling balls and strikes by technology to eliminate human error, concedes that complaints about umpires have been "going on for 100 years now." And long before baseball blogs were in vogue, Tim Welke appeared on a Sports Illustrated cover beside the headline: "Kill the Umps! Missed calls and skewed strike zones are marring the postseason."
The run date of the issue: Oct. 19, 1998.
Anyone with a season ticket or a subscription to the MLB Extra Innings package will tell you that strike zones can be wildly inconsistent, and on some nights, downright incomprehensible. Bad nights behind the plate are magnified by Pitch FX technology that tightens the noose a fraction of an inch at a time.
Several baseball people interviewed for this story think the quality of umpiring this season isn't appreciably better or worse than in past years. The consensus is that umpires are incredibly good on bang-bang plays at the bases, while trapped balls, assorted fair-or-foul calls and tag plays preceded by a lot of "movement" present bigger challenges.
"We get to look at three different replays before we can tell whether a guy was safe or out," said Dodgers broadcaster Steve Lyons. "The umpire will call him safe, and then you look at the replay and he was safe by a hair. I've seen some bad calls this year. We always do. But most of the time, I think the umpires are amazing."
When umpires do err, judgment is swift, widespread and severe. After Welke botched the Hairston play, multiple outlets treated it as an affront to humanity.
"Veteran umpire makes jaw-droppingly terrible call," blared msn.com.
"This Is The Absolute Worst Call A Baseball Umpire Has Made This Year," proclaimed Business Insider Sports.
"Tim Welke Cracks The Top Ten Worst Umpiring Calls Ever," opined SBNation.
You get the picture. When Milwaukee catcher Jonathan Lucroy's wife receives hate mail for inadvertently dropping a suitcase on her husband's hand and sending him to the disabled list, just imagine the wrath an umpire incurs for preventing a team from winning.
"It's always been kind of a battle," said Dodgers manager Don Mattingly. "But with the quality of replays now, you can tell if an umpire was right or wrong all the time. And the discussion stays on the burner now whenever there's a mistake. It's magnified by seven talk shows and ESPN alone. I'm yelling all the time. The guys in the other dugout are yelling all the time. Everybody is mad all the time. It's a tough job."
Ejections are down
A 10-year comparison of ejections by Major League Baseball umpires, through May 31 of each season:
|Source: Major League Baseball|
Public perception doesn't always jibe with reality. Major League Baseball monitors ejections, and the 2012 total through the end of May is actually tied for the second lowest in the past decade (see chart). It reflects a more conciliatory tone promoted by Joe Torre, MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations.
"The umpires have been more patient when players say something that might have gotten them ejected a couple of years ago," Torre said. "They're trying to be more understanding about why players are snapping at them. I'm not saying it never happens. But there's no longer a tendency to want to pull a quick trigger on them."
Longtime observers insist that things were more contentious in the old days, when players like Gregg Jefferies or Paul O'Neill were free to abuse equipment and curse up a storm in self-directed anger more than outrage over the umpires.
"Back when we played, we bitched about everything," Lyons said. "No one does it anymore. I was the biggest red-ass in the game. Every time I grounded out, I would fire my helmet."
Some baseball lifers think the current mood is downright tame compared to what transpired in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, when men who ultimately became Hall of Famers staged some of the biggest wig-outs in the game's history. Now that Lou Piniella and Cox have passed from the scene, Leyland is the standard bearer for the blunt, diplomacy-be-damned approach to manager-umpire disagreements.
"I think there was a whole lot more confrontation in years past," said Dave Phillips, a major league umpire from 1971 through 2002. "It was part of the game's fabric. Earl Weaver. Billy Martin. Dick Williams. Leo Durocher. There was a lot more of the 'come out and argue nose-to-nose' type of thing. When I broke in, it was a game of intimidation. When you were a young umpire, they would try to intimidate the hell out of you. Then you'd get a little more credibility and they would start accepting you and giving you the benefit of the doubt."
Look closely enough, and you can see a subtle but undeniable shift in the dynamic between umpires and uniformed personnel. Heads bobbed and spittle flew more routinely 30 or 40 years ago, but the parties seemed to have a mutual respect that brought things back to square one the following day. Now the resentment simmers and players and umpires have to go to greater lengths just to tolerate each other.
Larry Andersen, who spent 17 years as a major league reliever, has been an outspoken critic of umpire comportment as a Phillies radio color man. Andersen's objections are rooted less in the quality of umpiring than what he perceives as an imperious demeanor among umpires. From his vantage point in the booth, he sees more umpires than ever who are quick to get in the face of a disgruntled player and promote confrontation rather than turn their backs and defuse it. He sees too few arbiters and too many provocateurs.
"I absolutely, truly in my heart believe that umpires today are out there strictly for a job," Andersen said. "My perception is, they don't enjoy what they're doing. They're not going to take anything. It's not their place to have somebody call them out. Sometimes you don't even have to say anything to them. They'll get the mask off and glare or follow a player. I don't want to say they're instigating, but they're not afraid if they do instigate something.
"It's sad, but there's no continuity or flow in the game where guys are allowed to have their say. Umpires have to hold their ground, too, but they can do it in a way where you don't see the arrogance and the attitude of, 'Hey, people are out here to watch me umpire.'"
One of the stranger occurrences on a diamond this year came in Philadelphia, when catcher Carlos Ruiz took issue with a borderline pitch from Roy Halladay that was called a ball. Ruiz never left his crouch or uttered an obscenity, but was tossed by umpire Gary Cederstrom for raising his head and observing that the pitch was a strike.
"It looks like there's a power struggle between the umpires and players instead of everybody saying, 'Hey, we're all here making a good living. Let's enjoy what we're doing,'" Andersen said. "That's how it was when I played, but I don't see it today. I see such a gap between the umpires and players."
The "accountability" question
As run-ins dominate the headlines, the focus shifts more to the question of umpire "accountability." If players can be demoted to the minors for hitting .220 and a manager can be fired for finishing in fifth place, what are the repercussions for umpires who fail to perform to industry standards?
Critics see umpires as coddled to the extent that they don't even have to talk to the media to explain errant calls. In reality, that's not the case. During the postseason, umpires routinely speak to a pool reporter with Torre or another MLB official present. In the regular season, umpires are encouraged to speak on rule interpretations or out-of-the-ordinary plays (i.e., what happens when a pop fly hits the catwalk at Tropicana Field).
Garden-variety missed calls are addressed at the discretion of the crew chief. After umpire Adrian Johnson took an apparent hit away from Carlos Beltran on a hot shot over the third-base bag during Johan Santana's no-hitter, he told a pool reporter, "I saw the ball hit outside the line just foul." Johnson offered a no-comment when asked if he had seen the replay.
MLB umpires don't lack for superiors entrusted with reviewing their performance. The chain of command includes six umpiring supervisors -- Chuck Meriwether, Ed Montague, Charlie Reliford, Chris Jones, Steve Palermo and Larry Young. They report to two directors, Randy Marsh and Rich Rieker, who work beneath Torre.
Baseball has a rating system in place for both balls and strikes and safe-or-out calls. Torre said the computer printouts and success rates are diligently catalogued and reviewed, and umpires who perform poorly can expect to hear about it.
"People think if an umpire has a bad game or does something wrong, nobody pays attention to it or has a conversation about it," Torre said. "But it's addressed. There have been situations where umpires have been disciplined, but we don't share that information. You don't want to give players more ammunition. If they know somebody has been disciplined, we don't want them to take advantage of that."
MLB also dispenses carrots along with the sticks. The best-performing umpires are in the best position to land plum assignments at the All-Star Game and in the postseason, which bring more money and welcome recognition.
Among reporters, front-office people, broadcasters and on-field personnel, Davidson's one-game suspension was a hot topic of conversation -- and widely applauded by many in the game. Sources said MLB officials spoke to Davidson multiple times before dropping the hammer.
"Bob has not been one of their fair-haired boys for a long time," said a baseball insider. "He's a likable guy, but he's always been a guy who wanted to make a big, flamboyant call. It's the whole 'Balkin' Bob' thing. He's a throwback to the days when umpires would go nose-to-nose with managers, and that's not considered acceptable behavior these days."
If Davidson was chastened, the stigma of a suspension wasn't going to turn him into a wallflower. Two weeks after his encounter with Manuel, Davidson ejected Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long and manager Joe Girardi during a confrontation. After the game, Girardi leveled some pointed criticisms that reflect a fundamental disconnect between combatants and umpires.
"Every night we go out and it means something to us," Girardi said. "The only thing that means something to them is how they do their job, not whether they win or lose. They don't win or lose. It means something to us."
Can't we all just get along?
Torre wants to encourage greater dialogue between players, managers and umpires through a series of clubhouse meetings in the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues. He worked with Tony Clark of the players' association on the idea last year, but it had to be tabled when Torre took a hiatus to join a group pursuing the sale of the Dodgers. The meetings are tentatively on the agenda for next spring, although the World Baseball Classic might get in the way.
"I just want everybody to have a better understanding that the umpires care every bit as much as the players do," Torre said. "Things get a little more personal during these arguments, and the animosity rears its head. My pie-in-the-sky idea is just to get everybody together in smaller groups so we can talk."
Some observers think that increased use of replay might improve the tenor of the debate by turning down the pressure cooker on umpires. Jim Joyce displayed the human side of umpiring in 2010 when he beat himself up verbally after mistakenly calling Indians infielder Jason Donald safe to rob former Detroit pitcher Armando Galarraga of a perfect game. A few suspenseful or even awkward moments on the field while that call was overturned could have saved Joyce from a lifetime of notoriety.
Umpire Ron Kulpa serves as Exhibit A of how quickly elation and professional pride can turn to disappointment or even despair. Kulpa, a St. Louis native, shared tears of joy with his father after learning that he would be working the Cardinals-Rangers World Series in October. In Game 2, he was praised for making the correct call on Ian Kinsler's pivotal stolen base in the ninth inning. But the goodwill faded and Kulpa's Wikipedia page was instantly altered when he mistakenly ruled St. Louis outfielder Matt Holliday safe in Game 3. The call would have been replayed ad nauseam if Albert Pujols hadn't hit three home runs to lead St. Louis to a 16-7 victory.
"I got the biggest kick out of hanging out with the umpires in the postseason and watching them come in after the game and seeing how excited they are if the game goes off without a hitch," Torre said. "Ron came in after that game in Texas and said, 'I missed it, didn't I?' He got grief for it, but nobody mentioned the bang-bang plays that went against the Cardinals that he called correct."
Welcome to the umpires' world. They're scrutinized more closely than ever by technology and pilloried before a much bigger audience through advances in the information age. Meanwhile, MLB's deliberate approach to expanded use of instant replay has deprived them of a potential safety net.
Hairston, who had a reputation for being feisty and argumentative when he broke into the majors 14 years ago, has taken a more conciliatory outlook over time. He thinks players and umpires could both benefit from a more empathetic mindset.
"We as players should take the position, 'It's not easy calling a game.' People don't realize how fast baseball moves at this level," Hairston said. "And in turn, the umpires need to say, 'It's not easy being a player. These guys have a lot riding on it.' It's nothing personal. If you look at both sides and take yourself out of the equation, you can really appreciate how difficult each person's job is."
In an impatient, judgmental, instant-gratification society, players and umpires ultimately share a common goal. Now they just need to find a better way of sharing the same work space.
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