The perils of wanting perfection
There is only so much that the men in blue can do
Last week was a rough stretch for umpires, starting with the Oakland A's home run that should've been, to the rules of relief pitching and pinch-hitting. Even as I know that it's cliché to say that umpires are only human, it is also cliché to complain about the caliber of umpires when we know they are the best in the world at what they do. It's just what we do as players, as fans, as managers and as general managers. And our criticism of the judges of the game is easy to dismiss as background noise when we seem to comment only when they make mistakes.
Umpires are the cafeteria food, the taxes, the new boyfriend of our ex. We complain about them as a default, as a reflex. It doesn't really matter if the food tastes good, the taxes go to good use, or the boyfriend is actually a nice guy. They are always in the wrong place at the wrong time, even when they make the right call.
Every year we exclaim that umpires are "getting more confrontational." Every year they need to be replaced by robots or armed with a deck of instant replay choices. I haven't heard much about rewarding umpires for doing a good job. All we know is good umpires get to work the playoffs, but public opinion has little to say about their work unless they cost our favorite team a run.
Sure, that is the job they accepted, but it doesn't give us a hall pass to be unaware. We have to remember that for its long history, baseball has lived off of self-regulation. It was handled in the locker room, or on the field, or between the sparring teammates in private. The umpires were just part of an environment that was self-evaluating and self-policing. They were following the underground order of the game. The same kind of order that allows us to exact revenge without external consultations. If you thought someone hit you intentionally, you could charge the mound and accidentally break a collar bone. You could knock a catcher who was blocking the plate into next week because it was part of the game. Or you could pull aside a loud mouthed rookie and tell him to be seen, not heard. No one called the police unless you acted with a bat. It has long been a game of natural action-reaction. The rules were as ingrained as Newton's Laws to those on the field. So much so that in many cases, no one on the outside knew how retaliation would be dished out.
That is not to say that is the right way to be, but it's how it went down. Umpires have always mirrored baseball's loosey-goosey police work. The game took care of it, it evened out, and mostly it was "go get 'em tomorrow." So umpires were presiding over a society that was held together by history, by unwritten rules, by trust or perhaps blindness, or by faith. And umpires just employed similar self-regulation as the game did in general.
But like any other monumental change in communication, a generation of fans and players came along that was fine with the blurring of the public and private domain. It was a time to protect, and security was chosen over privacy. Enter social media and we find a form of expression that has been transformational to the game at the level of the invention of the TV. It changes how we internalize and debate the moments within a game, a team, a season. But the major difference is social media makes everyone a testifying witness. There is nowhere to hide from its stream, and now the vigilante justice that was meted out in baseball's past has a jury.
So when the Astros and Angels brought to light the rule book on pitching changes and pinch hitters, the world tweeted. The rules were posted and we watched. In an unprecedented moment, an umpire's fate was tied to an audience. One with sway and influence that can put pressure on the decision-makers. And so an umpire was suspended for not upholding a rule he should have known. Fair enough, but we need to recognize that we have a new sheriff in town and the sheriff may not even be at the game or even watching it live.
In some ways, this is more than what players have asked for over the years. In my playing days, I heard a lot of complaints about the lack of accountability for umpires, but this new way of communicating has been too much because the assessment of umpires is now tapping the reflexive bias the public has against umpires. A public that is considering ways to put machinery in their place or have so many versions of instant replays that umpires become street signs that post the results, not engaged the actors.
Yes, I know, we don't pay to see the umpires. So they are supposed to be invisible. Unfortunately for them, their invisibility is a sign of their doing a good job.
But I can't help but think about the issue with the judgment of judges being swayed by public opinion. Don't we have to be careful with that equation? Imagine presiding over a court case and listening to everyone's interpretation of the law. Part of the reason for umpire secrecy in their evaluation process is so that it doesn't get tainted by too many chefs in the kitchen or run the risk of other agendas entering into play. It's a defense mechanism to the politics of it all. A fair concern of being too much in the public arena because by definition, if fans or players or managers are evaluators, we are all biased in one way or another.
We want to know how the test is given. We want to know the secret sauce. Just as the information on player performance is so available, in depth, and widespread that they match the tools of those who play. We have fancy technology that we see as a clean way to discern the truth. We can tap the pulse of making a decision in a split second, in a tweet or a post. Even so, we should ask if we want the umpires to be in that position, out of caution of having a game of people solely judged by computers. Seems like a slippery slope.
So evaluation, check. Nothing is going to get by us anymore. Everything is visible, everything is seen. We will dig deeper on everything because everyone has a megaphone and an opinion. That is what it means to be a fan. But like no other time, the fans are getting on the field, in the locker room, in the dugout, without actually being there. Even I can press the NFL to ban former New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams from the league forever. We can make Tiger Woods take a penalty shot. We can call a home run better than anyone on the field can do it and we can do that with none of the responsibility for making the call.
It's our time. A time of instant access, and instant response. We can be there, when we are not. We can force systems to get better, and sometime worse. We can overrule, overturn, overthink, and even overreact and delete that last post. But let's be careful because we may not want to know how deep the rabbit hole goes when we try to make perfection.
Maybe a missed call will be a thing of the past. Maybe that is a good thing. But I get the feeling we may actually miss a missed call, no matter what we say in 140 characters or less.
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