- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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If you'd just decided to start following baseball, oh, around the middle of last week, you'd probably think umpires were some kind of wacky cross between Cliff Clavin, Ralph Kramden and Homer Simpson.
But if you've actually been paying attention for the past decade or six, you'd know the truth: Most umpires are actually better at their jobs than any of us are at our jobs.
Except when they're not.
Whereupon we cue up the "SportsCenter" worst-call-ever video reel and, well, you know the rest.
But we're not here to keep reliving that replay debacle in Cleveland or that pitching-change fiasco in Houston. Been there. Done that. About two billion times. Nope, this time we're here to help.
We've spent the past few days asking players, executives and people from all walks of baseball whether there are real, constructive, practical measures this sport could take to improve the quality of umpiring in the big leagues. And guess what? They fired out some awesome ideas. Now heeeeeeeere they come:
Players told us they think that umpire-player relations will improve immeasurably once more replay kicks in. Their rationale: more correct calls, less spitting, cursing and throwing stuff. Sounds logical enough.
Well, there's good news. More replay is coming. A lot more replay. Like next year. It might not all kick in at once. But at some point, it's possible nearly every type of call except Ball one Strike one will be reviewable. And that will solve everything.
All right. No it won't. But it's a start. As Angel Hernandez proved last week, even with replay, some calls will still get hopelessly messed up. But not nearly as many. And Angel will be happy to hear that an important byproduct of expanded replay will be better technology.
We've heard that the umpires' biggest complaint about that home run review in Cleveland was the "tiny" 19-inch monitor they had to watch it on. But when the next wave of replay hits, that call will be reviewed by a real, live replay umpire, with big, modern, wide-screen monitors and, ideally, an almost instantaneous feed of the best replay angles. So these guys will never miss another call.
All right. Yes, they will. But whatever replay system we get next, it can't help but be a major step toward umpire nirvana. Don't you think?
This is an idea that has welled up lately in several front offices: Why not find the next wave of umpires among guys who are currently playing in the minor leagues?
Think of all the players out there with boundless baseball passion and aptitude, who just don't have make-the-big-leagues tools. That's the group we're looking for.
Then, after their playing careers flame out, baseball can invite them to join the cast of America's Next Top Arbiter -- and everyone will look up in a few years and find we have a group of umpires in tremendous physical shape, with an exceptional, intuitive feel for the game and the people who play it.
But hold on: That can't happen unless baseball makes two other big changes that give those ex-players a reason to go down that road. One of those changes? Money. What else? The pay scale for minor league umpires is embarrassing.
"It's not brain surgery," said one AL executive. "Spend and pay more money, and you will attract more qualified candidates and get better major league umpires down the road."
Right. And the other big change? If a guy has played a bunch of years in the minor leagues, there's probably not much chance he'll want to go back to rookie ball and spend another 14 years umpiring in the minor leagues for an outside shot at the big leagues. Baseball will have to streamline the path for those candidates somehow. But that has to be doable, doesn't it? If the sport really wants to make things better, it does.
Treat umpires like players: Job-Security Division
A complaint we hear from players all the time: "If we hit .188, if we don't perform, we get released -- or sent to Peoria. So how come, when umpires don't perform, they don't get fired -- or sent to Peoria?"
Good question. The truth is, some umpires do get fired. Or sent back to the minors. But once umpires have put in three seasons in the big leagues, the rules change.
At that point, MLB is required to work with them to correct their issues, and they can be let go only for repeated offenses over a long period of time. And that happens so seldom, many players are convinced that umpires feel zero repercussions, no matter how they do their jobs.
"Say they let go [a veteran ump we won't name]. When they do it, are they going to say that [So-and-So] retired?" asked one player. "If they actually announced that he got fired, it would make a huge amount of difference with players. It would show us that Major League Baseball is finally making these guys accountable."
But there's another big reason to make umpires perform to keep their jobs: If the goal is to develop better umpires down the road, but there are never any big league jobs open, then a lot of good a new, improved development system would do. To create more opportunity, baseball also has to create more vacancies than the current system generates.
The best umps would have no reason to fear that system. And the others? They'd have to get their acts together -- like everyone else in this sport.
Treat umpires like players: Discipline Division
Contrary to what many players (and fans) believe, umpires do hear about it when they mess up. They get fined, mostly for unprofessional conduct. They even occasionally get suspended (as happened with Bob Davidson last year and Fieldin Culbreth just last week).
Rarely, of course, do we ever hear about it. And that's another never-ending complaint among players. When players get disciplined, the whole planet knows about it. When umpires get disciplined, the rest of us rarely, if ever, find out. Players are adamant that that needs to change.
"They don't have to announce how much the guy was fined. Just tell us he was fined, exactly like us," said one veteran player. "I accept that [public discipline] as part of my life. Why are they different?"
We heard this over and over. If umpire discipline were announced publicly, it would convince players those umpires can't just do whatever they want. But more important, it would be a powerful incentive for all of them to be better umpires.
Reward the good umps
On the other hand, this new age of full umpiring disclosure shouldn't just be confined to singling out umpires who screw up. Don't we need to balance the scales by having, say, an Umpire of the Week award?
Or if not that, said one executive, at least introduce "some sort of citation for an umpire who makes a particularly good call, or who distinguishes himself in some way, who maybe keeps his composure in a difficult spot. When that happens, we notice it. That's for sure."
Or how about this: umpire stats. We know baseball is constantly grading umpires, right? Why not have MLB release a Top 10 Umpires list every month, telling us which umps get the most calls correct?
We know, for example, that Fieldin Culbreth always grades out as one of the best umpires in the game. So the next time he makes a mistake that turns into a "SportsCenter" moment, wouldn't it be good for everybody if we could all cite some sort of stat showing that he's the Justin Verlander of umpiring, and this was just one tough day at the office?
Or you could really make this worth their while. One player even suggested performance bonuses for umpires: Make the Top 10 Umpires cut at the end of the year -- we pay you actual cash. Hey, why not?
So if baseball did this right, that Top 10 list wouldn't be just one more stat category to add to the pile. It would have real value, in more ways than one. And by the way, if there were also a Bottom Five list, well, that would be kind of interesting, too.
"All our stats are out there," said one player. "Everything's visible with us. That's how we're critiqued. We don't know what percent of calls these guys are missing."
Get these umps a concierge!
Here's a part of umpiring no one on the outside ever takes into account: These guys have the travel schedule from hell.
Many of them have no home games. They never spend more than three or four days in one town. They always fly commercial. They often fly on the day of a game. So any delay or cancellation is a panic attack waiting to happen. And then we expect them to make every call perfectly, whether they've been at the pool all day or just had a rough connection at DFW and didn't get to the park until 20 minutes ago.
Yeah, yeah. There are probably 5,000 traveling salespeople laughing right now. But it's still an issue.
So what's the solution? Baseball needs to find one. Maybe allow a crew to work two consecutive series in the same city. Expand the number of available umpires so these guys aren't stressing over every tight connection. Get them a private plane for all flights of, say, three hours or longer.
None of those options could be described as "cheap." Or ideal. But there's no reason travel in the big leagues should be so cushy for everyone else -- and so challenging for the umpires. Right?
Answer the questions
When Angel Hernandez bungled a home run replay, there was outrage from sea to shining sea. But that's not all. When he wouldn't allow highly respected pool reporter Susan Slusser to turn on a recorder when she interviewed him afterward -- and then offered only the least possible insight into how he and his crew arrived at the most controversial call of 2013 -- there was nearly as much furor within the sport.
"Every player understands they have a responsibility to talk when they make a mistake that costs their team a game," said one executive. "And if they don't, they're told by their teammates: 'This is the deal.' So why shouldn't umpires be expected to explain themselves?"
Well, maybe it's because they've gotten mixed messages from MLB on this for years. Baseball preaches to them about the virtues of taking responsibility, but doesn't want to force them to answer questions about every close call every single night, either.
So here's an idea: Why not issue a set of guidelines -- to umpires, to the media and to the public -- on what sorts of calls umpires are expected to discuss, with at least one camera and recorder allowed? That's a start.
Give young umpires the option of having their crew chief answer those questions. And assign a public relations rep from the home team to help monitor and control the session, if that makes the umpires more comfortable. Whatever it takes, we can't have a sport where the only people who don't have to explain themselves are the umpires.
It's OK to say you're sorry
Finally, here are six words that could improve the state of umpiring -- and umpire-player/umpire-manager relations -- dramatically:
"Sorry. I screwed that one up."
We all know umpires aren't perfect. We don't expect them to be perfect. But it wouldn't hurt their credibility to admit it when they're not perfect. It would help.
"We all sat there and watched Jim Joyce cry because he was heartbroken that he messed up Armando Galarraga's perfect game," said one player. "But he gained so much respect for doing that, because he showed a side of himself that most umpires never show.
"There's a group of umpires who will never, ever admit they're wrong," the same player went on. "And they're the least-respected umpires in the game today. I think these guys need to be told it's OK to admit they made a mistake. Why does Joe Torre have to issue a statement saying that [Cleveland home run] call was wrong? Why hasn't Angel Hernandez issued a statement saying that call was wrong?"
It's an excellent question. We tell players they can't be truly great at what they do until they learn to take responsibility for everything that happens to them -- good and bad. So why wouldn't that principle apply to umpires, too?
"I really think we always are going to have issues," said one high-ranking club official. "It's an imperfect game, played by imperfect people, run by imperfect people -- like me -- scouted and developed by imperfect people. So umpires, being just like the rest of us, are going to be imperfect, too."
Hey, of course they are. And that's something none of these brilliant suggestions can totally change. But attitudes can always change. And it would do wonders for the level of modern umpiring if all the men in blue would just remember that.
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