Lately there has been a lot of talk around Major League Baseball about umpires. Last year a few key blown calls during the postseason had fans up in arms, and last month Jim Joyce made headlines after his blown call cost Armando Galarraga a perfect game. There have been plenty of other bad calls lately that have brought umpires into the spotlight, but that’s not the spotlight I’m here to talk about.
Umpires are imperfect human beings just like the rest of us, and I really think we ought to cut them a break when it comes to missing a call here and there. Don’t get me wrong – I’ll still complain when a bad call hurts the Braves, but when you get right down to it, these guys are forced to make split-second judgment calls on fast-paced plays happening in real time, without the benefit of all the slow-motion instant replay technology that I have access to from my living room. I think I can forgive them if they miss one or two – if it were me out there, I’m sure I’d be doing good to get one or two calls right.
So I’ve got a beef with umpires lately, but it has nothing to do with missing calls. My problem comes when some umpires instigate problems, and try to shift the focus off of the game and onto themselves. If you’re an umpire, your job is to stay out of the spotlight. If an umpire does his job perfectly, at the end of the game nobody will even remember he was there. But it seems like lately, a few umpires have been doing whatever they can to get themselves into the spotlight.
Perfect example: Joe West. This veteran umpire royally ticked off the White Sox last month by ejecting manager Ozzie Guillen and pitcher Mark Buehrle after two questionable balk calls. Evidently Mark and Ozzie weren’t aware that West had just added a new subsection to the MLB rule that defines a balk: “If Joe West wants it to be a balk, it’s a balk.” Joe also made a name for himself a while back after his publicist solicited reporters for an interview about how the slow pace of Yankees-Red Sox games was “pathetic and embarrassing,” and “a disgrace to baseball.” Think about that for a minute. His publicist? What is a MLB umpire doing with a publicist? His job is to be anonymous, to call the game and go home. He has no business addressing the public – if he’s in the spotlight, he’s done something wrong. But this guy is out there with a PR rep, trying his best to stay in the spotlight. That, my friends, is pathetic and embarrassing.
But this lack of professionalism has been a big problem lately, and it’s not just Joe West. Last month during a game in Kansas City, home plate umpire Mike Eastabrook tried to bait Royals’ catcher Jason Kendall into a confrontation. Pitcher Zack Greinke threw a pitch that looked to be down the center of the plate, but he didn’t get the strike call. Kendall apparently said something to the umpire, but he never turned around or tried to show him up in any way. According to the article, those little exchanges between catchers and umpires happen all the time, but neither party moves from their spots, so no one else knows about it, and life goes on. But this umpire couldn’t let it go. He called time out so he could go start an argument with Kendall, who was already back in his crouch and ready for the next pitch. The Royals’ manager, clearly furious (and with good reason), came out to protect his player, and was thrown out within seconds.
I don’t blame the manager for a second. The umpire’s job is to be a calm arbiter, but this guy let his ego and his temper get the better of him and he made a fool of himself. This is happening more and more lately, for some reason. Back in May, Astros’ pitcher Roy Oswalt was thrown out by umpire Bill Hohn for telling him “I’m not talking to you” after he was visibly frustrated over a questionable call. Last July, after hearing someone heckling him from the Braves dugout, the same umpire left his spot at the plate to go bait Braves’ manager Bobby Cox into an argument, and then toss both him and catcher Brian McCann (oh yeah, he also fist-bumped the Marlins’ catcher after they won the game). Earlier that year in a game against the Red Sox, the very same umpire tossed Bobby Cox, Braves’ pitcher Eric O’Flaherty, and third baseman Chipper Jones, all within a span of about 30 seconds after they voiced their displeasure about a blown call that should have been strike 3.
Bill Hohn and Joe West are just a few of several umpires who are quickly gaining reputations for having a very, very short fuse. Like I said before, I understand that umpires are only human, and I understand that some of them may have quick tempers. But when you’re a professional umpire at the major league level, you’ve got to put your temper aside and just call the game. You’re gonna make mistakes, players are gonna get upset, and that’s just part of the game. You’ve got to have a thick skin and let it go. Now, I’m not trying to say that the players and managers being ejected have no fault in the issue. When they get up in the umpire’s face and start screaming at him because they didn’t agree with a call, yes, they should be thrown out. But lately there have been so many cases of umpires forgetting all about their job of calm arbiter, and being even more belligerent and combative than the players and managers they’re arguing with.
I don’t mean to imply for a second that all umpires are like this. The vast majority of major league umpires are, at least from a fan’s perspective, very professional, and excellent at their job. It just seems like something should be done about these few umpires who feel the need to show their insecurity and act like the game revolves around them, and the fans pay to come and watch them umpire (as Ozzie Guillen said about Joe West). Missing calls is a part of the game, but insecure, belligerent, showboating umpires should not be. And that’s all I’ve got to say about that.