Umps in the Dumps

I’ve never been a fan of umpires. To me, they’re a necessary evil of the game. Sure, it’s a tough job. And they take a lot of crap, from players and managers alike – some of it justified, some of it, not so much. But a game rarely passes where they don’t set me off. Maybe it’s a bad call, maybe it’s the chippy attitude that some (many?) of them bring to the park each day.

They also have this veil of protection that game officials in others sports do not have – nor should they. Nothing bothers me more than sitting in a ballpark and being denied access to a replay of a close call. Never happens, thanks to the umpire’s union. Only major team sport where this is the case.

I didn’t think that after 44 years as an avid baseball fan, that my opinion of the blues could sink any lower. I seemed to reach a nadir back in 2009 when Jim Joyce blew the call that denied the Tigers’ Armando Gallaraga a perfect game. Joyce showed nothing but class, dignity and yes, contrition, in publicly admitting his error. I gained a lot of respect for Joyce, but the fact that his response was such an aberration – an umpire publicly admitting he screwed up? – did not soften my view of the game’s arbiters.

So how do you think I feel after what transpired on back-to-back nights last week? On Wednesday, a ninth inning “home run” by Adam Rosales of the A’s was ruled a double despite the umps reviewing a replay and upholding the original call. It was clearly a homer but apparently, ump Angel Hernandez and his crew saw it differently than millions of others. The A’s would lose, prompting manager Bob Melvin to remark, “I’ve never felt so helpless on a baseball field. So helpless and so wronged.” The next night, as the Angels battled the Astros, Houston manager Bo Porter removed a reliever before he faced a single batter. I bet there are plenty of nine year olds who know that is very wrong. Angels’ skipper Mike Scioscia understandably went ballistic and was tossed for his very rational and understandable display of emotion. But amazingly, ump Fieldin Culbreth and his cronies ruled that Porter did not violate their sacred rule book. MLB rightfully suspended Culbreth for his egregious error but they did not go far enough; the entire crew that night should be grounded. They were all complicit in the crime.

You’ll never eliminate the element of human error in umpiring, nor should you. It’s part of the game, as is our right as fans to dislike and distrust the men in blue. But despite the fact that the use of replay is not foolproof – as evidenced by the call on Rosales – it should be extended to include questionable calls of balls fair or foul. This of course would have cost Johan Santana his no-hitter last year but that could have been a good thing. He would not have thrown 130-plus pitches and maybe his shoulder doesn’t give out. Just a thought. And maybe there should be an independent party reviewing replays, just as they do in the NHL. Take critical calls out of the hands of the umps? I’m all for it.

One more thing: stop coddling the umps and start showing controversial calls on the big screens in-stadium. So they get booed if they blew the call. It comes with the territory.

After last week’s debacle, the umps will no doubt be under greater scrutiny – by fans, media, managers, players, and of course, MLB. Maybe this is all a blessing in disguise and will lead to an improvement in training, evaluation, use of replay, and ultimately, the quality of umpiring.

Wishful thinking.

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