What happens when the Men in Blue become the Men in Black and Blue?
Situation: 4-3 game between division rivals, 1 out in the bottom of the ninth, no runners on. Toronto’s Brett Lawrie stands at the plate with a 3-1 count.
The next pitch is clearly well outside, six inches say some and maybe as far as the left handed batter’s box say others. Lawrie drops his bat and starts toward first but umpire Bill Miller calls the pitch a strike. Lawrie pauses, poses and pirouettes back to home.
Any doubt about the next pitch being called a strike? The pitch was again well off the plate and high. Lawrie resumed his trek toward first but Miller called strike three and Lawrie detonated, furiously threw his helmet into the ground and it glanced up and off Miller’s hip.
Lawrie got tossed and the next batter grounded out. Game over. Afterward, an irate Jays fan threw beer in Miller’s chest and the ump responded with a self righteous tirade of profanities and played the indignant, innocent victim. MLB suspended Lawrie 4 games.
Some are upset the suspension was not longer. Joe Torre, MLB’s enforcer, ruled Lawrie’s reaction was overly aggressive but he did not intentionally throw the helmet at Miller. For comparison, MLB suspended Robbie Alomar 5 games for spitting in umpire John Hirschbeck’s face in 2001 and Cardinal catcher Yadier Molina also got 5 games for bumping and maybe spitting/maybe not spitting in an umpire’s face last season.
Others blame the umpire for horrendous and vindictive strike zone judgment which provoked the tantrum.
What to think?
Lawrie got what he deserved. An aggressive and tightly wound player, he defended his defiant reaction and helmet throw as a result of ‘passion for the game’. However, throwing objects in a pique does not uphold or respect the game and simply reveals stupidity (his suspension will hurt his wallet and his team) and empty rage (the helmet toss and profanity are not likely to change the umpire’s mind). Isn’t there enough ego in sports?
Was Lawrie screwed? Yes.
Was there anything he could do about it? No.
Therein lies the problem.
Miller was horrid. It’s one thing to miss a borderline pitch or call, another to make an egregious mistake and then compound it by spitefully penalizing the player for a negative reaction (Lawrie starting for first base).
Most umpires work to get in good position and make the correct call the majority of the time. Others bring overinflated egos on the field and swim in a false sea of unbridled infallibility and immunity, despots who suffer no effective challenge and revel in confrontation. These umps grate on players and managers who have no recourse.
For their part, players and managers often fruitlessly fuss and fume and gyrate based on a naked, subjective eye. Replays often show the calls are correct but such information is withheld from the dugout and the players and managers are forced into a now or never dance they can not win. Result: tiresome, ego driven tirades on both sides which do not advance the game or correct/confirm the call.
The simplest, best answer: adopt an expanded instant replay system similar to that used in the NFL.
Instant replay has already helped accuracy on home run calls and could be done quickly by using a fifth umpire as a replay official, with challenges limited in number and type and penalties if the challenge fails.
Those opposed to replay most often rely on the ‘traditions’ of the game and the so-called ‘human element’ of umpiring.
Traditions certainly help make baseball a classic game. However, failure to embrace change and technology does not further those traditions, but only weakens them. In addition, the ‘human element’ in baseball is the same ‘human element’ found in any other sport in which officiating plays an important role and most of those sports have adopted some form of replay or review.
Others argue umpiring is difficult and done in real time so mistakes are inherent. Agreed, but these notions do not justify bad calls and only confirm the need for replay to assist the umpires in getting calls correct.
For those who argue replay would unduly lengthen games, consider the current practice of pointless and often profane on field arguments which do nothing to advance the game or correct mistakes.
The timeless images of managers/players going toe to toe with an ump are steeped in ‘old time baseball’ and famous larger than life personalities like Lou Pinella and Earl Weaver. But the antics of a petulant three year old in a sandbox are not worthy of emulation. In earlier days there simply was no independent, unbiased way to correct calls. The digital/sabremetric age is different with instant access to multiple camera angles and slow motion. Why not take advantage?
Of course, umpires generally do not favor replay because it infringes on their personal fiefdoms. However, as Jeff Passan at Yahoo Sports noted, “the sanctity of the umpires’ reputations should [not] come ahead of the game’s integrity.” http://sports.yahoo.com/news/player–umpire-relations-will-only-get-worse-if-baseball-doesn-t-act.html
In the Lawrie incident the player was fined and suspended but what about the umpire whose incompetence caused the situation? Does anyone seriously doubt Miller’s third strike call was in part motivated by what he saw as Lawrie’s breach of ‘etiquette’ on the horrible strike 2 call? With no public rebuke or accountability, does Miller receive a ‘double secret probation’ letter from MLB? We’ll never know.
Some examples where replay would have helped:
(1) Armando Galarraga’s should-have-been perfect game in 2010. Ump Jim Joyce manned up and publicly admitted his blown call after he saw the replay. So why not use it during the game?
(2) Two weeks ago in a Dodgers/Rockies game ump Tim Welke called a runner safe despite a poor throw which obviously pulled first baseman Todd Helton at least two or three feet off the bag. A replay challenge would have corrected the mistake, unlike the other members of the umpire crew who refused to intervene.
(3) The same night as the Lawrie incident Phillies manager Charlie Manuel and home plate ump Bob Davidson enjoyed a heated, profanity laced argument over a foul tip non-call which no doubt entertained those within earshot but did little to further the game. Both received one game suspensions, Davidson for ‘repeated violations’ of umpiring standards (ie, he likes confrontation and tends to escalate arguments). A message from MLB across the umpires’ bow?
(4) Last night Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine got in a toe-to-toe with the first base ump late in the game and was tossed, although not before the ump’s chewing gum ‘accidentally’ ejected into Valentine’s face. Replay showed the play a bang-banger either side could argue (i.e., no compelling evidence to overturn so the call on the field stands). With replay Valentine could have saved himself a fine and some indignity.
(5) Most people recall the 9th inning of game 6 in the 1985 World Series when pitcher Todd Worrell covered first on a grounder and clearly beat the runner to the bag but ump Don Denkinger called ex-Indian Jorge Orta safe. The Royals rallied for a 2-1 win and, saved from elimination, took the Series in the next game with Denkinger behind the plate. Cardinals starter John Tudor, a control pitcher, walked 4 in 2.1 innings and Denkinger ejected Whitey Herzog and reliever Joaquin Andujar for arguing his strike zone. Raise your hand if you think this a “coincidence”. A World Championship is a high price to pay for an ump’s ego.
In 2010 Denkinger told ESPN he favors instant replay.
To be clear, I am an old school type (or maybe just plain old) who doesn’t like overbearing automation, ‘robots’ for umps or the complete removal of the ‘human’ side of baseball. The priority simply must be accuracy and how best to achieve it. Otherwise, whim, mistake and arbitrariness rule the day.
There are no easy solutions but a continuation of the current system is poor consolation. As Passan suggested, players and umpires should openly discuss the issues, learn what matters on both sides and attempt to reach a sensible common ground solution (i.e., greater review, a fifth umpire and accountability). The game would benefit without any loss of tradition.
What do you think?