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MLB Umpires: Two Nights in July

The hot topic right now is the so-called “arrogance” of Major League Baseball (MLB) umpires. Jim Leyland has come out criticizing the umpire handling practices of MLB, and now the discussion is escalating. Umpires are just flat-out taking a beating in the media. But what, exactly, is the problem? How does a “professional” umpire differ from an “arrogant” umpire? And how should MLB change its rules and practices to address the issue?

To answer the first question, I think back to the recent series between the Cardinals and the Rays in Tampa Bay. On July 1st, the Rays had been yelling at the home plate umpire all night about his strike zone. Then, in the eighth inning, things got out of hand. Narrowly missing a strike three call on what would have been the third out, Rays pitcher J.P. Howell proceeded to give up a three run homer to the Cardinals’ Colby Rasmus. As Rasmus was rounding the bases, Howell went into meltdown mode. He slammed his glove, threw a ball, slapped away a replacement ball, and yelled something at the umpire. When the ump appeared to ask what Howell said, the pitcher became demonstrative. The ump immediately tossed the fit-throwing pitcher.

And then it was on. Howell thrust his face into the face of the umpire and eventually had to be physically restrained and removed from the field. But it didn’t end there. Rays manager Joe Maddon, and other players (notabely David Price), continued to jaw at the ump until they too were ejected. It was an ugly scene that left Cardinals players transfixed in their own dugout.

But the question is…how did the umpire handle the situation? The answer: Professionally. The home plate umpire that night was clearly not the Crew Chief for that night’s game, but the way he handled himself should be used by Joe Torre and his “people” as the perfect example of how to conduct one’s self in such a scenario. He never lost his cool, he never responded to Howell, Maddon, or Price’s tirades emotionally, and he refused to allow himself to be drawn into the argument. Instead, he kept his composure, controlled his facial expressions, and – perhaps most important of all – kept his mouth shut.

My wife and I both said, “Wow…that’s how an umpire should handle his duties on the field. Professionally.”

And then came the next night. July 2nd. Same teams, same city…different home plate umpire. I forget which inning, but at some point in the game, Matt Holliday disputed a strike three call during his at-bat. He said some words – probably not politely but certainly not emotionally – as he was walking away from the box. He continued to say a few words in the dugout (one could argue he was responding to the umpire’s actions, but it hardly matters – Matt should have left it alone)…and then the ump lost control.

As Holliday was walking away, the umpire became visibly irate and took several steps in Holliday’s direction, jawing the whole way. The “arrogance” and ridiculous behavior that has come to represent MLB umpires in this discussion was on full display. As I watched on TV at home, it took basic lip-reading skills to watch the show-stealing ump raise a finger in Holliday’s direction, much like a chastising parent, and vehemently snap off the words, “One more word! Just one more word!” His glare was both comical and pathetic all at the same time.

And so, in the span of just 24 hours, we were witness to the very best and worst of the MLB umpire discussion. One umpire displayed perfect, praise-worthy professionalism. The other…well…maybe his buddy Joe West helped him cut a new country music deal and he needed the publicity. Regardless, something must be done. MLB must make changes to control their umpires. The question is…what?

I believe first and foremost, the umpires have to be given clear-cut guidelines as to when they can and cannot toss a manager or player. Sure, there’s always going to be a level of judgement used, but by setting a few guidelines, the responsibility on the shoulders of the umpires can be greatly reduced.

First, managers and players should never be allowed to leave a dugout to argue with an umpire. There could be an allowance here to allow a coach to restrain one of his players already on the field and arguing…but as soon as the manager addresses the umpire in an argumentative way while on the field…gone. You would be surprised at how difficult it is to hold a heated exchange for much longer than a minute or two from across the field.

Second, name-calling directed at umpires from managers or players should be immediate grounds for ejection. No one is pretending like it’s easy for an umpire – a human being with a difficult job of maintaining authority over multi-million dollar attitudes on national television – to maintain self-control, so let’s not make it even harder on them by allowing managers and players to insult them or their families. It’s just out of line and there’s no place for it on the baseball diamond.

Finally, any manager or player who wilfully delays the game by continuing to argue during an at-bat or an inning should be available for ejection. If a manager has to get some frustration out over a call, from the dugout, without personal insults…fine. But it better be finished by the time the next hitter steps into the box. Anything else is a distraction and delay of game offense. In this scenario, I’m willing to allow the umpire to issue a warning statement…but immediate compliance should follow.

Of course, I’m sure others in MLB who are smarter and more experienced than I am will have other guidelines to add, but just by instituting the above three items, MLB could significantly reduce instances on the field. I would guess others off the field (in the MLB offices) would have to enforce such ejections with further suspensions and fines for managers and players who use their ejection as an excuse to run on the field and “get their money’s worth” in an umpire’s face…but so be it. It’s time for MLB to get involved in a meaningful way.

Of course, none of this addresses punitive measures that must be taken against umpires who instigate or improperly handle incidents with managers and players, but it does set the stage for such measures. By setting true guidelines to measure an umpire’s ejection decision against, MLB can easily dole out disciplinary actions against violators more interested in TV face time than controlling themselves.

But will MLB commit to disciplining umpires? For decades, MLB umps have had free reign of their kingdom. They get away with “personal strike zones,” publicity-focused tirades (hello, Joe West), and just generally bad umpiring without any threat to losing jobs, privileges, or money. That must end. MLB must immediately set guidelines, initiate better training standards, and all-in-all take control and responsibility for the performance and behavior of their umpires on the field.

Bad umpires should be treated like bad employees in your office building – either “coached up” or “coached out.” Either help them do their jobs better by training them and correcting them…or get rid of them. Of course, you can’t fire an umpire for missing two calls – or for having a less than stellar strike zone for one series – but you can institute a gradual training and disciplinary program that carries the potential to end in termination. I would even be in favor of exploring a program that temporarily demotes an umpire to the minor leagues for the equivalent of a “rehab assignment” for the purpose of re-training and improving his skills before being returned to the MLB level.

Something…at least something…must be done. Maybe it starts with the above guidelines being instituted…or maybe it starts with MLB finally setting and enforcing a true, consistent strike zone that umpires are required to follow (how hard is it, really, to look at a home plate umpire and simply say, “No…you’re seeing that wrong. That’s a ball.”). This certainly is a sticky situation, and deciding where to begin is a tough decision to make…but clearly something must be done.

We don’t need more instant replay in the game…we need more accountability at the MLB front office level for umpires. Once we get that under control, THEN…maybe…we can look at more replay scenarios. But how can we even think about adding more technology to the mix when MLB still refuses to seriously address the already present human factor?

The ridiculous and outlandish behavior of MLB umpires must be addressed…but it’s not as simple as just punishing the violators. It has to start with guidelines. It has to start in an office of Major League Baseball.

And right now…it has to start with Joe Torre. Right now, he’s “the Boss.”

GO CARDS!!!

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