Brett Lawrie, the ump and the human elementby Chris Lund
May 16, 2012
We may be right in assuming that Will Rogers was talking about baseball when he quipped, “diplomacy is the art of saying ‘nice doggie’ until you can find a rock.” You see, baseball and diplomacy will forever be intertwined until our forthcoming alien or robot overlords take charge of this planet and play it themselves perfectly. For a game that is defined by its static moments, it is a showcase in moving parts nonetheless.
Chief among these moving parts are the relationships between those on the field. The batter and pitcher, batter and fielding alignment, fielders among each other, umpires and the 10 players in the field of play and so on and so forth all consistently interact on multiple levels. Many of these are physical, but there are plenty more unspoken rules which crop up every game without exception.
We know there are codes on the field and they are always intact. No matter what they may feel compelled to do on the field, players abide by them to the best of their abilities, often through gritted teeth, until they can’t take it anymore. When the stew of codes does boil over, the result is toxic in nature and will naturally lead to brawls, ejections and other moments that will be immortalized on the internet until the takeover referred to above.
We’ve all seen the batter-umpire dynamic ignite. The thing about diplomacy is, guys get mad and develop grudges and it festers and festers until we have that chemical reaction. In the major leagues, everyone knows they’re on TV and nobody wants to be the guy who gets shown up.
Monday, in a game between the Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays, Brett Lawrie flipped his lid. Up 3-1 in the count, he thought he had drawn a walk. He started running down the first base line.
Back to the batter’s box, there after another apparent ball four, he went back down the baseline.
Lawrie didn’t take too kindly to this, earned an immediate ejection, and spiked a batting helmet off the ground. It ricocheted off umpire Bill Miller, who proceeded to exchange words with Lawrie on his way to ejecting Jays manager John Farrell from the game right behind his energetic 22-year-old.
Make no mistake about it, Lawrie will be suspended and with good reason. Baseball blow-ups are excessive regardless of context and this went along those lines. It was petulant and moronic and helped no one on his team.
Likewise Miller’s calls were clearly meant to teach the kid—exactly what he calls Lawrie during the ensuing altercation, for you lip readers—a lesson. Strikes two and three were out of the zone, as evidenced by pitches five and six in the graph below. Miller was angry that he was stood up and Lawrie was getting punched out for undermining the man in the mask.
The code was there and it disappeared quickly.
Now, for many this signals the problem with the old school in baseball. The conventional old-time argument suggests that the human element is necessary for baseball. Quite frankly though, the human element in baseball has nothing to do with umpiring—baseball itself does the job just fine.
The sad fact is that humans are often unsavory. At our core we can be foolish, petty egomaniacs who can’t separate the big picture from the here and now. Baseball at its core is a game that brings those of us who fail the least to the top of the mountain and celebrate our achievements. You are put through the wringer and we find out what’s left. Often, it’s that foolish, petty egomaniac caught up in a moment.
Perhaps this is a dynamic we can stop. Anyone can figure out what a ball or strike is. We’ve figured out how to gauge movement, velocity and rotation. We can even figure out the “Nasty Factor” if we feel so compelled. If we can pinpoint all of this, why can’t we let bygones be bygones and play ball?
Many are aware that Barry Bonds has the all-time major league record for bases on balls with 2,558. To think, could he have hit 2,600 or more had it not been for questionable calls here or there? Sure it seems like splitting hairs at a point, but it’s worth a thought. Mr. Bonds, as we are keenly aware, was known to be prickly and surely rubbed an umpire or two the wrong way. How often was he robbed of a base because someone didn’t appreciate a comment as he passed by?
Now, it’s not the intention of the author to suggest that Brett Lawrie and Barry Bonds will have even remotely similar careers, but when you frame these spats in the context of history it is sobering. An umpire trying to teach a lesson can impact the game years beyond its date. If Lawrie finishes his career with 2,557 walks, will anyone flip back to May 15, 2012 and point that out missed call as the one that robbed him of history? Our Chris Jaffe might, but beyond him? Doubtful.
In a game with divisional implications and six errors between two teams just one run apart, perhaps there was enough human element for one night. Perhaps an umpire didn’t need to teach a lesson to a kid who annoyed him.
There’s enough failure in baseball, and it’s time that we find ways to get it right.
Chris is a writer-at-large and encourages you to talk baseball.
For further baseball discussion, you can follow him on twitter under @thechrislund or send him an e-mail at chris (dot) lund89 AT gmail (dot) com