The umpartial observerby Lisa Gray
October 10, 2007
Complaining about the umpire by players, fans and managers is a time-honored tradition in baseball. Most judgement calls on the field are ones that require very little judgement. And of the bang-bang plays, umps really do judge the vast majority correctly, as shown from the multitude of cameras which replay the event.
There are, of course, the never-ending complaints that the home plate umpire doesn't call the same pitch a strike for both pitchers and that they tend to give the benefit of the doubt on borderline calls to known great veteran hitters with a reputation of good judgement of the strike zone. Until some sort of hologram 3-D computer program which emanates from the plate itself is created, Questec will have to serve as a rough judge of umpire error, and individual judgement of the "strike zone" will continue.
But the most recent, most serious and most egregious of problems is one of recent origin, that of the umpire who baits a player. I had discussed earlier in the year in my own blog how Angel Hernandez, the home plate umpire, during an Astros/Dodgers game, for no obvious reason, had taken it upon himself to march out to the mound and confront Wandy Rodriguez after yelling at him from home plate. Fortunately, Wandy looked at the ground and said nothing and Brad Ausmus ran out to the mound and defused the situation. I have no idea if the Astros Base Ball Club lodged any sort of quiet complaint with the Commissioner's office. Because Wandy Rodriguez doesn't pitch for a big-name team and isn't someone who is ever in the spotlight, no one except Astros fans noticed.
However, Milton Bradley IS a person with a known national reputation of being a man who, shall we say, is quick to anger and finds it, shall we again say, difficult to neither speak his mind when asked nor not rise to the occasion when provoked. Several weeks ago during a Padres-Rockies game, the problem of the umpires baiting the players rose to national prominence. In the fifth inning, Milton was called out on strikes. It wasn't a borderline call and there was absolutely no question of the validity of the call. Milton looked disgusted with himself, didn't appear to say anything to the ump and didn't have body language suggesting that he blamed the umpire instead of himself.
We all know the rest of the story: Bradley discovered that Mike Winters, the first base umpire, had told the home plate umpire that Bradley had thrown his bat at him after the strike three call, that Milton had subsequently asked Winters if he had indeed said such a thing, and that he not only affirmed this, but informed Milton that he (reworded for the sake of G-rating) really wasn't a good and decent sort of bloke. Upon hearing this, first, the first base coach became incensed, then Milton called time and, shall we say, explained to the umpire that he did not appreciate or sympathise with his feelings, and by the time all was said and done, Bradley was accidentally injured by his own manager's efforts to restrain him to such an extent that he was unable to play for the rest of the year.
(I must say at this point that conspiracy theorists among Padres fans believe that the baiting was deliberately directed against Bradley for the express purpose of getting him suspended and thus thwarting the Padres' post-season hopes, and that this was done, either for personal gain from gambling or for revenge against Sandy Alderson. Even if either of these theories could be proven true, it still doesn't really explain the baiting of non-Padres or players on teams who are not competitive.)
For the first time that I can ever remember, an umpire was suspended without pay and the player was not penalized by MLB at all, meaning that MLB determined that the umpire did indeed bait the player and provoke him to violence. Normally, MLB's penalization of umpire infractions, if indeed there is or was any such thing, was kept completely confidential. To me, the interesting question is: WHY are the umpires challenging or even baiting the players? What is the point of such actions? As it stands right now, the umpires still have absolute power and the players are still completely subject to their decisions, correct or not. The players know very well that it is a time-honored tradition that the teammates of any player who baits an ump will end up paying the price. So, again the question, WHY are the umpires suddenly challenging/baiting players?
It is a very good question that no one has asked and I'm not really sure why, as it seems like a self-defeating ploy that would give a small immediate satisfaction at the cost of a great deal of future trouble. However, if my memory is correct, it seems that the escalation in the baiting was coincident with the instigation of the policy by MLB of having umpires "warn" teams if they judge that any pitch was deliberately thrown at a hitter. I know that I have heard pitchers bitterly complain that many of the decisions are baseless and compromise their ability to pitch as well as they could and that some teams feel that an umpire was biased. However, this would hardly explain an umpire baiting a position player for no apparent reason and no obvious gain (and no, I haven't forgotten about the crooked NBA ref).
I would guess that the suspension of Mike Winters set a precedent that the umpires may come to regret as players may feel they now have a defense that wasn't previously available to them. MLB really needs to fully investigate both the extent and etiology of this problem before hostilities escalate and MLB tries to enforce new, foolish rules such as one that would ban all player/umpire conversations during games and lead to even more hostilities. Speaking strictly as a mother of young children, I would prefer to suggest to all parties that they try to remember to use good manners at all times, but unfortunately, I know better.
Lisa Gray is the author of Astros-holic Synonymous, a Houston Astros baseball blog. She welcomes questions and comments via email.