Friday, October 23, 2009

Can’t Stay Away from the Hot Topic ---- Umpiring and Reffing

For most of the last two weeks I have tried to stay away from writing about the lousy umpiring during this baseball postseason. For one thing, how many times can you say, 'the umpires missed a call last night.' For another, I really DON'T like to pick on officials because, as I've said before, the ones I've known have been almost universally good guys who I think work very hard to get their calls right. I still remember Joe Forte, once a top college referee who went on to work in the NBA telling me, "To me, reffing is the way I still play the game (he had been a D-2 college player). My calls are my shots and I hate it when I miss one."

Having said that, in the wake of Major League Baseball's apparent decision to abandon tradition and use only umpires with past World Series experience, there are a number of things that more or less scream for comment. First the good news: Let's give MLB credit for admitting it has a problem right now and making this move. That's not to say that going with the more experienced guys guarantees there won't be problems: the two umps who have struggled in the Yankees-Angels series, Tim McClelland and Dale Scott are both experienced guys with good reputations. Still, this is a step in the right direction.

The story, which was broken by the Associated Press (unlike ESPN the AP breaks actual stories rather than CLAIMING to have broken stories) has some interesting numbers in it: In 24 of the last 25 World Series, there has been at least one ump--more often two--who has never worked The Series before. Now, obviously everyone who is qualified has to work their first Series at some point, but MLB has clearly been over-doing it. What's more, even though MLB claims that umpires are selected for postseason on merit, that's clearly not the case.

If so, how could umpires like C.B. Bucknor and Phil Cuzzi--bad umps with bad reps and bad tempers--be working postseason? Bucknor clearly blew two calls in the Red Sox-Angels series and, in a postseason filled with bad calls, Cuzzi had the poster child miss: calling Joe Mauer's clearly fair ball foul in the 11th inning of Yankees-Twins, game 2. Apparently Bucknor--according to the AP--was still in line to work The Series in spite of those missed calls and in spite of the fact that I have NEVER talked to a player or manager who thought he could ump a lick. I'm not trying to pick on the guy, I've never met him and he may be a wonderful person, but I can't find anyone who thinks he can umpire. The same is pretty much true of Cuzzi.

All of this brings up a larger issue: officiating in general. Just this week SEC Commissioner Mike Slive felt obligated to suspend an officiating crew after it clearly blew a critical call (at least one) for the second time in three weeks. Good for Slive, although his line about having the best officials in college football rings kind of hollow at the moment.

I have a couple of thoughts on this: first, I think instant replay has hurt officiating in general. It may be sub-conscious but I think officials now think they don't have to work as hard to get calls right because replay is there as a backup--although replay doesn't always get it right either. Maybe it would help--seriously--if when a call is overturned the referee announced, "the ruling on the field made by the line judge has been overturned." When a player commits a penalty or a foul, everyone in the stadium knows he did it. When an official blows a call and it is officially overturned, people should know who it is AND mistakes like that should be tracked. I've always believed nothing motivates people like being embarrassed. If USA Today ran a weekly list on overturned calls--as in 1. Joe Smith--7 overturns this season--I think that would motivate officials to hustle a little bit more.

I've already said before I think officials should be accountable after games for their calls. They should also be subject to fines if they say something stupid the way coaches and players (at the pro level) are. Any criticism of officials is subject to fine. Okay then, if an umpire like Randy Marsh says he never saw the ball hit Brandon Inge's shirt (Detroit-Minnesota) then Mike Port, the MLB umpiring supervisor should be able to say, "The video is clear cut, he missed the call and since he isn't willing to admit it, he's going to be fined $5,000." Do that and you can bet you won't hear Tim McLelland saying, "I don't believe the video," after he called Nick Swisher out for leaving third base too soon the other night and the video showed he not only got the call wrong but wasn't LOOKING at Swisher when he left the bag.

I know this sounds harsh but I'll say it one more time: officials should be subjected to the same scrutiny as players. I think this is even more true at the college level where the officials get paid and the players (ostensibly) don't. The Arkansas kids who were the victims of the phantom personal foul call in the Florida game will NOT get another chance to beat the No. 1 team in the country on the road this season or perhaps in their lives. The officials simply move on to their next game. Slive should not only suspend them he should dock them their paychecks for the two games they screwed up.

Of course to me the poster child on all this is an ACC line judge named Perry Hudspeth. He's the guy who blew the mark on a fourth down Notre Dame pass 10 years ago, giving Notre Dame a first down (by an inch) with a minute to go and the Irish out of time outs. Eight years later, when Navy finally won at Notre Dame someone called Hudspeth to ask him if he was glad, in light of what had happened in 1999, to see Navy finally end its 43 year losing streak (which would have ended at 35 if not for Hudspeth) against Notre Dame. Instead of just saying, "you know, I've looked at the replay and I made a mistake. I certainly regret it, I've worked hard since then to not let something like that happen again," Hudspeth said something about his supervisor backing him up on the call. Sure he did, just like Mike Port said Randy Marsh must be right because he's umped 4,000 games. THAT kind of answer really makes me angry.

Which brings me full circle to yesterday's blog on the BCS--the people who have re-invented the term, "never wrong no matter how wrong." (Maybe that should be their slogan, huh?). My friend and one-time student Seth Davis twittered that I had gone, "Joe Wilson," on the BCS since I called the presidents liars. (which they are). I appreciate the fact that Seth is reading but Joe Wilson? Me? I'd prefer Ma Bailey, who tells her non-existent son George (Jimmy Stewart) "IT'S A LIE!" when he tries to convince her he's her son in "It's A Wonderful Life." I'm more a Ma Bailey type than Joe Wilson.

One other note on yesterday: the posts about the BCS were terrific. One person brought up the notion that if you offered the Presidents more money they'd go the playoff route right away. That's not quite true. While they'd love the extra cash, what they don't want to give up is CONTROL. Right now, it's their ball and they can do whatever they want with it. A playoff would have to put on by the NCAA--like the tournaments in every other sport--and they don't want to give up their absolute power.

Have I mentioned how much I can't stand them?



Anonymous said...


Why should we care if someone is a "good guy" before you drop the hammer on them?

Anonymous said...

Baseball has the most selective postseason of any of the major sports just 8 of 30 teams advance.

Just the opposite is true for their umpires. More than half receive a post-season assignment. 24 in the divisional round (6 of whom advance to the World Series) and an additional 12 for the LCS, out of 68 (17 crews of 4) regular season umps.

The players don't even work every day during the post season why do the best umpires need a two week break to prep for the World Series? What kind of sense does in make to purposefully employ poorer umpires for the LCS than the divisional round?

ed - bethesda said...

I think you mean Steve's brother Nick Swisher! Goes to show anyone can make a bad call.

FOTB Staff - said...

Thanks Ed --- while we, the FOTB Staff, wanted to stick with "in our hearts, we thought it was 'Steve'", John wins out. He said "I got it wrong no matter what the video shows!"

Dana King said...

Since MLB ostensibly controls the umpires now (and not the union), some sort of promotion system similar to European soccer should be put into place.

Combine the managers' daily ratings, Questec for balls and strikes, and supervisors' ratings to rank the umpires top to bottom for the season. The bottom 10% to back to AAA, to be replaced by the top AAA umpires next year. The demoted umpires could still come up to cover vacation breaks like other AAA umps, and would be eligible for re-promotion if their rating warranted it when the time came to replace the bottom 10% next year.

As for the post-season, take the four best crews--not 24 individuals--and supplement them with the next best eight umps so each crew has 6. Then the best crews advance through the playoffs, just as the players do.

There would be enough disparate inputs that no one could claim bias, and accountability would be ensured. (If the Questec scores aren't suitable, they could just check the stats on how many walks/strikeouts, or called balls/called strikes each umpire has compared to the league average. Outliers one way or the other are too strongly either pitchers' umps or hitters' umps.

cd1515 said...

it's simple, you have a 5th (or 7th in postseason) umpire upstairs with a buzzer.... if he sees something EGREGIOUSLY wrong, he buzzes down for a replay.
key word: EGREGIOUS.
if he has to look at 17 angles for 5 minutes, it's not egregious.
if it's "close" or "could've gone either way" or "tough to tell," it stands.

as for the BCS, agree with everything you said.
the current system makes a lot of people a lot of money.
when they figure out a way for a playoff system to make those same people EVEN MORE money, we'll get a playoff.
and not a moment sooner.

Bennettar said...

There have been many new advocates of instant replay born in the last few weeks based on the poor showing by MLB umpires this postseason. It is interesting to think of how different the postseason would have been if all these blown calls had gone the right way.

The interesting thing with instant replay in any sport is that there is still a human element involved. Some person - referee, coach, replay official, etc. - is deciding to review an event based on their judgment of how the play was called in the first place. To some extent it seems that there are new questions that pop up, like "Why didn't they review that play?" or "Why didn't that coach throw the challenge flag?" ...and we would also miss out on really entertaining base-throwing tirades when Lou Piniella calmly walks out to home plate to ask for a video review.

Anonymous said...

While I agree with almost all of what John says, I do have a bit of an issue with suspending officials for making mistakes as a general policy. You have to take in to account the general quality of the official and the situation.

If Peyron Manning throws a late interception that costs his team the game, will he be benched for Jim Sorgi the following week? Of course not. There was a large outcry last year from many that Ed Hochuli should be suspended for the blown call in the Denver\San Diego game. The best players will make mistakes, and so will the best referees. That one mistake didn't make Ed Hochuli not be the best ref in the league, just as one bad pick doesn't make Peyton Manning not be the best QB (and the point of this is not to create a debate about who the best QB is, please just go with me on this if you're a Pats fan).

Now, in the case of these SEC refs, or the MLB umps in the LCS, these are more like the case of a Brady Quinn, or Tavaris Jackson. If you get a chance, and continually show you don't have what it takes, then we bench you. That's fine.
These organizations need to understand that generally, suspending a ref (or crew) for a week won't make them better refs, which should be the long term goal. These organizations need to assess WHY is this happening? Do they need better training? Are they not being clear on points of emphasis? Are they not hiring the right people? Are they arrogant men with an overinflated sense of self-worth? Are they on a power trip? Is is possible that there just aren't enough good referees to manage 50 some-odd college football games a week, or 16 NFL games a week, etc...?
I guess my question still is (as it was when John first posted this topic a week or so ago), why is it ok to hold referees to different standards than players? They are just as human, with, in many cases, less preparation and certainly less compensation, etc... Yet they are expected (demanded) to be absolutely perfect or else. Why is this double standard ok? And why do we carry this double standard all the way from not just professional leagues, but through college, lower amateur, and youth sports?

nocurling said...


it's not that tim mclelland blew the call, which he did, it was that he wasn't in the correct position to MAKE the call. he should have been 10' closer to home plate with swisher and the 3rd base bag clearly in line with the outfielder catching the ball.

blowing the call is human. not being in position is indefensible.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for remembering Perry H.'s call; one of the worst of all time.

Vince Spence said...

Could you imagine how many of Babe Ruth's sixty homers may have been either foul or ground rule doubles in 1927 if they had instant replay? How did they even play the game back then?

Also, Earl Weaver would never have been famous if they had IR to prove he was either right or wrong. Can you imagine telling Earl he cannot argue the call because the replay says the umpire was right? He was putting his cap on backwards before Snoop Dog was born.

Eliminate instant replays in every sport. It drags the game out and takes away from the 'game' part of the game. Let the league police the umpires and refs.