Thursday, August 18, 2011

'Hard-working' isn't reason enough for some umpires to stay in the Majors

For the first time in a while I had the chance to collapse in front of the TV last night with the remote in my hand and flip from one baseball game to another. I have to admit in some ways I miss the old days when I would sit down and watch ONE game—usually keeping score—from start to finish.

Now, I’m addicted to the remote. Sometimes I will change the channel between pitches much less between innings.

As luck would have it, I hit on the Yankees and Royals at precisely the moment that Billy Butler hit his ‘home run,’ in the bottom of the fourth inning to give the Royals a 4-2 lead. Except for this: It wasn’t a home run. The ball clearly hit the padding just in front of the fence that is the home run line in left field in Kauffman Stadium.

It wasn’t an easy call. You couldn’t blame umpire Dan DeMuth for missing it as he ran out in the direction of the fence to judge where the ball landed.

Thank goodness for replay.

While the umpires went into their room to watch the replay the Royals network showed the replay from several different angles. There wasn’t any doubt the ball had hit the padding just short of the fence. As they watched the replay from several angles, Royals announcers Ryan Lefebvre and Frank White said the ball was clearly not a home run.

“Billy’s going to have to put his helmet back on and go out to second base,” Lefebvre said at one point.

When replay first came in a couple of years ago one of the concerns was that it would slow games down—they’re already slow enough—the way replay now brings football games to a complete halt. Commissioner Bud Selig insisted that wouldn’t be a problem and estimated most replays wouldn’t delay the game for more than two minutes.

This one should have taken perhaps half that time.

It took more than five minutes. After a while Lefebvre and White began to wonder what was going on.

“Maybe they’re taking the time to get a cold drink,” Lefebvre said. “So Frank, what’d you have for dinner?”

Finally, the umpires came out and DeMuth—the crew chief—signaled home run, which sent Yankees manager Joe Girardi into an understandable tizzy. He argued. His bench argued. His bench was warned to keep quiet. After all, even if the call was wrong it was, well, um, a call.

I bring all this up not because I care who won the game; I truly don’t, although I’ve had a warm spot in my heart for the Royals since I covered their 1985 World Championship team which included White—a truly wonderful guy. I don’t bring it up because I think DeMuth’s a bad umpire although I’m baffled at how he could look at replay and not change his call.

I bring it up because it seems like very few nights go by when some umpire in some game doesn’t badly blow a call. I’m not talking about missing a high strike or even not seeing a ball barely short-hop an outfielder. People miss those calls because they’re human.

I’m talking screwing up ball and strike counts. I’m talking about Jerry Meals horribly missed call at home plate in the 19th inning of a Braves-Pirates game last month. I’m talking Phil Cuzzi being out of position and missing calls more often than I go back for seconds.

Meals, to his credit, apologized just as Jim Joyce did last year when he cost Armando Galarraga a perfect game with a blown call at first base that should have ended the game. Meals is a solid umpire and Joyce is a very good one. They aren’t the problem.

Here’s the problem: there are too many umpires like Cuzzi and Tony Randazzo and C.B. Bucknor and Angel Hernandez—those are my big four; I’m sure other people have others guys on their list—who simply aren’t good at what they do. You might throw Bob Davidson on that list because he’s so obsessed with calling balks he misses half the other calls he asked to make in a given night. Joe West’s temperament is less-than-great but he’s a competent umpire.

On most jobs if you aren’t doing it well you get fired. Supreme Court justices—sadly—don’t get fired. Neither do Major League Umpires. Basically, unless you break the law, you’ve got the job for life once you are vested as a big leaguer. Everyone in baseball knows who the bad umpires—the really bad ones—are but no one does anything about it.

Four years ago when I was working on my book, “Living on the Black,” with Mike Mussina and Tom Glavine, Mussina went nuts during a game in Tampa over C.B. Bucknor’s strike zone. Mussina had a reputation among umpires as one of the easiest pitcher in the game to work with (so did Glavine) because he almost never complained.

“I worked games with him for, I think, 13 years and if he walked up behind me and started talking I wouldn’t know who it was,” Rich Garcia, a long-time umpire told me one day. “I don’t think I ever heard him talk. He never complained.”

Garcia, you may remember, was the umpire who blew the Derek Jeter-Jeffrey Maier call in the 1996 playoffs and then came in after seeing a replay and told the media, “I blew it.”

After the game in Tampa I asked Mussina why he’d gotten so angry. He patiently explained that when an umpire consistently misses pitches, especially when you’re older, you become convinced those extra pitches you have to throw will come back and get you sooner or later.

“A lot of guys think C.B. Bucknor should be a Double-A umpire,” I said.

“That,” Mussina said, “would be an insult to Double-A umpires.”

Mussina is now retired; Bucknor is still in the Major Leagues.

I don’t want to pick on any one individual. I’m sure these guys are nice men who work hard at their job. But that’s not enough—not in any job. You need to do the job WELL. Angel Hernandez has had an attitude problem since he first got to the big leagues and still does.

MLB keeps changing the way it administers umpires. The latest guy in charge is Joe Torre, who knows something about the game. But if he doesn’t have the authority to tell umpires they aren’t doing the job; to put them on notice that they might be sent to Triple-A (the same way a player not performing might be sent to Triple-A) if they don’t improve, then all the knowledge in the world doesn’t help.

On Thursday, Torre said that DeMuth had missed the call. He said the problem wasn’t with the angles he saw on replay but with the fact that he DIDN’T KNOW THE GROUND RULE ON WHAT WAS A HOME RUN!

Seriously. The ballpark was re-designed in 2009 so the rule has been there for three years. The umpires go over the ground rules prior to the first game of every series. Was DeMuth getting a cold drink while this conversation took place?

What’s more, DeMuth took the coward’s way out, refusing to talk to reporters after the game. And yet Torre talked about how hard DeMuth works and the fact that he’s a good umpire.

Great. How about a five game suspension without pay for not knowing the ground rules? While you’re at it, you might throw in the rest of the crew. Didn’t SOMEONE know the ground rules? Apparently not. Inexcusable. And yet, no one will be punished and tonight or tomorrow another ‘hard-working,’ umpire will badly botch another call.

Good players make bad plays; we all know that. But if a player makes enough bad plays or fails to perform he’s not going to have a job in The Major Leagues anymore.

No one is saying Jim Joyce should be umpiring anywhere but in the big leagues and he’s a proven class act.

But right now Armando Galarraga is pitching in Reno. That happens to players. It doesn’t happen to umpires.

It should.


Anonymous said...

Amen. Protecting umpires and all officials has been going on for too long. While we are at it, make them call the strike zone as it is in the rule book. Maybe games will then take less than three hours.

The Sainted Earl said...

Dana DeMuth. Not Dan.

qtlaw24 said...

I agree, no doubt that umpires make errors, just as the participants do, and they should not be criticized for that. But not knowing the ground rules? Ridiculous and unacceptable.

I'm a Giants homer, but I recall that Buckner and Angel Hernandez have been consistently horrible and should be ousted.

qtlaw24 said...

Umpires, like the participants, make errors. That's human nature. But not knowing the ground rules? Unacceptable and should not be tolerated.

I'm a Giants homer but I do recall that Hernandez and Buckner have been consistently awful for a long time. Why I even recall their names is a bad indicator. They need to be replaced.

Brian said...

I agree with you on bad umpires being sent down. I remember on opening day commenting to a friend that Bob Davidson was at first almost guaranteeing a bad call. Sure enough, he blew one a few minutes later. What is most puzzling to me is that they have promoted bad umpires. Rob Drake and Adrian Johnson have both gotten jobs even though Drake immediately popped up on the ESPN player survey of worst umps. He seems to have an attitude and I'll never forget him blowing a home run call in the pre-replay days in the last week of the season, costing the Phillies 3 runs, and possibly a game and a playoff spot. I think part of MLB's problem may be that Johnson and Bucknor are black, and it makes it hard to demote them when there are only 4-5 minority umpires (the other 3 Laz Diaz, Kerwin Danley, and Alfonso Marquez are all very good).

One defense of DeMuth: who knows how umpire schedules are set, but it sure seems like teams see some crews 10-12x a season and other ones once or twice. Especially given how much vacation time umpires get, DeMuth may have only had a few series (if any) in Kansas City since the ground rules changed. Shocking that no one on his crew had the rules right though.