Column: Bad calls by blues give MLB a black eye
MLB umpires have been making headlines lately, which is never good news for the league or the men in blue.
First, Tom Hallion was fined an undisclosed amount after initiating a verbal spat with Tampa Rays pitcher David Price. Hallion rebuked Price for his reaction to a pitch call during a game on April 28. Price told reporters that as he walked off the mound at the end of the inning, Hallion yelled at him "throw the (bleeping) ball over the plate." Two other pitchers in the Rays dugout also claim to have heard the umpire use a profanity.
Back and forth comments in the media and on Twitter included a charge by Hallion that Price was "a liar." Price countered by accusing Hallion of being a coward. MLB fined all three pitchers $1,000 for violating the league's social media policy. In addition, they took the unusual action of announcing that Hallion was also fined an undisclosed amount.
A week later, in a game between Cleveland and Oakland, umpire Angel Hernandez elected not to reverse a non-home run call in the ninth inning after a video review. The video clearly showed that a ball hit by A's infielder Adam Rosales should have been a game-tying home run. But Hernandez maintained the hit was a double. The A's failed to score and lost the game to the Indians by a single run. After reviewing the video himself, MLB executive vice president Joe Torre didn't mince words, saying in reference to Hernandez' call, "We screwed it up." The league, clearly embarrassed by the incident, sent director of umpires Randy Marsh to Cleveland to "discuss" the matter with Hernandez and his crew.
Little did anyone know that things were about to get even worse for the umpires. A day after Hernandez' gaffe, Fieldin Culbreth allowed Houston's rookie manager, Bo Porter, to make an illegal pitching change during a game against Anaheim. Culbreth and his crew misinterpreted an MLB rule and permitted the pitching change after Angels' manager Mike Scioscia sent up a pinch hitter. Scioscia correctly pointed out that Astros' relief pitcher Wesley Wright had to face at least one batter before he could be replaced. Even after huddling three times, the umpires couldn't get it right.
Torre had seen enough. He suspended Culbreth for two games and fined each member of his crew an undisclosed amount. Culbreth, who has a reputation as a good umpire, was sincerely repentant. "I want to apologize to the whole crew...I feel bad I put (the umpires) in that position."
So what's going on here? Is this an indication that MLB umpiring is deteriorating? Oh, there are a handful of umpires, Hernandez among them, who have no business being in the Major Leagues. Others could definitely benefit from an attitude readjustment and anger management training (that includes you, Tom Hallion). But the overwhelming majority of MLB umpires are victims of their own competence. They are so good that we hardly notice them ... until they commit an error or blow a call that's seen by the entire world, thanks to video replay and hindsight. Then we all scream at them and demand more replay.
The latter wouldn't have changed Hernandez' blown call, or protest against video reply. How else to explain the non-call in Cleveland? MLB and the players' union have come out publicly in favor of using more video replay. The fact it hasn't happened yet is strong evidence that the umpires and their union are less than enthused with the prospect of seeing more of their calls overturned.
Another significant factor in the incidents involving Hallion and Culbreth may be that they're crew chiefs. While umpires are supposed to work as a unit and consult with each other on questionable calls, the culture of umpiring dictates that the three other members of the crew defer to the crew chief. His word is usually accepted as gospel. Such absolute power can sometimes be an impediment to accuracy and truthfulness and is an attitude MLB and the umpires' union should address.
The goal of the umpiring crew should be to get the call right, by whatever means necessary. The game of baseball and the umpires themselves are both better off when what the umpires do - or don't do - is not news.
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor and Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and is a contributing author to the Business of Sports Network and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com. Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.