Are baseball’s umpires trying to get themselves replaced by machines? Or perhaps baseball’s brass are conspiring to allow incompetent and lazy umpires to do themselves in, as their miserable work wins over the traditionalists and the Luddites to mechanical ball and strike-calling and their overseers refuse to take decisive action against the worst officials they have. Whatever the explanation, today’s debacle ending the Tampa Rays-Red Sox game in Boston showed an appalling lack of accountability and professionalism in a segment of the game that is critical to its credibility and integrity.
Last season ended with a single day of baseball changing the fortunes of four teams. Two of them were the Rays and Red Sox, and as a result of a one-game swing in the standings decided by two dramatic walk-off hits, careers were damaged, jobs were forfeited, lives were changed, millions of dollars were redirected, and sports history was made. Today’s game, between the same teams, may have been early in the season, but last year shows how important such a game could become. In the bottom of the ninth inning of a tight, 1-0 pitchers duel favoring the Rays, Boston had the tying and winning runs on base and two outs. At the plate: Red Sox newcomer Cody Ross, a right-handed power threat who showed his penchant for clutch home runs while becoming the World Series MVP for the San Francisco Giants in 2010. Ross had hit homers in each of the last two contests, and the Fenway Green Monster is perfectly tailored for his right-handed swing. The table was certainly set for heroics, and a possible lost game for the Rays that they might sorely need in September.
Cody Ross, however, was called out on strikes by home plate umpire Larry Vanover without ever taking his bat off his shoulder. I watched the game—Rays closer Fernando Rodney threw five pitches to Ross, and not one of them was even arguably over the plate. After the game, several commentators posted the sequence in various graphic forms, confirming what the eye and the live video indicated. In a tight game, before a full house, at a critical point, with post-season significance given the competitors, Vanover couldn’t be bothered to bear down, be a professional, and do his job. He cheated Ross, both teams, and the fans of a fairly decided contest.
Missed calls by umpires are indeed part of baseball, but before videotape, replays, slow-motion, computers and the universal televising of all games fans and players were forced to be tolerant of them, because there was usually no records to confirm the age old complaint, “we wuz robbed!” Now, however, there are. A series of critical home run calls that were missed by umpires led to limited instant replay a few years ago, and at the time MLB officials swore that the game would never allow technology to replace “the human factor.” You can see, however, the immediate reaction of NBC blogger Craig Calcaterra at the end of his post on the Ross strikeout: “Robots now, please.” Baseball fans invest too much time and emotion in following the games and their teams to just shrug off results warped by obvious incompetence. The kind of atrocious umpiring demonstrated by Vanover in the Rays-Sox game poses a direct challenge to baseball’s integrity. What will baseball’s leaders do about it?
They have only three choices:
- They can, for the first time, take public and punitive action against umpires whose poor performance exceeds a missed call or a human mistake, and demonstrates inexcusable incompetence or a lack of professionalism. First time: a stiff fine. Second time: a suspension without pay. Third time: dismissal. I know that the umpires union in Major League Baseball protects its incompetents as zealously as the teachers unions, but baseball has its product to protect.
- Baseball’s leaders can make a commitment to automated strike and out calling, and cut back on crews to one field umpire to keep order and one booth umpire to read the printouts, watch the TV screen, and study the replays.
- Baseball can reject integrity and credibility, and continue to let the Vanovers on the field wreck the games and alienate fans.
Well, I suppose not hiring blind umpires would work, too.