Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Major League Baseball: Some Things Have Changed and Some Haven't in the Umpire Business

Technology has changed the world of baseball in both fundamental and incidental ways. Watching the Cubs-Indians World Series it became apparent that one of the side effects of technology is the shift in power that was in the hands of the umpires. That is, until cameras could capture every single angle and transmit all these perspectives to a single location for instant review, the umpire's authority was unchallenged. It could be disputed but in the context of the game itself the ump made the final call.

In today's world, the power has shifted away from the umpire to some extent. If he makes a bad call, the manager of the team that took it on the chin could challenge the call. The verdict was determined elsewhere, and the ump's role marginally reduced to being a mouthpiece for the verdict. Sure, the umps still make all the call, but they've got their butts covered.

This undoubtedly proves to be a liberating change for umpires. I know from first-hand experience how brutal it can be to make a bad call. Somehow the umpire's word had such total authority it was as if it had been etched on two tablets by the finger of God.

When I was seventeen I was asked to be a Lilttle League umpire, no doubt because I played on the high school team and knew the rules of the game. I was fair, earnest and it also paid a few greenbacks to boot.

Two of my most memorable experiences as an ump were the bad calls I made. I wrote about this here in 2009, but you can read the pertinent material here in this excerpt.

My worst call came on a windy day at Hamilton Field. The infield was dusty and the count two balls and a strike. Just as the pitch was released, the wind threw grains of dirt into my eyes so that I was temporarily blinded. I could see that the ball, when I got my vision back, had gone over the backstop so naturally I assumed (don’t EVER assume when you are an umpire) that the kid fouled it off. I shouted, with confidence, “Strike two.”

The reality is, the ball had hit the plate and gone over the backstop. And everyone saw it as plain as day, except the ump. The parents went berserk. Naturally, when I discovered what had happened it seemed only right to change my call to make it correspond to reality. Then, the other team’s went berserk, and trust me, there are very few closets to hide in on a baseball diamond.

My second bad call went like this. The batter hit a dribbler to the right side. The first baseman came forward to get it, picked it up clean and swung around to tag the runner on the back as he sprinted past. I made a mistake, however, by not running out toward the mound to get a better angle on the play. It looked like he tagged the runner, but from where I was standing he might not have done so. I called the kid out.

The first base coach and the manager arched they backs in amazement, shouting, “He missed him by a foot!” Whereupon, having failed to learn from my first bad call experience, I changed the call to “Safe!” I cringe to think of it. When you change a call there is No Mercy. 

The common denominator in both these instances was this: the parents went berserk. O.K., the coaches did, too. The worst of it was that everyone behaved as if the umpire did not even have permission to change the call, even when everyone saw it with their on eyes.

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I share all this because there's another part of Major League Baseball that has not changed and maybe ought to as well. Let's set it up this way.

Women has served on the Supreme Court. Women have served as heads of state (e.g. Margaret Thatcher) and may even serve as our own soon. Women are CEOs of major corporations. But there are no female Major League umpires. Why is this? Are the rules more complicated than the U.S. legal system?

This glass ceiling in the umpire business strikes me as strange. Can you imagine if black ball players had never been permitted to cross the color barrier? I'm unsure what the risks are. It's already verboten to hit an ump.

The reason this notion is fresh in my mind is because I have a cousin who was a professional umpire. Theresa has been one of  handful of women umps in professional minor league ball. Here's a 2012 article addressing the situation. In 2011 ESPNW investigated the progress of women referees and umps in a range of pro sports, underscoring the challenges and abuse they've had to overcome.

So tonight, while the Indians try to break free of "the curse of Rocky Colavito" and the Cubs fight for their first championship in 108 years, ask yourself the question: Why can't women be umpires?

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My apologies to friends who live in Chicago... I will be rooting for the Indians tonight. Go Tribe!

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