We’ve had some Awful Umpiring this season, from the Buehrle Balks to the Galarraga One-Hitter, and players are calling out individual umpires by name more than ever before. The recent ESPN poll of major league players about the best and worst umps in baseball was especially revealing: it was the first time in my memory that players were asked their opinion of umpires by name, and while the results were eye-opening they weren’t at all surprising. The worst umpires were CB Bucknor, Joe West, and Angel Hernandez, which we all knew anyway, but it was remarkable to hear the players admit it.
Yorvit Torrealba got suspended for three games after protesting balls and strikes on Monday, when the brim of his batting helmet incidentally touched umpire Larry Vanover. But Vanover escalated the argument considerably. Watch the video, and you’ll see he actually took a step toward Torrealba. Torrealba will have to take the suspension sooner or later — umps are sacrosanct, and no part of you gets to touch any part of them — but Vanover’s actions feed into the overall problem that more and more players are calling out this year: the umpires think the game is about them, they like drawing attention to themselves, and, as a result, it’s hard to trust them to be neutral arbiters.
The parallel problem, of course, is obvious. The more mistakes that umpires make, the easier, and more inevitable, become the arguments for instant replay. Sure, it makes the game seem less “pure,” and it will probably make an almost intolerably long game excruciatingly longer — especially if you imagine Joe Girardi and Terry Francona staring at each other across the top step of their dugouts, challenge flag in hand, ready to call back the slightest miscue, a possibility so nightmarish that it could cause Joe West to wake up screaming. Instant replay is, by its very nature, slow: it’s replay. It’s an imperfect compromise between a world where umpires are the law and a world where umpires aren’t necessary, where a GameDay Pitch Tracker calls strikes and balls and a traffic camera mans first base to call runners safe and out. We have the technology right now to do without umpires. We don’t have the gumption — but we have the tech.
So it makes sense that umpires feel like they’re under attack. They are. Their livelihood is being threatened by the times they live in. However, it’s also being threatened by the individual actions of individual umpires, from the explosively short fuses of Joe West and Bill Hohn to the completely inconsistent strike zones of Angel Hernandez and CB Bucknor. In ordinary times, a good umpire is like a good spy: the best ones are the ones you never hear about or think about at all. These are not ordinary times, and the spotlight is shining brightly. The more they step towards it — like Larry Vanover’s step towards Yorvit Torrealba — the brighter it will shine. The only way for umpires to decrease the drama is to take a step back.
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