“He’s a fucking asshole.”
Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, on umpire Joe West
It might be the highest-profile balk call in years: after Joe West rung up Mark Buehrle for two balks and ejected Buehrle and Guillen shortly thereafter for protesting the call yesterday, Major League Baseball announced that they were investigating the incident. Given the personalities involved, an explosion was almost inevitable: Ozzie Guillen is perhaps the most combustible and combative manager in the game (Chris Jaffe has called him the modern Billy Martin), and “Cowboy” Joe West is one of the most controversial umpires in baseball. Even the photo on West’s Wikipedia page shows him ejecting Guillen, all the way back in 2007.
Joe West likes the nickname “Cowboy” — it’s the name he uses on his website, where he sells his country music CDs (“Blue Cowboy” and “Diamond Dreams”) — but detractors often argue that it describes his on-field demeanor as well. And ejections aren’t the only thing he’s famous for. Back in 1990, West bodyslammed pitcher Dennis Cook to the ground; NL president Bill White was prepared to suspend West (back in the days when each league had its own president and crew of umpires), but Commissioner Fay Vincent intervened. As Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Potash writes,
The guy has a habit of creating and/or exacerbating situations like this. His dismissive hand gestures, his body language, his smirk, and his attitude are more incendiary than any of Guillen’s profanity. He doesn’t get any respect because he doesn’t give any.
But the more salient problem may be with the balk rule itself. What is a balk? In the official rulebook, there’s a dizzying array of situations which may prompt a balk to be called, along with the following comment:
“Umpires should bear in mind that the purpose of the balk rule is to prevent the pitcher from deliberately deceiving the base runner. If there is doubt in the umpire’s mind, the ‘intent’ of the pitcher should govern.”
Much of the game, of course, is designed to deliberately deceive, from the pitching motion of many lefthanders, to the fake-to-third-throw-to-first play, to feints by the fielders to fake as though they’re heading to second base for a throw. The balk call is intended as a corrective to prevent certain illegal actions by the pitcher, but it’s not clear that any of the motions it prohibits are any more successful in fooling baserunners than the motions it permits — and moreover, it’s not clear that the motions it prohibits are all that distinguishable from the motions it permits. What was different about Buehrle’s move to first on Wednesday, compared to this game in 2008, when he successfully picked off Franklin Gutierrez?
Even after watching and rewatching tape, few balk calls or noncalls are ever indisputable. (As blogger Mac Thomason has written, “Nearly all balks are randomly called by the umpires as far as I can tell, with the odd exception of a pitcher who falls down or drops the ball or something like that.”) Still, they’re an exceedingly minor part of the game. This year, there have only been 48 balks called all year in 1398 games played, and over the past four years, the numbers have been fairly steady: 138 balks in 2009, 153 in 2008, 139 in 2007, 145 in 2006. So even though they seem arbitrary, the rate at which they’re called has been fairly constant. Once this blows over, we’ll all go back to not thinking about balks much, because they’re so steadfastly rare. But that doesn’t make the rule any more sensible, or its enforcement any less prone to error.
“Cowboy” Joe West drew attention to himself on Wednesday, as he so often does. But he really should have drawn attention to the balk rule itself. This is one rule that could go out of the rulebook with no tears shed.
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