Will MLB Ever Have the Guts to Suspend Umpires for Brutal Judgment Calls?
Umpires be warned. Major League Baseball made it clear on Friday that stupidity is punishable by suspension.
Next up: deplorable judgment.
...If Major League Baseball wills it, that is.
We'll get to that in a minute, but first, we must talk about stupidity.
If you missed what went down on Thursday night in the game between the Los Angeles Angels and Houston Astros, you missed one of the worst displays of umpiring in recorded history.
Crew chief Fieldin Culbreth and his comrades basically forgot the rule book when they allowed Astros manager Bo Porter to make a pitching change in the seventh inning despite the fact he had just made one to bring in Wesley Wright. He only threw a few warm-up pitches before Porter went out to yank him in favor of Hector Ambriz, and the umps let him do it.
This despite the fact that such a move is barred by Rule 3.05(b), which requires that any pitcher that enters the game must face at least one batter.
When Angels manager Mike Scioscia came out to argue, he could be seen shouting the perfect word for the situation: "Embarrassment."
On Friday, Major League Baseball let Culbreth and the others know that, yeah, they fouled up pretty bad. Culbreth got himself a suspension:
And the others were all fined:
The other members of Fieldin Culbreth’s crew - Brian O’Nora, Bill Welke and Adrian Johnson - have also been fined.— MLB (@MLB) May 10, 2013
It's certainly not unprecedented for umpires to be punished, nor is it unprecedented for an umpire to be suspended. But when it happens, it's usually because an umpire let his ego run wild.
Mike Winters was hit with a rest-of-season suspension for escalating an argument with Milton Bradley in 2007. Brian Runge was suspended in 2008 for bumping New York Mets manager Jerry Manuel. Last year, MLB broke new ground by suspending Bob Davidson for "repeated violations" of situation-handling policies after a run-in with Philadelphia Phillies manager Charlie Manuel.
This kind of behavior doesn't look good. Umpires aren't supposed to get emotional. They're basically supposed to be robots—at least until baseball is ready for the real thing.
But news like Friday's news doesn't come along every day. Can anybody remember the last time MLB suspended an umpire for plain old stupidity?
Me neither. And that this at least feels unprecedented tells us two things.
One: Umpires may let their egos run wild too often, but at least they know the rules. That's a relief.
Two: Major League Baseball isn't going to let stupidity go unpunished. When it comes to the rules, umpires must be perfect or else.
Of course, an umpire actually achieving perfection, or at least coming reasonably close to it, isn't a simple matter of mastering the rules. There's judgment involved, and that's the next barrier for MLB to break down if it dares.
Yeah, yeah. Bad calls are a part of the game. "Human element" and such. And besides, making a bad judgment call isn't nearly as bad as not knowing the rules, right?
Absolutely true, but how many judgment calls have we seen where the word "bad" doesn't even come close? And how many of them have come at the worst possible time?
You remember Jerry Meals' blown call at home plate in 2011, which gave the Atlanta Braves a game-winning run in a 19-inning game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. How about the brutal infield fly call in last year's National League Wild Card game? How about Marty Foster's horrid strike-three call from earlier this season?
And, of course, the human element reached a new low on Wednesday night. If you missed what happened in the ninth inning of the game against the Oakland A's and the Cleveland Indians, you need to watch this video in full:
The umpire was Angel Hernandez, and what he saw was a home run.
There's no question about that. Both Oakland's TV replays and Cleveland's TV replays clearly showed the ball go over the fence. And according to Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com, Hernandez and the rest of his crew were watching the exact same replays the rest of us were, on 19-inch HD monitors to boot.
There was only one right judgment to make in that instance, and Hernandez didn't make it.
Hernandez told Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle that he didn't see enough evidence to turn Rosales' double into a homer. Legendary baseball writer Peter Gammons said on the Dan Patrick Show on Friday that Hernandez may have blown the call just because he's opposed to replay.
Whatever the reason, Hernandez was wrong. We all knew that at the time on Wednesday night, and Major League Baseball confirmed it the next day.
And assuming he was indeed seeing the same replays we were, Hernandez had no excuse whatsoever to be wrong. If ever there was a time for Major League Baseball to suspend an umpire for an inexcusable lapse in judgment, this was it.
Ready for the good news? That's that incidents like the one that went down on Wednesday night could soon be made to be a thing of the past.
It was reported in March that MLB is looking to expand replay in 2014, and ESPN's Jayson Stark wrote in January that the expansion of replay could involve either a fifth umpire in the ballpark for the sole purpose of reviewing plays or a direct line to an umpiring crew at a central location.
In other words, the current system that involves all four umpires leaving the field, looking at a play and then coming back on the field could soon be done away with. If so, the potential for more Angel Hernandez screw-ups would be eliminated.
And now for the bad news: It would only be eliminated on certain plays.
According to Stark, the current basic agreement between MLB, the players and the umpires only allows for expanded replay on trapped balls and fair-or-foul calls. Anything beyond those, such as plays at the plate and plays on the basepaths, would involve sitting down at the bargaining table.
And that means such plays could be beyond the bounds of instant replay for a while longer. Combined with balls and strikes, there would still be plenty of opportunities for poor judgment to impact a game at a crucial moment. The human element could still be looming over a given game, waiting to screw things up.
And when it comes to human element, two things are certain. One is that it will screw things up at inconvenient times, and the other is that nothing is going to be done about it.
Let your ego run wild? That's a suspension.
Forget the rules? That's a suspension.
Do you think egregious judgment calls should be grounds for suspension?
Exercise extremely poor judgment? Shoot, the only repercussion for that is embarrassment brought on by public ridicule. Major League Baseball does nothing, choosing instead to play the human element card as an excuse.
The league's insistence on using the human element card to protect umpires is wearing thin. We live in a day and age where no mistake goes unnoticed, and where the outrage is so much more intense thanks to things like social media. This is a day and age that demands that mistakes be paid for.
Major League Baseball has shown a willingness to make umpires pay for ego-related mistakes and, now, stupidity-related mistakes and to make it public when it does so. This would appear to be progress, and that's good.
But for now, umpires are safe from having to pay for judgment mistakes. That's where the league tolerates mistakes, thus falling short of a zero-tolerance approach toward its umpires. This is where there's a line.
For Major League Baseball to have a zero-tolerance approach toward umpires, one of two things needs to happen.
One involves the league doing the umpires a favor by expanding replay to all the areas that still need to be covered while, of course, taking the decisions out of the hands of the umpires on the field. The human element would be made to be next to irrelevant, and the potential for killer judgment mistakes would be reduced closed to nil.
It's either that, or the league can put umpires on notice by getting rid of that line.
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