MLB plans showdown with umpire Joe West
Earlier this week, Joe West’s personal publicist sent out a mass email offering up his client for interviews.
(Pause, to allow the proper spit-take at the fact that a baseball umpire is self-absorbed enough to keep a P.R. man in his employ. Now, clean up that screen.)
Such emails are not uncommon. With a resistance to the spam boxes in which they ought automatically deposit themselves, the blasts show up every few weeks. West is always promoting something. His country music CD. His line of umpiring gear. And, without fail, himself.
He seems to have forgotten the cardinal rule of umpiring: stay invisible. Anonymity is godliness to baseball’s arbiters, and Joe West is an infidel, an attention whore of Lady Gaga proportions whose proclivity for theatrics shames the umpiring profession.
Mercifully, Major League Baseball has tired of his antics. A source said the league plans to suspend or fine West, one of its most tenured umpires, after he solicited reporters this week to talk about the controversy he created in April when he called the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox “pathetic and embarrassing” because of their long game times.
Between West dredging up a subject MLB was peeved he addressed in public in the first place, and the fallout from his ejections of Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen and pitcher Mark Buehrle(notes) on Wednesday, his behavior reached a tipping point for baseball officials. MLB reprimanded West during a phone conversation Thursday and will continue to consult with the World Umpires Assocation – of which West is president – to determine the severity of his punishment.
West carries the reputation as a poor umpire and grudge holder, and so his unceremonious tossing of Guillen and Buehrle surprised no one. West called a balk on Buehrle, whose pickoff move is recognized as one of the game’s best. It was a suspect-at-best call, or par for the course, and he tossed Guillen for protesting. When West flagged Buehrle for another balk – just a flat-out bad call – the pitcher, disgusted, softly flopped his glove on the ground. West ejected him, too.
Following the game, Guillen ranted like Guillen does: F-bombs in triplicate, and a few more words that would have made George Carlin proud. Buehrle’s reaction was far more telling. Rarely outspoken and always measured, Buehrle took to West with an incisive jab that showed what people inside the game think of him.
“I think he’s too worried about promoting his CD,” Buehrle said, “and I think he likes seeing his name in the papers a little bit too much instead of worrying about the rules.”
West’s sense of entitlement grew over a long career. He was a major league umpire at 24 years old. He worked as a crew chief in a World Series. He also was one of the 22 umpires who resigned in 1999 in a failed negotiating tactic, and if that doesn’t humble someone, what can?
Baseball rehired West in 2002, and while the union’s emasculation was palpable, West continued to play up his country-music persona. The sport allowed him to meet celebrities and cultivate his music career, which, based on his voice, lyrics and music, would’ve otherwise sputtered out with Nashville bar patrons introducing him to a variety of rotten vegetables. West returned the favor by acting like a rent-a-cop who wields his badge like he’s Wyatt Earp.
He is a presence in games, and that is the problem. The only place for an umpire is at the bottom of the box score. When one jumps into the game story, he has done one of two things: blown a call or picked a fight with someone. That West specializes in both says everything about him.
Here’s the thing: If West were a good umpire – if he didn’t parlay his three decades in the sport into plum postseason gigs that somebody of his caliber simply does not deserve – much of what he does wouldn’t be as objectionable. Ed Hochuli, the NFL referee whose ripped physique has made him a cult hero, is beloved because he maintains professional excellence alongside his other endeavors. West’s professional negligence makes him all the more a cartoon character.
MLB doesn’t have nearly the perception problem with umpires that the NBA does with its referees. It doesn’t want one, either, and so its move to muzzle West is appropriate. The Yankees and Red Sox do push pace-of-play boundaries; they also provide the greatest rivalry in the sport, and fans who appreciate good baseball are willing to sit through extra time as long as the drama remains. West should’ve apologized and moved on. His targeting of Buehrle – pitchers get called for multiple balks about once a decade – was the vindictive sort of call that cements his reputation.
Undeterred, West’s diarrhea of the mouth continued. He had CDs and gear to sell, a website to push, a brand to promote. Attached to the latest e-mail from his publicist were 11 pictures, just in case one or two weren’t enough. It also included a funny subject line: “The Real Joe West.”
Like everyone doesn’t already see him for what he is.