There is an umpire problem in Major League Baseball, and it has nothing to do with blown calls or instant replay. It's about a distinct lack of respect and baseball players' cowardice in treating umpires as some subspecies, knowing the worst thing that can fly back at them is a suspension instead of a fist.
MLB is going to lay the hammer Thursday on St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina(notes). Just how heavy the blow still was being discussed at baseball offices Wednesday, but it won't be puny. Molina's blowup at home-plate umpire Rob Drake after a called third strike Tuesday night was disgusting. It's one thing to yell at an ump. It's another to lurch toward his face in anger, lose control of your maxillary function and emit droplets of spittle. Lying about it afterward – nobody, even at MLB, believes Molina's story that the liquid Drake said twice hit him was sweat – only reinforces the point.
Everything is wrong in the player-umpire relationship today, and officials from both sides agree it has devolved into a legitimate, palpable issue for the sport. The umpires think the players are entitled. The players think the umpires are incompetent. Both, in some cases, are correct.
Still, while the worst umpires do grandstand and ignore the edict that the best umpire is an invisible umpire, none elevates any tête-à-tête to the level Molina did. Among that meltdown, one by teammate Ryan Theriot(notes) and another from Boston's Jonathan Papelbon(notes), accosting umpires is baseball's cool thing to do.
MLB thinks Drake handled it well. He did make a bad call on the strikeout, according to PITCHf/x data. That happens. His willingness not to get confrontational once Molina backed him off with a shower impressed baseball officials. The report delivered by Drake said he was bumped four times and spit on twice.
"As an umpire, he's required to help defuse the situation," said Brian Lam, the attorney for the umpires' union, the World Umpires Association. "As professionals, we're all required to do things we wouldn't as people. As a person, Rob Drake would've probably punched the guy."
[Video: Broadcasters' reaction]
Had Drake done that, he would've been fired. If an umpire so much as bumps back against a player or manager haranguing him, he faces disciplinary sanctions from MLB. While it's true umpires are meant to stay above the fray, it's emasculating for anyone to stand there and take abuse that goes beyond verbal.
"I would never say that Yadier is anything but a professional," Lam said. "He wants to win. I would never characterize it as anything other than he was in the moment. But we're all humans. We're all part of the same group of people. Let's talk about those things.
"It's one thing to be wrong on a call, because we are. Umpires are wrong on calls. We try to own up to those errors. It's another thing to have folks act up in response. When you're in the moment, it's really hard to break away. We get that. There are limits, though. There are lines you shouldn't cross."
The line for umpires is three-fold: no billing, no bumping, no spitting. Billing happens when someone leans in and hits an umpire's face with the brim of his cap – a gesture meant to intimidate that has built-in deniability of intent. Bumping is simple, and whether Molina did bump Drake depends on the angle of the replay. In some, it looks obvious; in others, not so much.
Spitting is the ultimate insult, something reserved for punks. Roberto Alomar might be the best second baseman ever, and the defining incident of his career came in 1996 when he expelled a throaty glob at umpire John Hirschbeck. What Molina did was not close to Alomar's deed. Still, Drake's reactions Tuesday night – he snapped his neck back twice in dramatic, disgusted fashion – weren't those of a man rained on by a few beads of sweat.
[Related: Yadier Molina denies face-spitting]
A few months after the Alomar affair, MLB held a meeting with the players' association and the umpires' union in Florida to talk about their differences. "I'm confident that we can begin the process of establishing a meaningful and sensitive relationship," commissioner Bud Selig said at the time. "The heartache of the Roberto Alomar incident – if it leads to a meaningful relationship, it will have been worth it."
That was more than 14 years ago, and relations have only worsened. Players freely speak of their distrust of umpires, off and, in some cases, on the record. Umpires never criticize players publicly, understanding that doing so is bad for business and could cast them as a pariah.
Another discussion among the three parties earlier this year focused on that and a number of other topics. Blown calls during the playoffs left umpires prone and they wanted to reopen the dialogue before the relationship slunk beyond repair. They met in early March for more than two hours and, Lam said, "It wasn't the easiest conversation. But we also agreed that we were going to do a lot more of that this coming season."
They haven't yet. It's tough during the year, especially one in which MLB and the players' union are negotiating a new collective-bargaining agreement. The parties have talked about meeting again this offseason. They should make it a priority, no matter how difficult it is to arrange a mutually satisfactory date.
It's incumbent upon the players' association to let its constituency know that umpire abuse makes a player look like a petulant child. And MLB must mete out harsher punishments to protect the integrity of the men in whose hands it places its game. For their part umpires need to promise more transparency and accountability when it comes to performance and discipline.
Part of the job is to live with mistreatment. Players, media, fans – it comes from every direction. The lack of instant replay only magnifies their errors and does nothing to correct them. They may get paid well and watch baseball for a living. Their jobs remain thankless in spite of the perks.
The best umpires spend a decade in the minor leagues making pennies to chase a dream. By the time they're in the majors, the prime of their careers is that much shorter. And enough umpires stick around too long, sheltered by the union and exacerbating the feeling within the game that the WUA is protecting a few at the cost of many.
This isn't a problem because one guy lost his temper or one umpire made a bad call. It's a problem because there is no easy solution. The players consider the umpires inferiors. The umpires consider the players brats. Convincing two groups of stubborn men to change their minds about one another takes a lot more than one meeting a year.
It's time for all of them to prioritize mending this relationship. If umpires are expected to stand there and take verbal beatings, consequences must protect them in case civility does not reign.
For Rob Drake's sake. For his colleagues' sake. Most important, for baseball's sake.
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