In the spirit of the “verbal attacks” that prompted some Major League Baseball umpires to wear white wristbands in protest Saturday, here is a written complement that will say what players never would: This is nothing more than a feeble, misguided, ill-conceived dissent from a group that showed its hypocrisy hours into its act of defiance. If umpires weren’t every bit the chest-puffing ninnies they purport the players to be, maybe their stand wouldn’t look so nakedly duplicitous. And to make the whole charade even more farcical, the umpires seemingly didn’t realize white wristbands are often worn in support of people who suffer from blindness.
Set against the backdrop of actual protests that address actual injustices, the resistance of umpires – a group of men who make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and fly first class everywhere to work three hours a day helping run a baseball game – is laughably petty. They’re angry MLB fined but didn’t suspend Detroit Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler for saying Angel Hernandez was a “bad umpire.” All it takes to trigger a group of umpires, apparently, is a fact.
Nobody denies umpire-player relations have degraded to unfortunate levels. The relationship should be symbiotic. Instead, it’s toxic. Players regard umpires as impediments – and, in plenty of cases, incompetents – whose mistakes warrant repudiation. Umpires see players as increasingly disrespectful toward those whose duties should grant them deference and authority. The ugliness manifests itself almost daily.
Take Saturday, when the World Umpire Association, the umpires’ union, offered a statement in which it called Kinsler’s words “unacceptable,” called the current state of affairs “open season” on umpires and called players’ actions “escalating attacks.” Less than three hours later, Joe West, the head of the union and the game’s most tenured umpire, rung up Chicago Cubs outfielder Jon Jay on a borderline strike three. Jay skipped out of the batter’s box, angry with the call, which prompted West to pull off his mask and stare at Jay for eight full seconds as he walked back toward the dugout, looking for a reason to eject him.
That West’s wristband didn’t spontaneously combust from the fraudulence seeping from his tissue-paper skin is a miracle of modern manufacturing. Here are the umpires that he leads, seeking some sort of validation that their grievances deserve action, sympathy or both, and West is actively engaging in the very same sort of behavior he derides. He and Hernandez may have the two worst cases of tough guy-itis of baseball’s 76 full-time umpires, but they’re certainly not the only two afflicted with it.
Umpires have difficult jobs. Approaching the day’s work with pathological passive-aggressiveness does nothing to make that job easier. And it speaks to the shifting dynamic of an umpire’s role in 2017 away from West’s self-appointed keeper of the game. Some umpire’s see themselves as the game’s policemen, and there’s actually a fair bit of credence to that comparison, though perhaps not in the way umpires would like.
The expectation of police behavior today is wildly different than it was even a decade ago, and tactics that may have been suitable in the past no longer pass muster. This is not kowtowing; it is society functioning as it should – with flexibility and without the treatment of institutions as sacred monoliths. Umpires, similarly, must understand that with replay technology fixing a good number of their errors, behavior toward players is even more visible – and every last move finds itself kicked around a social-media echo chamber that feeds on umpiring gaffes like a snack.
It shows a staggering lack of self-awareness that umpires would take their gripes public as if doing so would engender some kind of sympathy or public backing. Umpires rank alongside taxes, traffic jams and lima beans in the pantheon of the disliked. Unfair though it may be – umpires, by and large, are rather spectacular at their jobs – it is their reality, and to attempt some sort of reimagination of their narrative is an amateur’s blunder.
To stage a protest with any chance of working, an air of moral authority must exist. The umpires’ died long ago of self-inflicted wounds. Every West staredown, every Hernandez confrontation, every time an umpire weaves himself into a game’s fabric, the argument in favor of them dictating change dies another death.
And that’s a shame, because the umpires do make some legitimate points. In July, Hernandez sued MLB, alleging the league racially discriminated against minority umpires and, in Hernandez’s case, withheld promotions. Even if Hernandez is an objectively poor umpire – and he is – the lawsuit’s contention that the league does not promote minority umpires deserves consideration. MLB has failed in efforts to field front offices that come anywhere near reflecting the game’s on-field diversity, and that goes for its umpiring crews as well. However much the league tries, until it shows tangible progress in both regards, skepticism is justified.
Furthermore, the umpires have reached out to the players, inviting them multiple times to the weeklong offseason retreats that serve as refresher courses for the upcoming season. Seeing how umpires train could lend players a perspective that allows them to better appreciate not just the difficulty in calling a game but the rigor of internal umpire evaluations. At very least, a few members of the players’ union showing up for a day or two would extend a much-needed olive branch.
Because right now, players view some umpires with an unhealthy distaste. They wonder why the umpire’s union protects some of the game’s worst. They feel emboldened to test umpires’ clout. The players are the show, after all, and the umpires sometimes the only thing getting in the way of their performance. Tension between the parties serves no real purpose and leads to nothing but bad outcomes.
In late July, after Texas Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre responded to a request to stand in the on-deck circle by moving the circle closer to him, umpire Gerry Davis ejected him. While Beltre does have a reputation of giving umpires grief – in an interview with USA Today, West said Beltre was MLB’s biggest whiner, which eventually led to a three-game suspension for West – the Davis heave-ho was hypersensitive even for umpires.
And maybe that’s the root of this. Stubbornness and insolence exists on both sides, but West catches three games for a light-hearted comments while Kinsler can say Hernandez “needs to re-evaluate his career choice.” That doesn’t seem entirely fair or consistent.
Wearing white wristbands does nothing to address that. Progress is made through actions, not symbols, and protest without substance invalidates the very improvement they seek. Umpires have done nothing to tamp down the behavior of the worst in their ranks, which is a bad look when that’s exactly what they’re calling upon players to do.
“We’ve had several instances where umpires have been called out or challenged,” umpire Bill Miller told a pool reporter in Detroit. “Ejections seem to be up, and we just feel like we need to band together and let people know that we are human beings.”
Noted. Human beings, it also should be noted, get facts wrong. Ejections aren’t up. They’re down one from last year. If it feels like there’s increased pressure on umpires this year, perhaps it’s because umpires are starting to recognize the permanence of their authority’s erosion. Just as it’s not conducive to a mutually beneficial relationship to dress down an umpire the way Kinsler did, umpires harm their cause when they try to reconcile projecting an unassailable façade with needing a magic wristband to stick up for themselves.
Grief is part of the job. Criticism is part of the job. Umpires get paid what they do in large part because of their ability to wear the denigration. So here’s one final salvo, from someone with no stake in the matter. Those attacks they’re talking about? Those aren’t attacks. They’re truths.
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