(Update: On Sunday, the World Umpires Association halted their protest after accepting a proposal from commissioner Rob Manfred to meet with the union’s governing board).
On Saturday, Joe West and other umpires took the field with white wristbands. They had not all simultaneously come down with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, but instead wore the accessories as a form of protest. The umpires are making a statement about what is clearly one of the great issues facing American society in this moment: “escalating verbal attacks on MLB umpires.”
Last week, Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler was ejected for arguing balls and strikes, got into a heated argument with umpire Angel Hernandez—who is not popular with a significant chunk of MLB players—and minced no words to reporters later. Kinsler said that Hernandez was “messing” with the games: “He's changing the game. He needs to find another job, he really does. I'm not mad at him. He just needs to go away… when it becomes blatant like this, there is a problem.” Though Kinsler said he expected a suspension for his comments, he only got a fine. In a statement announcing their protest, the World Umpires Association called for the commissioner to take “abusive player behavior” like this more seriously:
MLB umps are wearing white wristbands to protest 'escalating verbal attacks' against them pic.twitter.com/IzZid7iu8m
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) August 19, 2017
Players are almost always suspended for any physical altercation with an ump, even if it’s just incidental or accidental contact while arguing; but for mere verbal condemnation, fines are much more common. It’s also rare for umpires to be suspended—though, notably, West himself was forced to sit out three games a few weeks ago for saying, in an interview with USA Today, that Adrian Beltre was the biggest complainer in baseball. It’s not entirely clear if West was kidding—he very well may have been —but MLB decided it looked bad enough that they needed to send a message.
It may seem unfair that players can be critical, even extremely critical, of umpires, while the men in blue can’t mildly fire back. But, of course, impartiality is a crucial part of an umpire’s job, and not of a player’s. For the purposes of the product on the field, it doesn’t matter whether the public knows that Ian Kinsler hates Angel Hernandez. But if everyone knows that Hernandez dislikes Kinsler, and then a borderline call goes against the second baseman, the game’s integrity (or at least its perceived integrity) is affected.
Michael Rosenberg’s recent profile of Joe West for SI is illuminating on the factors that may have gone into Saturday’s protest. West believes that players used to have more deference toward umpires. He told SI, “I think, as in everything in this country, there’s not the respect for the official that there was when I started. And I think that’s a failure of our system, not so much baseball, but the way of life. People don’t respect authority like they used to.”
Umpiring is hard, underappreciated work, and compared to players, the officials don’t make much money—somewhere between $120,000 and $350,000 depending on seniority (nothing to sneeze at, but the average major leaguer makes over $4 million). Who knows, perhaps this protest can serve as a reminder that, at least until electronic strike zone technology improves, the umps are an integral part of the game. But that seems like a long shot, because hitters, pitchers and managers alike have argued with umpires since the dawn of the sport.
True, today players have better video evidence and data than ever, and can argue accordingly. Yet even with that, umpires don’t seem to be getting significantly more friction than they always have—Kinsler’s outburst was harsh, but hardly unprecedented. Any baseball fan has no shortage of memories of blow-ups with umps, and plenty that were worse than last week’s. Think of Roberto Alomar spitting at John Hirschbeck (the two later became friends), Earl Weaver’s epic (and delightful, if not safe for work) foulmouthed rants, or Brett Lawrie’s spiked helmet hitting umpire Bill Miller. The supposed good ol’ days were no different. Babe Ruth, when he was still a Red Sox pitcher, punched umpire Brick Owens in the head. Giants manager John McGraw punched umpire Bill Byron in the chin after a game. To sum up: Kinsler’s remarks don’t stand a chance of even cracking a top-30 list.
Umpires, even umpires who are too often in the wrong, deserve to be treated with respect, and it’s their union’s job to defend its own. With that said, there’s a bigger reason Saturday’s protest induced more eye-rolling than solidarity. With everything going on in America at the moment, and in a week that featured many enormous protests about far bigger, even existential, issues, the umps’ grievances—essentially, “players are complaining about us too much”— fall flat. Timing is everything; another month, or year, maybe it might have landed with a little more force.
Then again, given most fans’ traditional opinion of umpires, maybe not.
As for the Tigers, whose dispute with Hernandez kicked this off, they likely wouldn’t have been moved regardless of the timing. Manager Brad Ausmus called the display “petty” and objected to the union singling out his player.
And what did Kinsler think? “I hope they wear the white wristbands for the remainder of their careers,” he said. “I don't care."