Over the tumult of a busy restaurant Thursday night, the television a good 30 feet away, the Los Angeles Angels and Houston Astros barely discernible from our booth, my 17-year-old son pointed and said, "Wait, doesn't he have to pitch to a batter?"
I assured him we must have missed something. An injury. An illness. Some sort of predator had burst from a photo well and slaughtered Bo Porter's setup man.
On Friday afternoon, Major League Baseball announced it had suspended crew chief Fieldin Culbreth for two games and fined umpires Adrian Johnson, Brian O'Nora and Bill Welke for missing a rule so basic and ingrained in the game that kids in Mexican restaurants in Sherman Oaks, Calif. were lodging protests.
So ended a brutal two days for baseball, for its umpires, and for those of us who believe umpires do a difficult job well and, as important, want to do it well.
First the home run ball in Cleveland that tied a game and that, somehow, was neither a home run ball nor tied a game, in spite of video evidence otherwise. Then a misapplication of, of all things, baseball's rulebook, specifically section 3.05(b), which basically states that when pitchers come into games they have to pitch to a batter.
Perhaps swayed by an apparently very convincing argument by Porter, Culbreth and his crew allowed left-hander Wesley Wright to come and go without facing a hitter. Angels manager Mike Scioscia reacted as you'd expect, as though Culbreth had told him that in the road half of the eighth inning the Astros would only be required to record two outs.
Amazingly, of the six people on the field paid to know the rulebook, only one of them – Scioscia – knew this particular rule. And if you were Scioscia, presumably you'd wonder what warped parallel universe you'd wandered into: His team was 11-22 and in peril of being swept by the Astros, fans were calling for his head, and now umpires were making up rules as they went.
The last of the game was played under protest. The Angels won in spite of the umpires' best efforts, so the protest was dropped. And for that, at least, the commissioner's office escaped the complication of one day replaying the game from the point the umpires went catatonic.
On Friday, Porter acknowledged his part in the mess, that his interpretation of the rule had been incorrect and that it subsequently influenced the umpires' interpretation.
"After the game," he told reporters in Houston, "I found out that … there are some repercussions. As I sit here today, it's more that I feel sorry for the crew chief and crew for having to wear what it is that happened last night."
It was hardly Bo Porter's fault. And yet it is unfathomable that, when reminded of the rule by Scioscia, Culbreth and his crew continued in defiance of the rulebook.
MLB, then, has taken the proper course. In a game that demands accountability and transparency from its organizations and their players, that often insists on the same from the commissioner's office and the players' union, the umpires are to be held to the same standard. There should be suspensions and fines, and discipline should be publicized. Jobs should be at stake. After all, everybody else's is.
The job is difficult. The demands are excessive. The game is fast. The calls are close and the reaction to them loud and, often, unjust.
But, rules are rules. And that's why they print them up and put them in a book.
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