It's time for players and umpires to have a talk
Left unsaid amid Brett Lawrie's idiocy and Bill Miller's incompetence was the thing so fundamental to the blowup that saw Lawrie go all Rob Gronkowski on his helmet and earn every bit of a four-game suspension: Ballplayers think umpires are jokes, umpires think ballplayers are prima donnas and Major League Baseball expects the two to coexist.
Player-umpire relations have turned increasingly ugly, and if Yadier Molina's did-he-or-didn't-he-spit incident last season couldn't inspire the sides to hold their way-overdue come-to-Jesus sitdown sessions, Lawrie's must. The umpires were left dumbfounded Wednesday by how Lawrie could play caveman and draw only four games – and four games that, thanks to his appeal, he may not serve for a while. The players snickered at Miller's strike zone that extended practically to the opposite batter's box and won't draw him so much as a censure from the league.
And on beats the mistrust.
Both sides have their points. Players are too short with umpires. Baseball is not just the only sport that allows players to talk back to its impartial arbiters without recourse; its history practically encourages them to embrace belligerence. It is well within a player's right to inch himself up to within a whisker of an umpire so long as they don't bump. That millimeter is the difference between a suspendable offense and just another argument, and it invites a culture in which the millionaires can belittle the plebeians.
Plenty of umpires, on the other hand, are arrogant, beyond reproach or just downright not good. Miller was the latter Tuesday night. A 3-1 pitch from Fernando Rodney was a good half-foot off the outside corner. It was bad enough that Lawrie went full diva: dramatic stop on his way to first, pirouette back toward the plate, peacock into the batter's box. The next pitch looked borderline, probably a bit high, and Miller's strike-three call sent Lawrie into a conniption that made his tattoos look 3D from the preponderance of veins that bulged.
Little did Lawrie know he'd been Molina'd – just the latest victim of Jose Molina, the Catching Copperfield, who makes balls disappear into the strike zone. Miller was far from the first victim; he will not be the last, either.
Because umpiring a baseball game, from Little League to the major leagues, is an eminently difficult endeavor. A man must stand at an angle toward home plate – look at the umps; none stands directly over the catcher – and judge whether a projectile hurled upward of 100 mph crossed at any point horizontally over a 17-inch-wide plate and vertically in between the knees and letters. Or whatever he wants his strike zone to be so long as it's consistent. Players want competence, sure. In lieu of that, they accept consistency.
[Big League Stew: Lawrie suspended, fined for 'aggressive actions' toward umpire]
And while Miller's strike zone was mildly consistent – he had called pitches outside to right-handers strikes and balls – it was nevertheless wrong, and Lawrie had every reason to be mad. Not Bamm-Bamm Rubble mad. Go-back-to-the-bench-meathead mad.
Instead, Lawrie exorcised his peers' frustration with some Godzilla stomps and a one-handed wing of his helmet, which catapulted off the ground, glanced off Miller's hip and prompted him to yelp what an amateur lip-reading interpreted as: "What'd he [expletive]ing do that for?" And, yeah, pretty much every rational person thought: What did he [expletive]ing do that for?
He did it because he's an immature hothead, sure, but it's not just that. Every clubhouse teems with beefs over umpiring. Every player has his story of an ump who's out to get him or who has screwed him with bad calls. Everywhere in a sport that involves its officials more than any – every pitch, every play at a base, every ball caught, every time someone runs, every foul ball … really, everything – there are serious questions about the officiating, some of which are petty, some of which are understandable.
Like, why aren't umpires held to a similar public standard as players, whose performance is an open book? It's a fair question. Accountability remains the sine qua non for umpires, something to which they refuse to agree because it would open them up for even more criticism. It's bad enough to take it from those at MLB; umpiring reports given out to the public would be like catnip for heckling fans.
The argument is backed, of course, by the World Umpires Association, the union that continues to protect bad umps. MLB does what it can to keep the worst out of the playoff rotation, but continued substandard umpiring, even if it comes in fits and starts and represents less than 1 percent of calls, lends credence to those who argue in favor of a robot or the PITCHf/x system calling balls and strikes.
While the umpires have painted themselves as not being against instant replay, the greatest brushback does come from them in conversations with MLB officials. The hubris behind this is staggering, as if the sanctity of the umpires' reputations should come ahead of the game's integrity.
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It fuels the players' treatment of umpires, which often depends on the player. Those who usually lose it are reactionary sorts to begin with, and a bad call inspires in them a sort of rage unhealthy in anyone. Still, even the most gentlemanly player isn't above wondering whether an umpire is trying to make a name for himself. Most aren't. Most umpires, in fact, are hard-working men who ache when they blow calls, who constantly try to improve so they can get 100 percent of their calls right, even if that's an impossible standard.
And others are dreadful country music-singing wannabes.
While there is not a simple solution to fix what more than a century of baseball has fostered, there are actions that will improve relations in the short and long term. Their objective is simple: humanize both sides.
Hold a few big meetings every year – say, at the winter meetings, during spring training and during the playoffs – in which each team's union representatives, plus perhaps two veterans and two rookies, get together with a group of umpires, shake hands, commiserate about the game and talk thoroughly, honestly and practically about their problems with one another. The players, many of whom are against replay because they hold so dearly the idea of the human element, must understand part of that element is blown calls. And the umpires can encourage the players to return to their teams with hopes that respect for men in blue becomes a greater priority.
Continue this throughout the season. Before every series, two or three players from each team, plus the manager, should stop by the umpires' locker room and either introduce themselves or renew their acquaintance. Ask about their seasons, their families, their issues. The substance of the conversation doesn't matter as much as the gesture. The umpires are owed to feel like contemporaries rather than subservients or enemies.
With Joe Torre brokering these meetings, progress will be made. And then it's up to MLB to stand up to the umpires' union even stronger, ensuring only the best officiate their game. No letting the union protect bad umpires. No allowing games to turn on the actions of those who aren't playing. The WUA must recognize this, too, lest MLB break it like it did the last umpires' union.
[Big League Stew: Watch Little League umpire's hilarious over-the-top strike call]
These are easy, practical solutions to a problem that festers and will not abate without intervention. Brett Lawrie is a brilliant ballplayer, one of the game's best young talents, and now he is widely regarded as a jerk because of an incendiary concoction of his own anger and a widespread disrespect for umpires. And those same umpires do their job on the offensive, lest they be the umpteenth one of their kind who gets dressed down by a player and has nothing but a thumb to fight back.
This can go away. This can get better. MLB saw ugly Tuesday night. And if it doesn't do anything, it's bound to see even uglier.
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