Russell Martin cinched the funniest line of the 2012 Major League Baseball season Wednesday night when he strutted around the New York Yankees clubhouse and yelled the inimitable phrase: "Laz Diaz is a [expletive]. Write it hard." Diaz is the umpire who Martin felt wronged him, [expletive] is a male body part of the nether regions and the marriage of the two was the latest in the ongoing war between those in uniform and the men in blue.
This is prime time for player-umpire conflagration. Seriously. In its attempts to figure out how and why players and umpires dislike one another, beyond the typical ego-butting and social-stratification issues, Major League Baseball has studied annual ejection patterns and found a pair of witching hours: late May and late August. Confrontations rise, attitudes boil over and two groups of alpha males engage in the particularly alpha ritual of getting in another man's face and yelling. And they think football's the Neanderthal sport.
What particularly aggrieved Martin, the Yankees' catcher, was Diaz supposedly refusing to let him throw new balls back to the pitcher. Martin said he argued balls and strikes early in the game, and Diaz punished him accordingly. Martin retorted by calling him a [expletive], then threatened to push Diaz off the monkey bars and steal his lunch money.
In a vacuum, this is falling-down-hilarious stuff. Taken alongside the seemingly endless array of arguments, whining and bitching about umpiring, it's instead indicative of a destructive pattern that does nobody any good: not the umpires seen as incompetent, not the players too egomaniacal to swallow their concerns and not the game that must contend with questions about its officiating like it's the NBA.
[Big League Stew: Martin says ump told him to 'earn' right to throw baseballs]
This is not the first incident with Laz Diaz, either. Two weeks ago, during a game between Oakland and Texas, Elvis Andrus tried to lay down a suicide squeeze bunt in the sixth inning of a tie game. Pitcher Brandon McCarthy sprung off the mound to make a diving catch and throw to third base for the double play. Which would've been brilliant had Diaz not ruled the ball touched the ground.
It hadn't. Replay showed as much. He wasn't relenting.
"It bounced," Diaz told Oakland manager Bob Melvin.
Melvin got in his face. They argued for a couple minutes. At one point, cameras caught Diaz repeating the same phrase.
"It's my call," Diaz said.
"It's my call," he said.
"It's my call."
It was the wrong call. A brutal call. Even if Diaz recognized that on the field, he couldn't acknowledge it there, lest he lose even more control of the game. Such is the umpiring conundrum: fallibility, if it exists, must wait.
And until it arrives, everybody thinks the guys like Laz Diaz are indeed nothing but no-good [expletive].
Every day, it seems, a new umpiring controversy erupts. First came Brett Lawrie slamming his helmet like a petulant child in front of Bill Miller. Two days ago, Jim Leyland took on Bill Welke and Jeff Nelson for blowing a call that could've been easily overturned and urged the media to do the same … all while happily avoiding the fact that he actually prefers no replay. Martin crushed Diaz.
Nobody caterwauled with quite the righteous indignation, however, of Chicago White Sox announcer Hawk Harrelson. Hawk's devolution from charming homer to bombastic caricature to imbalanced wingnut reached its nadir Wednesday afternoon, when umpire Mark Wegner ejected rookie pitcher Jose Quintana for throwing a ball behind Ben Zobrist.
Umpiricide is a favorite pastime of Hawk's, and he emptied his artillery from the press box.
"Here's an umpire in the American League," he said in the middle of a lengthy tirade, "knows nothing about the game of baseball."
Earlier in the game, White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski had been hit by a pitch. Quintana was exacting revenge. Because Wegner hadn't given out a warning, Harrelson was truly offended that he would dare eject a pitcher who had thrown a baseball behind another person.
Just to make sure this wasn't crazy rationale, I asked six executives whether Wegner made the right call in running Quintana. Each agreed: Of course he did. Quintana threw behind the guy. Hit him on the leg, the hip – hell, even the back. At least there would be some deniability. But when a pitcher throws behind a hitter, either he's named Ricky Vaughn or his motivations are coming from a bad place.
Anyway, Wegner hadn't given out a warning for both teams because it was the third inning, and umpires loathe giving out warnings in the third inning. Warnings change the dynamic and tenor of every game. Pitchers are afraid to throw inside because even an accidental hit-by-pitch could cause an ejection. Warnings, on the other hand, are vital to limiting violence. The number of brawls since their implementation has cratered. Unless an umpire senses impending doom – and hitting Pierzynski didn't exactly portend that – there's no sense in issuing a warning.
[Big League Stew: Watch video of Hawk Harrelson's epic rant after ejection]
Now, if Hawk Harrelson knew any of this – if this announcer in the American League knew anything about the game of baseball – he would understand that in fact Mark Wegner had done the right thing. A gigantic portion of his job entails keeping the peace.
It's just easy to pick on umpires because their screw-ups are so visible. Leyland was right. An umpiring error led to a three-run inning. They've blown dozens of other calls this year, too, the ugliest of which was Tim Welke calling out Jerry Hairston on a play at first in which Todd Helton caught the ball three feet off the bag.
In so many of the cases, the solution is replay, which commissioner Bud Selig a week ago spat on expanding. Again. Selig's obstructionism – and the tenor of those like Leyland, for whom replay is either a populist ranting tool or a matter of personal convenience – is what keeps baseball from having a rational replay policy and those urging on the era of robotic umpires to sound rational when compared to the current operating procedure.
Much of Selig's reticence has to do with his romantic attachment to old-time baseball – which, you know, didn't have one wild card (or two), an All-Star game that "counted" and interleague play. There's the financial factor, too. A football source said the NFL spends about $4 million a year on instant replay. With almost 10 times as many games, new equipment and a fifth umpire with each crew to monitor the replay booth, MLB's annual costs could go well into eight figures.
It's not cheap to get things right.
Good things never are.
Laz Diaz may act like a [expletive] at times, but you know what? So does Russell Martin. And so do Martin's teammates. And so do Diaz's fellow umpires. Everyone can be a [expletive], depending on the perspective, and those who see Diaz for what he is better understand why he is.
"Laz is a Marine," says someone who knows him well, and this is not to excuse Diaz's behavior so much as explain it. Diaz abides by two things: rules and respect. Breach either and he tends not to handle it well.
And that, of course, is at the crux of this issue on both sides: grown men, in the absence of replay, must temper themselves in the heat of competition. Laz Diaz isn't wrong, you know. This is about rules, and this is about respect. Players don't respect the umpires, and umpires sometimes botch the enforcement of the rules, and the shared disavowal for the ongoing brouhaha only heightens the mistrust.
Diaz does need to handle situations better. Same goes for a lot of umpires, like Joe West, who is respected, even revered, among fellow umpires for his technical proficiency: his positioning, his zone, his breadth of knowledge. West is an umpiring savant. He's also an idiot. He loses control of games, then allows personal misgivings to guide decisions. Bob Davidson, one of the worst offenders, got suspended one game for poor "situation handling."
[Power Rankings: Rangers take their lumps but retain No. 1 ranking]
How Diaz will handle the Martin situation is unclear. But after the Texas-Oakland game, he looked back at the video, saw his mistake and the next day did the damndest thing.
He called Bob Melvin to apologize.
So, no, Laz Diaz is not a [expletive]. He understands his role in this racket. And with that phone call, he proved: He is not above this game. Umpires struggle daily with how to maintain respect, authority and fairness simultaneously. They're like parents, and parents for a bunch of millionaires who can call them [expletives] with no recourse.
This is not going to get better until both sides try – until Martin, and players like him, understand calling an umpire anything is counterproductive, even if they believe it's true. This can be fixed. It's going to take replay and understanding and work.
And getting through this witching hour where every night the baseball moves to the second stage for the main act, someone vs. umpire, which grows evermore tiresome by the incident.
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