LOS ANGELES – The umpire’s first job is to know his place.
He is to be seen rarely, heard less. He is to bear the game’s indignities. He is to get it right. Every time.
But, mostly, he is to know his place.
When Joe West, in his fourth decade as a major league umpire, steps from behind the mask, from behind the protocol – as he did to scold baseball's signature franchises for their preening self-importance – the inclination is to kill the ump and the messenger.
We'd figure out if he got the call right later.
As it was, West and his crew had just slogged through another interminable series at Fenway Park. The Yankees and Red Sox played three games that averaged 3 hours, 40 minutes. One game went 10 innings. The others, gloriously tactical and earnest as they might have been, merely felt like it.
The Bergen (N.J.) Record asked West, the crew chief, about it.
The background: MLB has attempted to quicken the pace of its games since early last decade, requesting that its players and field personnel play along, directing its umpires to enforce its new policies. From 2003 to 2006, game times fell from two hours, 56 minutes to two hours, 45 minutes. They’ve risen steadily since. The goal is to play a nine-inning, non-nationally televised, routine baseball game in about two hours, 30 minutes. (The typical allotment between innings is two minutes, five seconds. The commissioner's office allows the networks – ESPN, TBS, Fox – an additional 30 seconds for commercials.)
Further background: The Yankees and Red Sox can’t seem to exchange lineup cards and review the ground rules in 2½ hours.
Those found in violation of the pace directives – being ready to hit, pitch, etc. – are warned by letter first, warned by a sterner letter second, and fined $1,000 in the third letter. The system wasn't working, not in Boston, not in New York and not in Los Angeles (the Dodgers played the third-longest games in 2009). But especially not in Boston and New York.
“It's pathetic and embarrassing,” West told The Record. “They take too long to play.”
Further, he said, “They’re the two clubs that don’t try to pick up the pace.”
Umpires don't call out teams; they file reports. Umpires don't personalize events; they follow orders.
This one broke rank. West, who happens to be president of the umpires' union, called 'em as he saw 'em. Good for him. Good for baseball. Good for the rest of the umpires, who no doubt view West's remarks as heroic.
Even the commissioner's office, while dismayed West went public with his frustration, privately admitted it hated the volume, but could not argue the point. To that end, West was admonished for his methods, but not punished. He will not be kept from future Yankees, Red Sox or Yankees-Red Sox games. His schedule – Thursday found him behind the plate in Philadelphia – is unchanged.
Umpires, weary of writing and submitting reports they feel are largely ignored, believe West's words could help win back the minutes they'd lost over the past three seasons.
On the field, meantime, West would be viewed differently. There, the game – not the players, or the managers, or the umpires – dictates pace.
“Yankees-Red Sox is unlike any other thing I've ever been a part of,” said Joe Torre, who put in a dozen years of it.
The time wasted, he said, isn't wasted.
“You don't do it to kill time,” he said. “You do it to get somebody out. Another thing, those people sitting in the stands aren't thinking, ‘I wish they’d get this over.’ I don’t buy that.”
Yes, Torre admitted, he'd once been fined for contributing to slow play. “Every single at-bat seems to take on something extra,” he said. “Don’t ask me why. Everything is at that fever pitch. And umpires are, as far as I’m concerned, caught up in the emotion.”
As for West's right to voice his side of it, Torre laughed.
“Can I just give you one thing I can say about that?” he said. “No comment. There's no road ahead. There's a dirt road there, pal.”
So, we'll wait while David Ortiz(notes) steps out to spit, spit and smack-smack his hands together. We’ll wait while Mariano Rivera(notes) takes two more warm-up pitches in the bullpen. We’ll wait while hitters wander off, and pitchers stare into space, and catchers do laps to the mound and back.
Then we’ll wait while Neil Diamond sings “Sweet Caroline” and Steven Tyler crackles “God Bless America” and ESPN squeezes in a Viagra commercial and, geez, any chance we can get the game in here?
Larry Bowa, now the Dodgers third-base coach, is a veteran of the Yankees-Red Sox wars. He likes Joe West. He probably feels the games drag, and not just those in New York and Boston. Still, West surprised him.
“If Joe believes that, that's fine,” Bowa said. “You gotta keep it to yourself.”
That, however, is how we got here. And why it took three hours, 40 minutes to get here. Someone had to say so. And, this time, it was Joe West's place to say it.