By David Mullen
During a conversation years ago before a baseball game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, MLB umpire Al Clark told me, “Now remember, there are three teams out there tonight: the home team, the visiting team and the umpiring team.”
“No there aren’t,” I thought. “No one goes to see the umpires.” The fact that we even know some of their names is because of the injustices that they have made on the field. Such are the unmitigated egos that permeate MLB umpires, protected by a strong union and by MLB brass that makes them almost always exonerated no matter how bad they are on or off of the field.
At another game while sitting behind the plate, Clark was calling balls and strikes. He seemed to be favoring the home team and I was there to root on my visiting hometown team. I waved a $20 bill through the screen and said “Al, how about a little help out there?” He turned around and said, “It is going to take a lot more than that.” Funny line, but it turns out he wasn’t kidding.
In 2001, Clark, now 71 and living in Trenton, N.J., was fired by MLB for exchanging first class airline tickets to economy, redeeming the difference for personal flights or just pocketing the extra funds. In 2004, he was sentenced to four months in jail as a result of a memorabilia scheme leading to a federal mail fraud conviction.
Umpire Jim Joyce, known for his horrible safe call at first base on what would have been the 27th consecutive out, cost Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga a rare perfect game. He was promoted to crew chief three years later. Joe West, MLB’s senior umpire in tenure, is suing former All-Star catcher Paul Lo Duca for allegations that West played favorites.
Lo Duca claims that former MLB reliever Billy Wagner would tell him to set up more inside or outside when he was pitching. “Joe loves me,” Wagner allegedly told Lo Duca. “Joe loves antique cars, so every time he comes into town I lend him my ‘57 Chevy so he can drive it around. He opens up the strike zone for me.”
West once called a series between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees “pathetic and embarrassing.” West was not fined by MLB, but was “admonished firmly” for his opinion.
ESPN reported that 50-year-old veteran umpire Rob Drake is currently under investigation by MLB for tweeting on Oct. 22 that “he would purchase an AK-47 assault rifle, because if you impeach MY PRESIDENT this way, YOU WILL HAVE ANOTHER CIVAL (sic) WAR!!!” Another tweet read, “You can’t do an impeachment inquiry from the basement of Capitol Hill without even a vote! What is going on in this country?”
The point is not that all umpires are bad apples. It is that something must be done to take their opinions and favoritism out of the game. They will make mistakes, but they must remain fair and grounded under all circumstances, right or wrong.
Instant replay is not enough. The notoriously bad umpire Angel Hernandez once called a home run a double despite indisputable video evidence that the ball had hit a metal handrail more than 10 feet over the fence before caroming back onto the field. He refused to overturn his call and it changed the outcome of the game. His sentence? He got to umpire in the World Series thanks to his powerful union.
Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred wants to speed up the game. Instant replays slow down the game; umpires review them and still don’t get the calls right. But there is a test going on that not only will speed up the game, it will revolutionize it.
Introducing … the robo ump. This summer, the independent Atlantic League used an electronic strike zone called “trackMan.” Basically, radar tracks each pitch. No long arguments, no playing favoritism and no, “He has a low strike zone” or “He has a high strike zone.” There is only one strike zone. And MLB is watching.
It is especially important on first pitch strikes. Data shows that if an obvious first pitch strike is called a ball, it significantly changes the at bat, the amount of pitches and foul balls and leads to a longer game. Baseball purists like me should be dumbfounded. I am not. I am dumbfounded by the amount of dumb calls professional umpires continue to make for whatever reason.
Atlantic League commissioner Rick White said that “the interest in this [trackMan] by people surrounding the game and on the field is so strong that inevitably it’s going to find its way to Major League Baseball.” If it can get past the union, I hope White is right. That way fans can focus on the two teams on the field.