West’s suspension versus real accountability

Try to imagine what would have happened if Papelbon (right) had grabbed and shoved West . . .

Try to imagine what would have happened if Papelbon (right) had grabbed and shoved West . . .

In June 1983, Joe Torre was the Atlanta Braves’ manager, Joe West was a veteran of six seasons’ umpiring in the National League, and Bob Watson—who has held the baseball government post Torre now holds—was a Brave who’d been fined $100 for arguing over a game-ending third strike when the game was over. And all Torre wanted was to question West as to whether Watson deserved such a hit after a game.

 

Torre probably figured the better part of valour was to talk to West quietly, away from the crowd or the Braves’ clubhouse, so he strode to the walkway that led to the umpires’ dressing room in old Fulton County Stadium. So far as West was concerned, apparently, Torre did nothing but violate West and his fellow umps’ space, actual or presumed. And West gave Torre a shove.

West didn’t deny the shove. Chub Feeney, then the president of the National League, suspended West three days and fined him $500. (Anyone who says now that there’s no precedent for taking umpire discipline public should be proclaimed full of it.) ┬áBut the ump also defended himself by telling reporters he didn’t want Torre inciting the crowd, which would not be an unreasonable concern but for the game being over and the crowd dispersing.

The late Richie Phillips, then the head of the old Major League Umpires Association, defended his man this way: “[I don't] take the position that umpires can’t make mistakes, or that they cannot even make outrageous mistakes. I take the position that umpires are right, right or wrong.” A position which led in due course to the destruction of the MLUA and the creation of today’s World Umpires Association, incidentally.

A little over thirty years later, Torre is a Hall of Famer (as a manager) and—as baseball government’s executive vice president of baseball operations, which includes oversight on discipline and umpiring—Joe West’s boss. And Torre has handed West a single-game suspension for grabbing the jersey of Philadelphia reliever Jonathan Papelbon, and shoving him to one side, after West ejected Papelbon over a lewd gesture following a booing over a bad inning’s work and Papelbon questioned the ejection.

Rest assured there will be those thinking that, compared to Papelbon, West got off lightly, even if the suspension isn’t insignificant as umpire discipline goes. Rest further assured there will be those thinking, shoving a manager gets you three, shoving a player gets you one if that much, and isn’t there something not quite in whack going on?

Ponder the fury, not to mention the flogging, that would emanate if Papelbon—who inadvertently brushed the bill of West’s cap when he stormed out of the Phillies dugout to question the ejection—hadn’t inadvertently brushed the cap but given West a shove or worse at the moment West laid hands on him.

1990: West about to send Cook to the deck . . .

1990: West, about to send Dennis Cook to the deck . . .

During 1990, the Phillies and the Mets brawled at Shea Stadium over a few brushbacks and knockdowns after Dwight Gooden, who’d thrown one or two of them himself, charged the mound after ducking one. West’s umpiring crew was handling the game. And West’s ideas of playing peacemaker included intercepting Phillies pitcher Dennis Cook (an eventual Met, incidentally) and throwing Cook to the ground.

“West walked up behind me, picked me up, then threw me down,” Cook told reporters at the time. “That’s fine and dandy, him throwing me down. But I ought to be able to do the opposite—bust him in the chops. If I do that, I’m out of baseball.”

Think about that. Overall, the umpires are far enough from the confrontation mindsets encouraged if not fostered in the Richie Phillips/MLUA era. A very select few seem to continue thriving on stirring up assorted cauldrons, not to mention players and managers. But West’s single-game icing over Papelbon merely secures further the maxim that an ump can have a free shot at a player and not see even a millilitre worth of what a player might see for taking the same shot.

West may have survived Phillips’s suicidal mass resignation strategy in 1999, launched after, among other things, baseball government demanded explicit umpire accountability and adherence to strike zone and other play call rules. But he acts too often as though he’s still a Phillips client. “I equate umpires with federal judges,” Phillips said during that testy 1999, after the players’ union surveyed players, managers, and coaches on umpire performance. “And I don’t believe they should always be subject to the voter, just like federal judges are not subject to the voter.”

Phillips---The old umpires union chief believed, "Umpires are right---right or wrong," a creed to which West seems wedded till death do they part.

Phillips—The old umpires union chief believed, “Umpires are right—right or wrong,” a creed to which West seems wedded till death do they part.

Phillips—whose ire was amplified further when baseball government asked teams to chart pitches and rate umpires’ strike zones, calling what amounted to an employer demanding employee accountability “Big Brother watching over us”—must have forgotten that federal judges can be impeached. Sandy Alderson, now the Mets’ general manager but then a baseball government official, said as much in response, adding, “I got worried when I found out that players were more concerned with who was umpiring the next day than they were about who was pitching.”

West still behaves only too often as though he’s unimpeachable. God help us he has the presidency of the World Umpires Association to fortify him. Torre’s single-game suspension amounts to nothing more than “if you do that again I’m going to be very, very angry at you!” and no teeth included.

West simply behaved in the manner in which he found and proclaimed Papelbon deficient, anything but a professional. Torre, who should have remembered when he was himself a victim of West’s solipsism, dropped a grand opportunity to remind him and his fellows of that. If the umpires are supposed to be above the field’s passions should they not be held to standards just a little bit higher?

Mike Winters was, seven years ago. During a September 2007 game between San Diego and Colorado, combustible Padres outfielder Milton Bradley, no stranger to arguments with umpires, tossed his bat aside furiously. His next at bat, plate ump Brian Runge asked Bradley if the bat toss was meant for him over the earlier pitch call. Bradley said no. Runge hinted to Bradley that first base ump Winters said otherwise. Bradley singled, took a lead off first, and fumed at Winters, before manager Bud Black came out and bumped Bradley to one side—causing Bradley to fall hard and tear an ACL.

Bradley (15), Winters (left), and Meacham (ahead of Bradley)---baseball government got it right with this ump provocateur.

Bradley (15), Winters (left), and Meacham (ahead of Bradley)—baseball government got it right with this ump provocateur.

Winters was suspended for the rest of the season and the postseason. It turned out that Padres first base coach Bobby Meacham verified that Winters had taunted and name-called Bradley during their argument. Bradley’s loss probably helped the Padres lose that year’s one-game playoff for the National League wild card.

There are umpires who would have handled Papelbon’s ridiculous protest and Bradley’s now-ancient protest, among others, with far more professionalism. The reasons you don’t know their names are because they’re not necessarily looking for the spotlights West is charged so often with craving. And they don’t necessarily think of themselves the way their late longtime union chief once thought of them, fatally.

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