Joe West has game—unfortunately

Torii Hunter and Joe West, who aren't likely to be sitting down to dinner together any time soon . . .

Torii Hunter and Joe West, who aren’t likely to be sitting down to dinner together any time soon . . .

God knows (as does His servant Casey Stengel) that I had better things to write about on the day after Opening Days. Things like Nationals’ shortstop Ian Desmond calling second baseman Dan Uggla (yes, Virginia, that Dan Uggla) off a by-the-book popup, dropping the ball, allowing the Mets first and second, leading to Lucas Duda busting up Max Scherzer’s no-hit bid with the two run single that made the difference in the Mets’ win.

Things like Jon Lester, the Cubs’ nine-figure new ace, continuing his own Opening Day tradition—with a loss. (He didn’t get out of the fifth and hung the loss squarely on himself.) Things like Sonny Gray, the Athletics’ boy wonder, taking an Opening Day no-hitter into the eighth inning. Things like Jimmy Rollins, erstwhile Phillies shortstop/pest, introducing himself to his new fans in Los Angeles with a three-run homer to help Clayton Kershaw and company beat the Padres.

Things like Felix Hernandez beating the Angels with his third Opening Day of at least ten strikeouts lifetime, moving him into the company of Bob Gibson, Randy Johnson, and Pedro Martinez—despite surrendering a first-inning bomb to a nobody named Mike Trout. Things like everyone on earth laughing over Kyle Kendrick being the Rockies’ Opening Day starter—and Kendrick pitching seven shutout innings en route the Rockies’ 10-0 win over the Brewers.

Things like a record 115 players beginning a new season on the disabled list, and with Matt Cain—the Giants’ erstwhile ace, who became erstwhile in the first place because of injuries—likely to be one of them, thanks to a tendon strain. Things like the Angels and baseball government alike fuming over Josh Hamilton’s non-suspension for confessing over the winter to a relapse in his ongoing battle against substance addiction, and whether Angels president Josh Carpino ought to be investigated for leaking the original relapse news in the first place.

And, things like the Padres hogging the headlines on Opening Day I by bagging Craig Kimbrel, arguably baseball’s best closer since The Mariano’s retirement, in a deal in which they were only too willing to take on the contract of the artist formerly known as B.J. Upton (he now goes by Melvin Upton, Jr.) to get Kimbrel in a deal that may actually prove to be better for the Braves, who are rebuilding otherwise.

But no. Torii Hunter, the prodigal Twin, hitting with two on and two out and down 4-0 against the Tigers, has to object to a game-ending called strike on a checked swing no few replays show to have been a checked swing on a pitch that was about as close to being a strike otherwise as Islamic State is to becoming a model of tolerance.

It’s not that there’s anything terrible about objecting to such a call. It’s that the call came from Joe West, umpiring behind the plate, which some think is rather like having Clyde Barrow as police commissioner. It ended an at-bat in which Hunter might, conceivably, have kept a rally going against Joe Nathan, the Tigers’ (and, once upon a time, the Twins’) closer, about whom it is safe to say that he’s made a career out of closing games the hard way. We have another 161 games to go in a pleasurably long baseball season, and the last thing we needed was West becoming the focus on Opening Day II.

West is not and has never been an umpire for whom modesty is a virtue. Apparently, consultation with his crew on borderline calls, which is the usual practise on such borderline pitches, in such situations especially, is also a vice. Considering West’s track record, there’s an argument to make that Hunter should consider himself lucky West merely turned and walked off the field after ringing up the strikeout.

Hunter barked a little bit at West as the umpire strolled off the field but nothing serious, apparently, because Hunter might have been saving his choicest critique for the postgame interviews during which the veteran outfielder unhorsed a couple of beauties:

[H]e gave me no explanation. I think he had a dinner reservation or a concert to play in. But that was terrible. All I ask, all everybody asks, [is]to do your job as well. And Joe West needs to do his job. And he didn’t do it well.

All you have to do is check. I’m battling my butt off against the best closer of our time. Just trying to get something going and he just took the bat right out of our hands. In that situation, I don’t know why he did it. I hate that he did it. I don’t know why he didn’t check. He just walked off, so obviously he knew he was wrong.

Torii Hunter, Joe West I leave it to you, kind reader, to decide which was Hunter’s better blast, speculating on West’s postgame dinner plans or alluding to West’s well known if musically dubious sideline as a country music singer.

But I also note that, unless baseball government is feeling very charitable because there are 161 games to go in a pleasantly long baseball season, Hunter is likely to face a little lightening in his bank account for his schpritz. It’s still against baseball’s rules for mere players, coaches, or managers, and possibly owners, even, to criticise umpires. Even when the umpire in question is dead wrong.

It still stinks. Not just because Hunter didn’t go anywhere near so far as went Cliff Mapes (reserve Yankee outfielder) in 1949. (After an extremely close play at the plate—Red Sox shortstop Johnny Pesky beat a tag to score; Yankee catcher Ralph Houk went nuclear—Mapes hollered at ump Bill Grieve, who was actually doing his best not to throw players out of that crucial a game, “How much did you bet on the game, you son of a bitch?”) Not just because we always know when and how heavily a player is disciplined for criticising an umpire but rarely know when and how heavily an umpire might be for his behaviour during a field confrontation.

A common citizen—student, labourer, middle manager, upper manager, or chief executive officer alike—can’t be disciplined officially for criticising the possible strategic mischief in even the least dictum within a Supreme Court opinion. He or she can’t face official or legal discipline for declaring a sitting President to be something less than all wise, all knowing, or all natural, wish (and try) though several Presidents (and no few lower-level government heads) regardless of party affiliation have in the past and present.

Come to think of it, as often as not you’re even allowed to tell your own boss, if the occasion arises and you really think you’re right and he or she is wrong, that he or she is wrong, and why you think so. You can do so even in terms as suggestive as Torii Hunter’s vis Joe West. So long as you don’t punch up your rhetoric with any, most, or all of the seven words you used to be unable to say on television, you’re safe. (Unless, of course, you become a habitual critic. Even the most tolerant boss won’t tolerate that habit.)

If you can tell a Supreme Court justice, a president, a Congressman, a senator, a governor, a county executive, a mayor, a chief of police, or even your own boss how far up their rear ends their heads might be found (I speak figuratively there, though with many it’s far enough that they could give you the play by play of their own in-progress root canal work), why on earth can’t a baseball player, coach, manager, or even owner say aloud, without fear of formal punishment, that a particular umpire blew it, whether merely saying “He blew it” or adopting Hunter’s descriptive deftness?

One criticism leveled often enough at the Supreme Court, a sitting President, assorted lower government leaders, and major league baseball umpires, is that they think they’re laws unto themselves, and behave accordingly. Some of those who think umpires are laws unto themselves are thought to be umpires.

West is thought often enough to be one of those. Customarily, he’s seen that way, seemingly, by people who enunciate such thoughts when not enunciating the thought that he behaves in such ways as to suggest he doesn’t reject the idea that fans pay their hard earned money to go to the ballpark to see him at work.

5 thoughts on “Joe West has game—unfortunately

  1. I am not sure a home plate umpire should ever make the call on a checked swing, since their first obligation is to follow the pitch over the plate. West erred by not checking with first base umpire.

    • Once when asked about enforcing the law in Louisiana, Huey Long replied, “I’m the law around here.” There’s a case to be made that Joe West should be known as the Huey Long of umpires.

        • He has company in that regard, if you consider those on Facebook who commented on this piece and mentioned names like Angel Hernandez and C.B. Bucknor.

          • I hope the new commissioner has whoever is in charge of umpires investigating umpires like West, Hernandez and Bucknor. Umpires should blend into the background and just do their job, instead of making themselves the story.

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