Bucknor’s strike four; or, immune umps versus vulnerable players, continued

C.B. Bucknor, Jayson Werth

C.B. Bucknor (far left, next to Nationals manager Dusty Baker) can’t be held accountable for his malfeasance, but Jayson Werth (far right) could have faced a fine or suspension if he’d criticised Bucknor by name after strike four Tuesday night.

Try for a moment to imagine you could be reprimanded or prosecuted for criticising a Supreme Court justice, for whatever reason you saw fit. Of course that’s absurd, because you can’t be reprimanded or prosecuted for criticising a justice. Or a judge, so long as you don’t do it in open court.

But if you’re a baseball player you can be reprimanded and even fined or suspended for criticising an umpire publicly, by name, even if you say it to the press after the game is over. Ask Jayson Werth. The Nationals outfielder had to walk a very fine line when talking about the absurd finish of the Nats’ 3-1 win over the Braves in SunTrust Park Tuesday.

When home plate umpire C.B. Bucknor ruled foul tip on strike three—with the bases loaded and the potential tying run on second. Even though everyone on the field, in the park, and in the broadcast booths could see plain as day that the ball missed Braves shortstop Chase d’Arnaud’s bat by six inches minimum. There shouldn’t have even been the need for an umpire conference on it, but that’s what happened. (Note: Strike calls aren’t subject to replay review.)

Even d’Arnaud didn’t dispute the original call, just turning for his own clubhouse with the game presumably over. “I guess I tipped it. I didn’t feel it,” he said revealingly. “I thought the game was over. The next thing I know, I’m back up there.” Forcing Nats reliever Shawn Kelley—brought in after closer Blake Treinen walked home what proved the only Braves run—to throw strike four. Swinging.

It took the pleasure out of the Nats handing the Braves their first loss in their dubious new playpen. Not to mention taking the pleasure out of Max Scherzer’s seven scoreless pitched and setting up the second Nats run with a flawless sacrifice bunt. Werth fumed at Bucknor directly as the players left the field for the clubhouse but chose his words with a little too much care when talking to reporters at his locker.

“This is my like my fourteenth year in the big leagues,” he said. “You see a lot of things, but when it’s consistently not with the standards of the league, I think something needs to be done. I just can’t believe that every time it’s bottom of the barrel. Every time.

“I know I’m handcuffed here. I can’t say a whole lot. I don’t want to get suspended,” Werth continued tellingly. “But these games are serious. That’s the thing. These games mean a lot. The game is over there, and all of a sudden it’s not over. I’m not even talking about balls and strikes or anything else. It just blows my mind that in a big league baseball game that can actually happen.”

He wasn’t the only one fuming, but he was one who could have faced heavy discipline if he’d criticised Bucknor by name in his postgame comments. And we’d know almost at once what sort of discipline might be imposed upon him. A player, coach, or manager has less freedom in discussing an umpire’s malfeasance than even a broadcaster.

Get into an umpire’s grille during the game in the heat of the moment and you risk expulsion and possible suspension, depending on what you said and how you say it. But that’s a lot more reasonable than facing fine and/or suspension for criticising an ump in the press after the game. If a litigant in court faces a contempt charge for criticising a judge to his or her face, that’s one thing. Facing prosecution for criticising a judge outside court, in the press, is a First Amendment violation.

Werth faced more severe possible consequences if he’d criticised Bucknor by name in the press after the game than the broadcasters did during it. “Oh, my goodness!” said Nats radio broadcaster Charlie Slowes on the first d’Arnaud strikeout. “He missed that by a foot and a half!” said his partner, Dave Jaegler. “I mean, I just saw a replay. He missed it by a foot and a half, it was not even close! Was not even close!”

Same story on television. “That’s not even close to a foul ball,” said MASN Nats broadcaster F.P. Santangelo. “I just don’t know how this happens. … I don’t even think [Bucknor] knows what town he’s in right now.”

It didn’t stop after the game broadcast switched to the MASN studio for the postgame show, where Ray Knight—once upon a time a World Series MVP (for the 1986 Mets) and a manager (for the Reds, for a brief spell)—minced not even a syllable.

“That’s ridiculous,” Knight said. “That’s ridiculous. I mean, you’re supposed to be a major league umpire, which means you’re the best of the best. This guy’s struggled forever. I’m just gonna be candid with you, he has never been a good umpire. And I hate to cut people down, but gosh darn, how long are they going to go with this guy?  Honestly, Johnny, that was the worst game I’ve seen called, except the last game I saw him call behind the plate. He is brutal back there.”

The game was barely underway and the Braves’ broadcast team was on red alert over Bucknor’s mischief potential. “You’ve gotta just bear with what’s gonna happen tonight behind the plate,” said Joe Simpson—four pitches into the game, after Bucknor missed a strike right down the pipe, thrown by Braves starter Mark Foltynewicz.

The Sporting News’s Jason Foster thinks that while Bucknor isn’t even close to being the only Show umpire whose job competence is questionable at most, his continuing employment suggests baseball government doesn’t exactly have umpire accountability high on its priority list.

That would be a far cry from 1999, when baseball government then called for stronger umpire accountability, which provoked the old Major League Umpires Association and its executive director Richie Phillips—who crowed that baseball government’s call for teams to chart pitches and file reports on individual umpires’ strike zones “Big Brother watching over us—to the infamous mass resignation that blew up in the umps’ faces and destroyed the old union.

“[T]he derision and disbelief over Bucknor’s performance was universal,” Foster writes.

 And yet, it was nothing new — because, again, everyone knows CB Bucknor is bad at his job. He’s not the only umpire who’s bad at his job, but his continued employment is perhaps the most glaring example that fuels the perception that MLB cares little about umpire accountability.

Umpires get a lot of leeway on judgment calls, and all of Bucknor’s screwups Tuesday night fall into that category. So it’s doubtful he’ll face any fine or suspension, and almost certainly not the loss of his job. Even so, umpire discipline is rarely made public. But an extreme showing of incompetence like what Bucknor displayed Tuesday is a good reason that needs to change.

Just as we usually know when players are benched or demoted for poor performance, we should know the same about umpires. Suspensions or demotions should be announced publicly, called for what they are (not vacations or retirements). We don’t know what kind of reprimands Bucknor may have received since he entered the league in 1996, but it’s hard to imagine his official performance reviews have ever been glowing.

If you thought my opening comparison to the Supreme Court was a little out there, be advised that in 1999 Phillips “equate[d] umpires with federal judges. And I don’t believe they should always be subject to the voter, just like federal judges are not subject to the voter.”

Sandy Alderson—then working in the commissioner’s office as executive vice president of baseball operations, now the general manager of the Mets—drove that one right back down Phillips’s throat: “Federal judges can be impeached. 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.”

Bucknor is one of those umps who gives players and managers such concerns. Tuesday night he did a better job of reinforcing those concerns than he did of calling the game-ending strikeouts. So long as he’s allowed to be immune from criticism by players, managers, or coaches in the press after the game, he has no incentive to improve and baseball government has less incentive toward accountability.

It says something when an umpire is considered more sacrosanct than even a Supreme Court justice. What it says isn’t pretty.



THERE’S JUST ONE WORD—For Starling Marte, Pirates center fielder, who’s going to miss eighty games after testing positive for nandrolone, an actual or alleged performance-enhancing substance. The word is “stupid.” As in, how stupid can someone get after all the years, all the hagglings, and all the testings long since put into place.

All Marte did for himself was get himself put into drydock for eighty games and the Pirates into a position from which they may not recover this season. Even if they do, and they manage to find their way into the postseason somehow, Marte won’t be part of it unless his suspension is reduced on appeal. Players suspended during a season for actual or alleged PEDs aren’t allowed to play in the postseason without that reduction.

That modification to baseball’s PED program came in 2013—the season after Melky Cabrera got bopped for using a banned testosterone supplement and trying to fake-Website his way out of it, which prompted the Giants to keep him off their postseason roster and not even think about trying to re-sign him as a free agent, though it didn’t stop them from deciding he was worth a World Series ring, anyway.

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