Laugh, clowns, laugh

West, docked three for a wisecrack about Adrian Beltre.

West, docked three for a wisecrack about Adrian Beltre.

In 1999, umpire Tom Hallion got himself a three-day suspension when he bumped inadvertently into Rockies catcher Jeff Reed during a beef with pitcher Mike DeJean. The Major League Umpires Association, a month before the infamous mass resignation that torpedoed it, was outraged, but “[n]ot as outraged as they’d be,” the Society for American Baseball Research’s Doug Pappas wrote, “if a player wasn’t suspended for bumping an ump.”

One of the umps among the mass resigners (he was reinstated in due course in a 2004 settlement), Hallion swore he wasn’t trying to bump Reed. Players who inadvertently bump the umps swear likewise and still pony up fines and serve suspensions.

And, of course, when Joe West got suspended for grabbing then-Phillies reliever Jonathan Papelbon, after Papelbon gave the Philadelphia boo birds a grab of his crotch at the end of a hard inning, earning West’s ejection and subsequent grab, West got one game off while Papelbon got eight.

Whether under the old MLUA or the long-since established World Umpires Association, the umps suffer neither fools nor discipline against their own gladly. Two months ago, West cracked on the Rangers’ Adrian Beltre as baseball’s worst complainer in a newspaper interview. Now West draws a three-game suspension for it. The WUA is not amused.

Their statement objecting to the suspension says umps “engage professionally and cordially with hundreds of players and managers every day. Joking interactions between umpires and players are a routine part of the game. We disagree strongly with the decision to punish Joe West simply for sharing a humorous exchange with a player.”

Oh? Let’s ask Adrian Beltre himself about what happens in a humourous exchange. Last month, Beltre was on deck and standing not in but near to the on-deck circle, as players are often known to do. Plate umpire Gerry Davis ordered Beltre to stand in the circle. Being comfortable where he was, Beltre puckishly lifted the Rangers logo covering the circle and pulled it toward him.

Davis was so amused that he ejected Beltre. The tweeters had a field day with it, the most popular rejoined having been from Yahoo! Sports writer Jeff Passan: “Adrian Beltre is the greatest and Gerry Davis is in need of a sense of humour.”

But in fairness, it is to laugh that West acknowledges he and Beltre have kidded each other since about the interview that got West spanked. (Wasn’t that West eagerly posing with Seattle’s Nelson Cruz for Yadier Molina’s cell phone camera during the All-Star Game, too, with a big grin on his Pillsbury Dough Boy-in-traction phiz?) And Beltre does seem to have something of a reputation for complaining about, oh, every third pitch.

West may be controversial for some of his calls and some of his attitudes, but at least the man has a sense of humour, about himself, his profession, and the men whose pitches or at-bats live or die by his calls. It’s a malady one wishes the rest of West’s profession would catch, and maybe baseball government, too.

Once upon a time a Philadelphia Athletics catcher presented the home plate umpire with whose pitch call he disagreed a business card—for the catcher’s optometrist. The catcher was ejected, presumably fined, too. He learned fast. The next time he disagreed with an umpire’s pitch call, he presented a card saying, simply, “Mr. [Connie] Mack and myself would like to know where that pitch really was.”

Three years ago, A.J. Pierzynski, the ever-popular catcher, asked for a new ball from plate umpire Quinn Wolcott, after Red Sox pitcher Brandon Workman walked then-Indians shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera. “Give me a new ball,” Pierzynski said to Wolcott. “One you can see.” Wolcott thought that was so funny he forgot to laugh while ejecting Pierzynski on the spot.

Once, after apologising to umpire Ed Runge over an argument that might have gotten him suspended when they bumped inadvertently, Yogi Berra shook Runge’s hand, then said he, Berra, would put in to become an umpire because he could do the job better. ”Gowan,” Runge cracked back. “You’re not smart enough to pass the mental tests.”

“Augie,” said Brooklyn Dodger pitcher Preacher Roe to umpire Augie Guglielmo, “I ain’t spoke to ya for two years but I want ya to know. You’re still horseshit.” Nobody called for Roe’s head on a plate over it. Not even Guglielmo. (Whose stepson, Terry Tata, eventually became an umpire himself.)

The late Ron Luciano was one umpire with a grand sense of humour, which may explain why he got to write five remarkable and funny books before his tragic suicide. Luciano was an uninhibited but fair umpire who was foolish enough to believe baseball could actually be fun, a notion then-American League president Joe Cronin tried disabusing with frequent reprimands.

One of them involved an incident while Tommy John pitched for the White Sox. With Luciano behind the plate and the Orioles’ Don Buford at the plate, John accidentally dropped the ball behind him as he went into his delivery. John completed his delivery and Luciano hollered “Steee-rike!” as a gag. Buford was “aghast,” in Luciano’s word, but John couldn’t help laughing. Not even when he promptly walked three, surrendered a double, and was lifted.

Luciano was one of those umps who enjoyed bantering with hitters as they went to work. Carl Yastrzemski once told him, “Listen, Ronnie. My kid is hitting .300, my wife is fine, and I haven’t heard any new jokes. I don’t want to know about Polish restaurants. I’m nothing-for-15, and I want you to keep your mouth shut.” Then, Yastrzemski hit one into the right field seats.

As he crossed the plate, the Hall of Famer nodded and told Luciano, “Now you can talk to me.”

In the years when Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry was frisked regularly without being arraigned, Perry was said to have bumped into one of his friskers in town the next day. They chatted amiably about things including the ump’s son, a Little League pitcher whose team was losing regularly.

“Gaylord,” the ump’s said to have asked, “can you teach him how to throw that thing?”

Good thing they had that little chat in town. Having it anywhere on the field before the game might have gotten them both fined and/or docked, with the umpires’ union denouncing baseball government for having no sense of humour about their man in the same breath through which it praised baseball government for wising up about Perry’s grease.

It is to laugh. Almost.



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