Country Joe tosses the boss

Umpire Hunter Wendelstedt, unmasked, confabs (and points to Nats GM Mike Rizzo in the second deck) with masked crew chief Joe West Sunday.

Among many distinctions, not all of them affirmative, Joe West is now the man who threw out the first general manager of the season. The Washington Nationals aren’t the only ones among the barely amused.

What a weekend for Mike Rizzo. After entering spring training with his contract status unresolved beyond his own walk year this year, he finally landed the extension he deserved when all was said and done. He barely had time to savour it when he got into West’s crosshairs Sunday.

This pandemic-truncated season hasn’t exactly gone the way the defending world champions had in mind. They’re dead last in the National League East and next-to-last in this season’s crazed wild card picture. Their tragic number for elimination is sixteen. When the only National League outfit worse is the Pittsburgh Pirates, it’s enough to give last year’s self-resurrecting World Series conquerors pause going in.

Then the Nats spent the weekend with the Atlanta Braves and both sides seemed to spend much of it complaining that the umpiring was, shall we say, far less than exemplary or accurate. Rizzo all weekend was a particularly vocal complainer.

Thanks to pandemic-empty ballparks you can hear a lot more than perhaps you’d like to hear from the dugouts and even the men on the field or the coaching lines. There was Rizzo, all alone in a club box in the second deck of Atlanta’s Truist Park. Not a soul within a few hundred feet of him in either direction.

The next thing you knew, Rizzo was escorted from the premises by stadium security in the top of the seventh. That was as much a seventh-inning stretch as you could imagine in such surrealistic circumstances.

With the Braves up, 7-1 (they went on to win, 10-3), umpire Hunter Wendelstedt started pointing to the club level where Rizzo reposed and, apparently, objected to this or that call. “The umpiring crew, led by West, then went to call security,” writes Larry Brown. “The Braves’ announcers speculated that West might not have liked Rizzo complaining about balls and strikes. They also mentioned that Rizzo was not wearing a mask in the park.”

The mask issue seems a little like a red herring with no one within a hundred feet of Rizzo. Especially since a) West’s on record as thinking COVID-19 isn’t exactly a deadly enemy; and, b) Wendelstedt was unmasked while he confabbed with West, who was masked. They were probably ticked off most at Rizzo objecting to a strike call on a pitch that actually sailed in well enough off the plate while Nats infielder Asdrubal Cabrera batted.

Apparently, Rizzo kept barking over the pitch calls by the time first baseman Eric Thames batted on a 2-2 count. Then West pointed to the club boxes where Rizzo reposed and called stadium security after hollering, “You’re out! Get out!” Rizzo’s way.

“Should Rizzo be yelling at the ump audibly from his suite? Probably not, but it’s also the kind of thing that that happens every game,” deadpans Deadspin writer Sam Fels. “It’s the kind of thing that could probably be solved with a solitary look, or maybe a pointed finger. But no, that won’t due for hilljack Joe.”

You want to talk about delays of games? West held up the game so he could show Rizzo who’s boss around here. “Call security,” a voice hollered. You’d think objecting to dubious pitch calls equaled a small child refusing to go to bed when Mom and Dad so order. Unless Mom and Dad confuse proper parenting with tyranny for its own sake, they’re not Joe West.

“Joe West is the passenger on the plane who won’t let you out of the row to go to the bathroom because drink service will begin in five minutes,” Fels writes.

Joe West constantly tells the bartender when they’re low on ice. Joe West kettles protestors without informing them of curfew, then arrests them for violating curfew. It’s not so much that Joe West has to enforce the rules. He has to enforce that he knows the rules better than anyone. It’s not the order he’s after, but the acknowledgement, or more to the point the worshipping, of his knowledge and power.

West decided then and there it was time to show who knew the rules better than anyone. As His Holiness himself put it after the game, “I wouldn’t take that from a player. I wouldn’t take that from a manager. If it was Donald Trump, I’d eject him, too. But I’d still vote for him.”

Just let West try ejecting President Tweety. He’d be on the Trump tweetstorm target list faster than a base hit travels past the infield. And if West would have a GM thrown out of the ballpark for objecting to the umpiring, what’ll happen when fans—who aren’t exactly kind and gentle about questionable umpiring—are finally allowed to come back to the games?

Historically, umpires suffer neither fools nor protests gladly, even if they don’t always mind a little debate if the debator isn’t looking to show them up. The bad news is that even the best-humoured umpires lose their senses of humour when a questionable call is given.

The rules say players, managers, and coaches can’t argue ball and strike calls, and that if they head for the plate for such a protest they can be tossed. So can pitchers leaving the mound or batters stepping out of the box for such protests. But what about people in the stands, team personnel or otherwise? Umpires haven’t exactly been historically shy about throwing them out at certain times, either.

They’ve been known to eject ballpark organists or DJs for playing “Three Blind Mice” over bad calls. Or, for playing the theme from The Mickey Mouse Club. Or, for playing Bob Uecker’s sarcastic “Personally, I think we got hosed on that call” from Major League. They’ve been known to eject entire press boxes over catcalls coming down over questionable calls.

It’s one thing, too, for an ump to eject a fan suspected of doing a little sign-stealing on behalf of their hometown heroes. But good luck to the next fan who protests a pitch call by whipping up a placard that shows an eye test or performs a perfect impression of an optometrist’s business card.

Rule 4.06 bars managers, players, substitutes, coaches, trainers, and bat boys from “incit[ing] . . . by word or sign a demonstration by spectators.” (It also applies to broadcasters, technically, when fans cling to their radios in the ballpark as they’ve often done. Normally, though, such announcers escape with a mere warning.)

Rule 9.01(b) gives umps “the authority to order a player, coach, manager or club officer or employee to do or refrain from doing anything which affects the administering of these rules, and to enforce the prescribed penalties.”

Allow for pandemically empty ballparks allowing one and all on the field, in the dugouts, and even isolated singularly in the stands to hear every beef, debate, and expletive un-deleted. That said, just how could Mike Rizzo all alone in a second-deck club box objecting to pitch calls interfere with West and crew’s control of Sunday’s game?

If Rizzo was in that club box raining objections down with a full house of fans in the stands making their usual racket, only a dog could have heard it. The chances of West, Wendelstedt, and crew hearing his specific words would have been reduced to the margins and maybe further.

“We have already been in communication with the Nationals regarding what transpired during today’s game, and we will speak with the umpiring crew today,” said MLB’s government in a formal statement. “We will expect Joe West’s crew to provide a full account of their perspective, and we will follow up with them accordingly.”

Can you see the electronic strike zones and robo-umps coming a little more clearly in the rear-view mirror, too?

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