Before the tragic shooting that ended his career as a major league umpire (but not his life, which cancer ended sixteen years later), the late Steve Palermo had, shall we say, an exchange with then-Yankee outfielder Lou Piniella over a pitch call. “Where was that pitch at?” demanded Piniella over the strike he believed a ball.
Palermo was renowned before and after his shooting for balancing dignity, competence, and wit. Now he couldn’t resist suggesting to Piniella—no slouch himself for spontaneous wit—that a Yankee in front of thirty thousand people had no business ending a sentence with a preposition. “OK,” Piniella shot back, “where was that pitch at, asshole?”
Umpires aren’t always supreme at levying the syntax. Some of them are barely competent to be calling balls and strikes in the first place. Enough so that the advent of robotic strike zone helpmates may prove sooner than we think. Causing self-appointed baseball purists a few stomachaches.
Such purists had trouble enough with official replay, never mind that it takes far less time for a replay review than for a debate (ahem) between a manager and an umpire. Robby the Umpbot makes enough of them go from apoplectic to St. Vitus Dance. One of the things they fear is the further dissipation of on-field arguments.
Many don’t want to hear about the time element. To them, managers rushing from the dugout intent on ranting their heads off, slicing and dicing umpires to chunks, is first class entertainment. They may not have paid explicitly to get into the ballpark to see umps and skippers collide, but they won’t say no if there’s a robust, randy, rip-roaring clash between the two.
“It isn’t about time,” insists one fellow member of an online baseball discussion group. “I saw some of Piniella’s greatest tirades first hand and it was theatre. I miss the rising tide of an umpire warning a dugout only to have the manager come boiling out and the fun had just begun.”
Such people miss Piniella the player grown up (prove it) to become a major league manager and going nuclear at the slightest drop of a dubious call. If Piniella ever opened a school for baseball managing, many suspected, a student wouldn’t graduate without the appropriate credits for base and hat throwing.
Early in his managing career, Piniella kicked dirt, threw his hat, and ran temperamental sprints between umpires during a nationally-televised game against the Indians—on his wife’s birthday. The loving husband called his wife at home. Mrs. Piniella answered, “I’m forty-three years old and I’m married to a four-year-old.”
Not exactly. Let a four-year-old witness a Piniella, a Billy Martin, an Earl Weaver, or a Bobby Cox exploding on an ump. Let the poor tyke decide then and there, that’s the way to get Mom and Dad to reverse when telling him “no.” Sweet Lou, Billy the Kid, the Earl of Baltimore, and the Sage of Atlanta merely got sent to their rooms. The real four-year-old would arrive unable to sit for hours.
Lots of umpires cross the line between sound game administration and tyranny for its own sake. They behave as though they’re the reason you paid your way into the park or ponied up for a cable television sports package in the first place. It’s absolutely fair to suggest that the Piniellas, Martins, and Weavers had their share of justifiable arguments, if not justifiable tantrums.
Other umpires aren’t exactly the tyrannical type and don’t believe they’re the stars of the show. But the cool judges don’t like their judgment questioned any more than the hanging judges do.
If they’re supposed to be the adults in the room, so are the managers and the coaches. Even Weaver, who suffered neither fools nor umpires gladly, knew it. “You must remember that anyone under thirty — especially a ballplayer — is an adolescent,” Weaver told Washington Post baseball bellwether Thomas Boswell once upon a time.
I never got close to being an adult until I was 32. Even though I was married and had a son at 20, I was a kid at 32, living at home with my parents. Sure, I was a manager then. That doesn’t mean you’re grown up.
Until you’re the person that other people fall back on, until you’re the one that’s leaned on, not the person doing the leaning, you’re not an adult. You reach an age when suddenly you realize you have to be that person. Divorce did it to me. It could be elderly parents, children . . . anything. But one day you realize, “It’s me. I’ve got to be the rock.”
That’s the same man about whom Palermo remembered, “That little [expletive] called me names that would get a man killed in other places. And that was on days I didn’t throw him out.”
Last year’s pan-damn-ically truncated irregular season forced games played without fans in the stands. The echo wasn’t half as deafening as some tirades from managers to umpires. Maybe the most unforgettable was Nationals manager Dave Martinez disputing a call with a loud, roaring, audible-outside-the-yard Horseshit! Horse [fornicating] shit! Didya hear me?!?
Football arguments aren’t that much fun, are they? Maybe with good reason. If a football player objects to a referee’s call and the call isn’t reversed, the player’s next move might resemble this:
When Palermo died, Royals manager Ned Yost remembered being a backup catcher in a game Palermo worked behind the plate. “As a catcher, some umpires are horrible to work in front of,” Yost said. “They don’t want to talk. Steve was always good about being able to talk and discuss pitches. If you thought it was a strike, he would always engage.”
It’s one thing when players go berserk with the umps. Weaver’s observation doesn’t just apply when it comes to managing them. You want to talk Sacred Unwritten Rules? Being the adults in the room is one of them for the arbiters and the skippers.
No nonsense, please, about managers going out for the rounds with the umps just to fire up their teams. If you’ve got to get yourself sent to your room to fire your players up, you might consider a different career.
(It’s to wonder whether Bobby Cox is really proud of breaking John McGraw’s record for ejections with 158. As successful as his Braves were, it’s impossible to believe Cox needed to fire his players up that often. It’s more possible to believe people were shocked that Cox wasn’t ejected from his own Hall of Fame induction.)
The umps have an unfair advantage, of course. They’ve also been known to get hotter than Weaver when one of their own gets disciplined for taking it too far. Rare, but it happens. When the old umpires’ union’s chief Richie Phillips lamented in 1999 that umps wanted to “feel good about themselves,” he referred largely to his men steaming when colleague Tom Hallion was suspended for bumping Rockies catcher Jeff Reed during an argument.
Imagine how the umps then or now would have reacted if a player wasn’t suspended for bumping an ump. Billy Martin (truly a case of arrested development) would have resembled Cicero.
Nostalgia for the Martins’, Piniellas’, and Weavers’ explosions runs almost fever pitch, but none runs by comparison (if at all) for the genuinely adult confrontations. A shame. If Gil Hodges spoke to plate umpire Lou DiMuro at all late in Game Five of the 1969 World Series, it was more like a news commentary from Eric Sevareid. The Miracle Mets skipper was about as animated as a cactus.
Hodges simply retrieved a ball smudged with shoe polish from Cleon Jones’s spiked shoe, walked calmly out to the plate area, and showed it to DiMuro. DiMuro ruled Jones a hit batsman and awarded him first base. The next Mets batter, Donn Clendenon, hit one off the left field scoreboard.
The umpires need far more Steve Palermos and far fewer Angel Hernandezes. But maybe the skippers need far more Gil Hodgeses and far fewer Billy Martins. (For more than one reason.) The tantrums aren’t “theatre,” they’re Daffy Duck versus the Tasmanian Devil—on amphetamines.
So it’s fun, fun, fun to see Dave Roberts or Dusty Baker or Aaron Boone or Joe Maddon or Dave Martinez get into an umpire’s face and read him the riot act. I’ll surrender that fun, fun, fun happily on behalf of getting things right in the first place. I did it with replay. I’ll do it with Robby the Umpbot.
Lament if you must over high tech dissipating the violent dialogues between managers and umpires. But is it really less edifying to get things right than to see forty-, fifty-, or sixty-somethings turn baseball games into Duck Amuck without being half as funny? The answer is . . .