End the umpires’ version of qualified immunity

Umpires Nic Lentz (left) and the ever-popular Angel Hernandez (center) debate with Chicago Cubs manager David Ross. On that day, it was Grandpa Rossy objecting to the umps tossing his coach Mike Borzello for objecting to the near-decapitation of Anthony Rizzo by a pitch. Umpire accountability remains a burden on the game for its lacking.

In more than one way, enough major league baseball umpires have something in common with rogue police. The rogue cop survives thanks to a disgraceful (and court-invented) doctrine known as “qualified immunity.” The rogue or at least incompetent umpire survives similarly, if not phrased formally in quite those words. Unlucky for us.

MLB’s government swears it’ll get to the bottom of Joe West throwing out the first general manager of the season Sunday. The way things continue to stand, it looks like that Antarctican beach club is still on sale at a bargain rate.

Mike Rizzo’s heinous crime, all by his lonesome in a club box in Atlanta’s Truist Park, was spending a considerable part of his weekend hollering over dubious calls by West’s crew while his Nationals played and took two of three from the Braves. When Rizzo objected to yet another dubious call Sunday, this time on a called strike that missed the zone, West said, “Enough is enough,” and his crew ordered ballpark security to cart Rizzo away.

Enough is indeed enough, but not the way West thinks. When it comes to MLB holding umpires just as accountable as they’re presumed to hold players, coaches, managers, trainers, medical staffers, front-office workers, and even owners now and then, enough was enough long before this surrealistic pandemically-truncated season. Prowl through the rule book and you’ll be hard pressed to find specific language handing incompetent or rogue umpires qualified immunity. But they have it mostly in spirit.

They also have one up on the rogue cop. We’re told an awful lot more about the periodic rogue cop who doesn’t escape consequences when he becomes the lawbreaker instead of the law enforcers than we’re told about the rogue ump’s consequences when he steps out of line.

On the extremely rare occasions when the Wests, the C.B. Bucknors, the Laz Barreras, the Angel Hernandezes, and others are held to account for their behaviours, fans usually  have no right to know how they were disciplined, if they were disciplined. (Usually, but not always exclusively.) Let a player or manager step out of line, and every dollar and day of their fine or suspension hits a line drive on SportsCenter.

I hate to resurrect a dead horse to beat, but many may forget now what happened over twenty-one years ago, when baseball government actually tried imposing a little accountability on the arbiters and the arbiters actually tried telling baseball government to perform an anatomical impossibility upon itself. It led to the self-immolation of the original umpires’ union and the creation of the current one.

We take you back to 14 July 1999, when Major League Umpires Association executive director Richie Phillips announced that fifty-seven of the Show’s then sixty-six umpires would resign effective that 2 September. The fifty-seven “wanted to continue working as umpires, but they want to feel good about themselves and would rather not continue as umpires if they have to continue under present circumstances,” Phillips harrumphed. “They feel in the past seven months or so, they have been humiliated and denigrated.”

The late Society for American Baseball Research analyst Doug Pappas described such humiliating denigration, or was it denigrating humiliation:

Many umps were outraged when umpire Tom Hallion was suspended for bumping a player — though not as outraged as they’d be if a player wasn’t suspended for bumping an ump. When MLB redefined the rulebook strike zone to reflect the umpires’ collective refusal to call the high strike, Phillips insisted that MLB had no right to do so without MLUA approval. Before the season, the MLUA blocked MLB’s proposal to move control of the umpires from the league offices to the Commissioner’s Office by claiming that the move would constitute a change of employer, entitling the umpires to millions in severance pay.

Phillips reserved his greatest scorn for attempts to hold the umpires accountable for their on-field performance. Upon learning of a MLBPA survey of players, coaches and managers which ranked each umpire against his peers, Phillips sneered, “I don’t give any credence at all to ratings of officials because ratings are always subjective.” When MLB asked clubs to chart pitches and file a report on each umpire’s strike zone, Phillips snarled that this was “just another case of Big Brother watching over us.”

An employer evaluating the competence of its employees. The nerve!

Phillips went so far as to proclaim that, as of that 2 September date, they’d form Umpires, Incorporated, both negotiating to provide MLB umpiring and becoming the sole umpire supervisor. “In short,” Pappas wrote, “Phillips proposed to turn the umpires into a self-governing association, free of MLB control.”

To owners and players alike, this demand was tantamount to a municipal police union demanding an end to civilian control of the police force. Even if the owners had been willing to cede such authority, the screams of the MLBPA would have killed the deal. And the owners weren’t willing. When informed of the umpires’ move, Sandy Alderson of the Commissioner’s Office termed the resignations “either a threat to be ignored or an offer to be accepted.”

Behind the scenes, Alderson and MLB’s lawyers must have been exchanging high fives. By “resigning” — a transparent attempt to evade the no-strike clause in their labor agreement — the umpires had abandoned the protections of their contract and left themselves at MLB’s mercy. Aided by the advice of their personal attorneys, a few arbiters came to the same conclusion and rescinded their resignations.

The net consequence was twenty-two umpires losing their jobs, and losing in court when they sued to allow rescinding those resignations. (In due course, an arbitrator ruled nine of had to be re-hired, while another three would be re-hired in a new collective bargaining agreement, and the ten not re-hired would receive severance pay.)

Dissidents from the Phillips-inspired self-immolation, led by Joe Brinkman and John Hirschbeck, pushed for and got the 2000 decertification of the MLUA, subsequently forming a new union, the World Umpires Association. The new union changed its name to the Major League Baseball Umpires Association in 2018. (The president since 2009, when he succeeded Hirschbeck: Joe West.)

The trigger for the old umps’ union’s madness may not be forgotten by either the umps or the game’s administration today. Perhaps nobody wants to pull it and provoke a madder calamity. Except that there’s no sane reason to keep a rogue cop in uniform entrusted with law enforcement, and there’s no sane reason to allow umpires to act as laws unto themselves, regardless of the rule book or the common sense God gave a paramecium but enough umpires and administrators ignore.

Too many balls continue being called strikes, too many strikes continue being called balls, through the courtesy of an umpire’s “own” strike zone rather than the one prescribed in the rule book. The errant ump can still lean on other clauses in the rules to purge those objecting, and MLB still has strictures against speaking publicly about errant umpiring by players, coaches, managers, and other team personnel.

When an umpire finally throws out a general manager way up in the pandemically-empty stands, for hollering loud enough and long enough that there’s less than consistent competence among the arbiters, it’s time long overdue to consider disqualifying the umpires’ version of qualified immunity. The rogues among the nation’s gendarmes have had it long enough.

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?

Depends on whose kids play, I guess

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Tim Anderson, a milli-second from making breakfast out of Brad Keller’s full-count grapefruit . . .

It’s beginning to look a little more like letting the kids play, which baseball wishes to push as its watchword, is going to have more exceptions as the season ambles forward. And, it isn’t just from those players still wedded till death do they part to the Sacred Unwritten Rules.

Apparently, baseball’s most notorious umpire wants to have his say about it, too. Apparently, too, there are teams who don’t mind their own kids playing but are ready to rumble if their opponents play.

Come Wednesday baseball’s incumbent hottest hitter, Tim Anderson, learned the hard way about what happens when you’re one of the kids who wants to play but Joe West decides in the moment that he’s your daddy, and Daddy needs to send you to your room for objecting vociferously though not violently over being hit by a pitch your next time up after hitting one out.

Oh, yes, Tim. You came to play, and—with Eloy Jimenez on second and two out—Royals’ starter Brad Keller threw you a full count grapefruit. And just like any major league hitter who happens to be heated up well enough, you saw that grapefruit and knew it meant one thing—breakfast. And oh, did you feast on it. You drove it so far into the left field seats there should have been coffee served with it.

And, considering you’d just had such a yummy breakfast courtesy of a pitcher against whom you’d been (read carefully) 0-for-13 with five strikeouts and not a base on balls on the ledger otherwise, there shouldn’t be a jury on earth that would consider you out of line for striding moderately out of the batter’s box watching it fly, then throwing your bat toward your own dugout as if momentarily in the javelin event at the Olympics before running out the breakfast bomb.

Neither you nor Keller have any clue, probably, that Cy Young’s unrelated namesake is still the only American man to win Olympic gold in the javelin throw, or that Babe Didrikson was the first American woman to win Olympic gold in it. All you know, Tim, is that you’re not staring Keller down, you don’t look into his team’s dugout, you don’t do anything in any way to show the Royals up, unless the Royals suddenly believe firing your bat toward your own dugout shows them up.

You probably care, Tim, only that your next time up Keller throws the first pitch of the plate appearance into your can, and that he probably wishes it was a shot put, not a baseball. And it’s very possible that Keller cares deeply about the little fact that you’ve hit eight home runs off Royals pitching in your career, two more than you’ve hit against any other team.

So right after you got canned, you take a step or two toward the mound and Royals catcher Martin Maldonado—who has the job because Salvador Perez, the catcher who thinks you have no right to have fun until or unless you’ve won a World Series ring, is out for the season with an injury—slithers into your presumed path.

You talk to Maldonado while then giving Keller a well-earned glare. You’re not thinking about charging Keller, like a bull or anything else. You even give Maldonado two pats on the shoulder as you both stride up the first base line, and it looks as though it’s going to be no big deal. Looks aren’t everything, alas.

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. . . then, flinging his bat like a javelin toward (underline this, gang) his own dugout . . . 

Because Jose Abreu leads your teammates out of the dugout and the Royals come pouring out of theirs. It’s going to take about seven or eight minutes and a couple of scrums between a couple of coaches and managers, yours and theirs, to get the whole thing settled, even as—rather intriguingly—the mob ended up not around the mound or the plate but near first base.

And all the while, Tim, you’re doing something rather remarkable with a little help from your friends, much as Keller is. You’re both staying away from the rhubarb.

The Royals may be chirping like canaries toward you, and a few of your mates might be chirping likewise toward Keller, but you two aren’t even near the crowd. Even if your coach Joe McEwing has his arms around you from behind just in case, but you sure don’t look like you’re ready for a piece of anyone in Royals fatigues.

Your manager Rick Renteria may be barking at Royals manager Ned Yost to get his kids off the field unless they’re playing in its positions, and Yost may be barking back that there’s no way he’s going to let your boss or anyone bark at his boys. But you and Keller, with a little help from at least a couple of your friends, are actually behaving yourselves during this little danse d’absurdio.

Far as you know, Tim, Keller should be the only one who gets a ho-heave, and maybe your mates should get at least one chance to send the Royals a message in return. Maybe. You’re all about having fun while you play. You know that word “play.” Even if you’re not aware of Hall of Famer Willie Stargell’s wisdom: “The umpire doesn’t say, ‘Work ball’.” Even if you’ve never seen Bull Durham and heard Crash Davis remind his teammates, “This game’s fun, okay?”

Yet you may forget one small detail, Tim.  You may forget that Joe West, one of the base umpires for the game, doesn’t forget.

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. . . then, getting drilled his next time up by the pitcher off whom he’d never hit one out until his previous time up.

Last year, you asked him about whether he or anyone else saw you get touched when Javier Baez of the Cubs slid rather hard into you trying to break up a double play in the making. And Country Joe sent you and your skipper to the showers. And you said, quote, “I don’t have much to say about him. Everybody knows he’s terrible. But I didn’t say much. He threw me out. It’s OK.”

Well, it turns out not to have been OK. Because once things settle down Wednesday, Country Joe rounds up the umpires and decides Keller, Renteria, Royals coach Dale Sveum, and . . . you should be sent to your rooms.

You get Keller. You get your skipper. You get Sveum. But you? The original victim? This is like a father learning the neighbourhood bully beat the hell out of his son for no reason and deciding his son needed to be spanked for it.

And you, the son, are diplomatic enough not to reference Daddy’s previous unwarranted punishment over the Baez slide debate, such as it was, when Mother asks what the hell you are doing in time out with a sore bottom for the rest of the day. (You may wish to wonder whether Mother reminded Daddy that, thanks to these punishments he’s now number three on the all-time umpires’ ejections survey thanks to passing Hank O’Day.)

And when the White Sox send someone from their media relations department to ask what Daddy and his fellow umps thought when Daddy laid down the law, all they say in reply is, “Because of the language that was used on the field, the umpires declined comment.”

Somewhere in the middle of the scrum, Tim, Country Joe Daddy actually put his hands on your manager trying to usher him the hell out of it. Now, if you wonder, Tim, where the hell West gets off with that kind of contact—when you and every other fool knows there’d be hell to pay if it had been your manager putting hands on Country Joe Daddy or any other umpire in like circumstances—you’re hardly alone, I’m sure.

Even diplomatic you, Tim, can’t be blamed if your spontaneous thought about that and your ultimate day’s punishment is, “You’ve gotta be joking.” What’s not a joke is that of course the Royals deny any intent on Keller’s part to teach you a lesson about play. Of course Keller himself says he wasn’t trying to put a hole into your left butt.

And of course you and me and everyone else watching that game knows it was about as not-trying as the day Hunter Strickland nailed Bryce Harper on the first pitch of an at-bat, over a pair of home runs almost three years old.

We also know the Royals are a little on the hypocritical side when it comes to these things. They have no problem with one of their own remembering the umpire doesn’t say, “Work ball.” (That one of their own last year, Alcides Escobar, is now in the minor league system of . . . the White Sox. Just sayin’.) They just don’t like it when one of the opposition remembers.

Go back out and have fun today, Tim. Your manager has your back, too. As he says, wisely, about home runs like yours and spontaneous celebrations like yours, “You want him not to do that? Get him out.” What a concept.

And as for you, Brad Keller, I have this: Instead of throwing at the guy who ate your grapefruit for breakfast the next time he faces you, get him out . . . and have a little celebration of your own.

Strike him out. Make your hand into a pistol and fire it (just like Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley used to do), or fan it. (Just like the late Joaquin Andujar used to do.) Or, make like you’re firing an old fashioned tommy gun. Or, drop to a knee and fire an imaginary bazooka toward him as he slinks back to the dugout. If hitters can have fun, why can’t pitchers?

Or, if the next time up the circumstance allows you to lure him into a double play grounder, make sure your infielders are ready to mime a juggling act. If hitters and pitchers can have fun, why can’t the fielders?

“Remember when you were a kid and you’d skip supper to play ball?” should-be Hall of Famer Dick Allen, near the end of his career, once reminded pressing young Hall of Famer-to-be Mike Schmidt. “You were having fun. Baseball’s supposed to be fun. Enjoy it. Be a kid again.”

Sound counsel for both Tim Anderson and Brad Keller, the latter of whom happens to be two years younger than the former, but who chose instead to behave like a scolding old get-off-my-lawn fart. And, for Joe West, who’s old enough to know better, still young enough to enjoy it, but may think he was born a scolding old get-off-my-lawn fart.