The KBO actually holds umps accountable, too

2020-05-09 KoreanUmps

In this photo from South Korea’s Yonhap News, umpires work on a review with the Korean Baseball Organization’s video review office during a pre-season game last month. The KBO has demoted a full crew after complaints about inconsistent strike zone calling.

It almost seems as though every mistake by American baseball government instructs the Korean Baseball Organisation, “Study this and learn what not to do.” In American baseball, umpire accountability often seems something along the line of promiscuous celibacy. In South Korean baseball, umpire accountability is a necessity.

When enough players between the SK Wyverns and the Hanwha Eagles complained about an inconsistent strike zone following a Thursday game, the KBO didn’t just hoist platitudes about effort, they up and did it. They demoted the entire umpiring crew, re-assigning every member of the crew to the country’s Futures League for re-training.

What a concept. And, as a Yahoo! Sports writer named Mark Townsend observes, “Try to picture this scenario. MLB officials approach Joe West. MLB officials then inform Joe West that his entire crew is headed back to rookie ball for retraining. And you thought the stare West gave Madison Bumgarner was frightening?”

Stare, schmare. From what American baseball fans have seen of American umpires the past couple of decades, many if not most American umps might be tempted to take hostages at the very hint of the American game taking a KBO-like stance on accountability.

Townsend cites a writer with the Korean news service Yonhap News, Jee-ho Yoo, who quoted Eagles outfielder Yong-kyu Lee as asking the KBO to consider that the league’s umpires should take player complaints into consideration more seriously. The league actually listened.

“Even though [the KBO season has] only been three games this season,” Lee says, “a lot of players are really unhappy with the lack of consistency on ball-strike calls. I’d like to ask all the umpires to please be more considerate of the players. We’re all very confused. I know the umpires are doing their best out there, but I just hope they should start seeing things from the players’ perspective, too.”

Allow that Lee spoke in language considerably more polite than the average American major leaguer, and you still see a serious point. The KBO isn’t really in the mood to suffer foolish umpires gladly. They’re funny that way. You might think the American Show would reply, “Say what?” when you call for uniform strike zone call and enforcement, not this too-long-time nonsense regarding umpires’ “individual” zones, and the KBO says “Say this!” when demoting inconsistent umpires.

You would have thought American umpires learned the hard way, after the accountability question provoked their original union to implode over two decades ago.

You don’t remember? I take you back to the summer of 1999, right around the All-Star break, when Major League Umpires Association director Richie Phillips announced that 57 of the Show’s 66 umpires resigned effective the coming 2 September. The arbiters 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 proclaimed. “They feel in the past seven months or so, they have been humiliated and denigrated.”

Let’s review the humiliation and denigration, shall we? We can do so courtesy of the late Doug Pappas of the Society for American Baseball Research, whose essay “22 Men Out”  ran the entire business down admirably.

Pappas noted that umpire Tom Hallion got suspended for bumping a player during an argument and the umpires screamed blue murder, momentarily and blissfully ignorant of how much louder they would have been screaming if a player didn’t get suspended for bumping one of them.

Then-commissioner Bud Selig, who wasn’t customarily known for taking positions of wisdom, proposed that the commissioner’s office and not the individual leagues (they still had their own administrative structures at the time) should assume the business of umpire oversight. As Pappas observed, Phillips put the proverbial kibosh on that by proclaiming that would amount to a change of employer good for millions in umpire severance pay.

The Major League Baseball Players Association conducted a survey of players, coaches, and managers to rank umpire performance, which led to Selig’s office asking teams to chart pitches and file reports on each umpire’s strike zone. Pappas reminded his readers that Phillips dismissed the former as lacking “credence” because “ratings are always subjective” and the latter as “just another case of Big Brother watching us.”

Pappas cited a 14 June 1999 installment of the HBO series Real Sports aboard which Phillips “took his arrogance to a new level,” comparing umpires to federal judges who “should [not] always be subject to the voter, just like federal judges are not subject to the voter.” Sandy Alderson, then doing the job Joe Torre does now, could barely stifle a laugh.

“Federal judges can be impeached,” Alderson retorted. “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.” (Who’s to say today’s players aren’t concerned likewise, often as not?)

Phillips didn’t stop with the mass resignation, either. On the same day he announced it, he proclaimed the umps would now be employed by a body called Umpires, Inc. that “would negotiate to provide umpiring services to MLB—and it, not MLB, would supervise and assign the umpires,” Pappas wrote. “In short, 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 . . . termed the resignations “either a threat to be ignored or an offer to be accepted.”

The final outcome, of course, was 22 umpires gone for good, seemingly, after the leagues hired 25 minor league umps (all of whom had major league experience) and several of the MLB arbiters scrambled to rescind their resignations. The American League re-hired the first fourteen rescinders; the National League decided “performance standards” would apply when picking the umps to re-hire. Imagine that.

A group of MLUA dissidents led by John Hirschbeck and Joe Brinkman called for a new union and for de-certifying the MLUA, both of which happened in the 1999-2000 off-season, with the World Umpires Association (now the Major League Baseball Umpires Association) born. Eleven of the 22 men out (including Joe West and Sam Holbrook) were finally re-hired in 2002.

All that because Phillips and his allies in the old union sought to become and remain a law unto themselves. Today there remain enough umpires who still think they alone and not the rule book have the power of the strike zone and other calls. They may even think that fans pay their way into the ballpark (whenever they’ll be allowed to do so again) to see the umpires. All things considered, it might be true in West’s case. Might. But not for the reasons he might think.

Commissioner Rob Manfred, whose reign has been inconsistent when phrased most politely, but who’s rarely been caught beyond mere thought when it comes to umpire accountability, ought to look more acutely at the answer the KBO handed to at least one umpiring crew who thought so: “Not so fast.”

In Korea, they let the kids play, bless them

2020-05-07 NCDinos

Members of the KBO’s NC Dinos during a game.

In America, when professional baseball was still played and when it might be played again (it’s anybody’s guess, educated or otherwise), the game remains a wrestling match of a sort. It’s between letting the kids play and letting the old farts persist with enforcing and applauding too many unwritten rules that seem too many times to enjoin against—oh, that vulgarity—fun.

The old farts lost their credibility long enough ago. They did it with rank hypocrisy. They’re all in favour of baseball being played like a business until the game’s business comes out to play.

Let a home run hitter flip his bat or a pitcher pump his fist or fan his imaginary pistol upon a strikeout, and it’s time to remember “respect for the game.” Let a player negotiate on a properly open market for however many millions that market determines he’s worth, and it’s time to remember they’re already being paid many millions enough to play a goddam game.

Enter the Korean Baseball Organisation, that ten-team league where baseball is underway thanks to South Korea being a little bit more alert than other countries when it came to coronavirus safety measures. And, where (the horror) baseball is played under the distinct encouragement to take and give joy in the playing. Even if the coronavirus compels near-empty stands.

You can conjugate numerous differences between the KBO and the American Show, but Yahoo! Sports’s Leander Schaerlaeckens reduces it to simple terms: “At a big league game, the loudest person in your section is often the ice cream guy.”

OK, that’s a slight exaggeration. But only slight. Two days ago, Chang-min Mo blasted one into the empty left field bleachers and flipped his bat in the same motion. He swung and the bat flipped out of his hands on the follow through. Americans might say ok, he did it in one motion and didn’t put on a show out of the box. Enough American pitchers would still want to rumble over it.

Not Josh Linblom, who spent some time pitching in Korea (and was the KBO’s MVP last year) before signing for three years and mucho million to return to the United States courtesy of the Milwaukee Brewers. “I’ve never had more fun playing baseball than I did there,” Lindblom tells Schaerlaeckens. “Just the joy of it.” Major league baseball and its fans, do take note.

Take note, too, that it doesn’t stop with demonstrative hitters and pitchers, Schaerlaeckens continues.

Korean baseball also leads the way in weird glasses. Fans sing and chant in unison. Cheerleaders hype the crowd. Players scrub each other’s backs in the showers. They have coordinated mascot dances. There are fire-breathing robot dragons, even though they have nothing do with their team or its mascot. Each player doesn’t merely pick his own walk-up song – no no. Special theme songs are composed for them and they’re amazing. The atmosphere, above all else, is generated by the crowd itself, rather than being orchestrated by a PA system as spectators are tamely shepherded through whatever “fan engagement” is expected of them.

Why do you think the Washington Nationals were such engaging World Series winners last October? Because they managed to vanquish the Houston Astros subsequently exposed as barely-if-at-all apologetic 2017-18 high tech cheaters? Well, yes, that was part of it. But there was also the irrepressible sense that the Nats actually had fun playing the game, even in the Serious Postseason, and couldn’t have cared less who knew it or who objected.

They Baby Sharked, dugout danced, and pantomime drove their way to something unseen in MLB in Washington since Calvin Coolidge’s first and only election to the White House in his own right. It was almost as infectious as the coronavirus and a hell of a lot more entertaining. You had to be a terminal grump to say the Nats won a world championship by disrespecting the game—and there were enough such grumps who probably did.

Maybe the cheerleaders in the KBO are a little bit much. But Schaerlaecken’s observations otherwise look like precisely the kind of things that would engage and amuse. And they’re far more creative than stuff like the Brewers’ Racing Sausages who only run their races once a game anyway.

Worried about the time of game, you say? The KBO is taking that bull by the horns. They’ve already instituted a twelve-second pitch clock. They’re kicking around a slightly wider strike zone. (The width of the plate, the traditional old top-to-bottom between the batter’s shoulders and knees, however the batter positions himself at the plate, and umpire accountability to enforce such a uniform strike zone, wouldn’t hurt.)

Maybe the one flaw in the KBO is that it’s as offense-weighted now as the Show was in the 1990s and the past couple of seasons now. Schaerlaecken observes that, in 2019, the KBO’s league-wide batting average was .286 and league-wide ERA was above 5.00. It has work to do to re-balance the game.

But I wouldn’t bet against them. All evidence thus far indicates they’re always trying to improve things for the fan’s and the game’s sake. Real baseball fans love good pitching duels—whether it’s the periodic starters’ clash or a battle of wits between bullpens—as much as batting clinics.

Come to think of it, real baseball fans love entertaining pitchers as well. Those my age remember how much fun Juan Marichal was on the mound, as well as being great, with his maybe twenty different windups and fifteen different leg kicks including the one that became his most indelible image. Or how Dennis Eckersley in his early seasons thought nothing of fanning an imaginary pistol after striking a batter out.

Or Mark (The Bird) Fidrych, who was a package of fun and laughs before he even threw a pitch. And anyone who could infuriate the Bronx Zoo Yankees with his antics—and, in his Rookie of the Year season, the pitching to back it up—should have been given the keys to his city. It was more the pity that Fidrych’s knee injury the following spring led to too many premature comebacks, shoulder demolition because of them, and career killed in its crib.

I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: I don’t care if a pitcher fans his pistol, a batter flips his lumber, or a slick double play combination goes into a tandem juggling pantomime after delivering a slick double play. I haven’t seen the juggling act among Korean or American major and minor league middle infielders yet, but it wouldn’t shock or enrage me if I see one.

(Just for the record, I’m not exactly a spring chicken myself, but I decided long ago that age didn’t have to mean hardening of the arteries—actual or mental—either. How old am I? I’ll put it this way: On my last birthday, I got serenaded nigh unto death with a certain song aboard the Beatles’ legendary Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band . . . and it wasn’t “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.”)

Real baseball fans also don’t like to see lineup spots wasted on the unproductive. The KBO has the designated hitter rule. “[S]kirting the entire farce of forcing the unskilled labor of pitchers hitting upon the public,” Schaerlaeckens writes.

Last year, MLB pitchers hit for a cumulative .128/.159/.163. “Traditionalists” would rather wait for the next Bartolo Colon or Madison Bumgarner than accept that wasting a lineup slot on a pitcher who isn’t being paid to swing the bat or run the bases (and might well injure himself out of his normal season’s work doing so) is plain damn dumb.

Even more dumb than huffing, puffing, and blowing down the house rather than letting the kids play, the way they play in Korea, the way the Koreans who are otherwise among the world’s most mannerly people expect them to play, for fans’ entertainment—even if the fans are limited because of the coronavirus—and their own.

Once upon a time, the late Jim Bouton (in Ball Four) revealed that Seattle Pilots manager Joe (Ol’ Sh@tf@ck—or Ol’ F@cksh@t, depending) Schultz lectured his players about the entertainment dollar. In that day’s game, catcher Jim Pagliaroni scampered to catch a foul pop near the dugout and made a point of running deliberately to the steps, sliding down those steps, and crashing into the bench. When Schultz questioned him, Pagliaroni replied, “I was just going for the entertainment dollar.”

The KBO isn’t about to start staging dugout crashes on foul pops, I think, but there’s plenty to be said about going for the entertainment everything. Even crusty Crash Davis (in Bull Durham) reminded his teammates, “This game’s supposed to be fun.” When American baseball fans have to gaze upon games being played as far away as one American war was once fought, American baseball has a (pardon the expression) serious problem.