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?

Not right, Nats

2020-07-14 DaveMartinezMikeRizzo

Dave Martinez (left) and Mike Rizzo. The Nats’ GM hasn’t heard a peep about a contract extension or wholly new deal yet despite being in the final year of his current deal. The skipper hasn’t, either, despite having one more year on his current deal.

You built a World Series champion through trials, errors, and very occasional calls for your head on a plate while you stayed your course and kept your eye on the Promised Land. It wasn’t just any World Series champion but Washington’s first Show champion* since the Coolidge Administration.

But your contract expires after the season to follow, however truncated the coronavirus world tour makes it. Wouldn’t you think your bosses would want you to stick around so you can give it your best shot at sustaining that success?

Or, you managed that club from hell to the highest waters possible, despite the not-so-great bullpen you were handed to work with when last year began, keeping them from losing their marble (singular) despite a 19-31 season beginning. They bought your go-1-0-every-day philosophy. You gave them room to go 74-38 the rest of the season and perform feats of derring-do without nets and, sometimes, logic.

You also did it while earning barely more than the minimum major league player’s salary. Wouldn’t you think, too, that the same bosses would want you to stick around so you can give it your best shot at convincing your team their next theme song—Gerardo Parra, after all, has moved onward, taking the “Baby Shark” mojo with him—should be, “I Want to Take You Higher?”

Sure you would. Both of you would. But nobody in the Washington Nationals’ executive suite seems to have moved so much as a fingernail on it. Meaning, as USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale reminds us, that general manager Mike Rizzo is a lame duck in a truncated season and manager Dave Martinez is a year from the same quack.

And, if Rizzo’s a lame duck this year he may not be the one able to move on keeping Martinez above and beyond 2021, presuming the Nats’ success sustains. Which it should, whenever the game returns to something resembling normal, with the extending of Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer not exactly showing age just yet, a new young core and several reliable veterans.

This is the GM who took a big hit in 2018 when—in the middle of an already injury-compromised season that also included Bryce Harper’s walk year—he dumped two relief pitchers in circumstances described as dubious at best and disingenuous at worst.

When Shawn Kelley was brought in to pitch near the end of a blowout, looked toward Martinez for guidance about an umpire’s positioning, then spiked his glove after surrendering a home run, Rizzo took it as showing up the skipper even though Martinez didn’t see it that way. He didn’t give Kelley a chance, getting in the reliever’s face then releasing him to be snapped up by the Oakland Athletics.

When Rizzo suspected concurrently that Kelley’s fellow reliever Brandon Kintzler was the source of a Yahoo! Sports story calling the Nats clubhouse a big mess, he didn’t even bother to verify it—he sent Kintzler off to the Chicago Cubs. Both Kelley and Kintzler found themselves back in the races at their new addresses. Kintzler denied emphatically, with then-Yahoo! Sports writer Jeff Passan’s affirmation, that he was the source of the clubhouse mess story.

“If you’re not in,” Rizzo said emphatically, “you’re in the way.” In those moments it looked as though the GM himself could be charged under that statute.

Rizzo stood his ground for better or worse. So did Martinez, whose bullpen management was considered suspect but who was, in fairness, suffering a malady his predecessors had to suffer, too. For the longest time Rizzo was seen as the GM who could and did build solid starting rotations, solid position cores, and reasonable benches, but just couldn’t build bullpens with the same surety.

Martinez never lost his players when all was said and done, either. “They held onto Martinez,” writes Washington Post sportswriter Jesse Dougherty in Buzz Saw: The Improbable Story of How the Washington Nationals Won the World Series, “despite faint calls for his job, and he didn’t spend October [2018] watching the postseason. That would have been one kind of torture. He chose even worse.”

He went everywhere with an iPad that had each of the Nationals’ 162 games loaded onto it. He hunted in Wisconsin, fished outside Salt Lake City, lay in the hammock at his farm outside Nashville, and still carved out time, every day, to relive all the mistakes. There were his mistakes, mostly with the bullpen, such as leaving relievers in too long, or not striking the right balance between analytics and his gut. Then there were his players’ mistakes, such as taking the wrong plate approach, the wrong baserunning approach, or lapsing on defense . . .

He got to West Palm Beach [for spring training 2019] in early February and called for a staff meeting. That’s when he told the coaches about correcting the little things. Mistakes were met with yelling “Do it again!” into quiet mornings . . .

The calls for both Rizzo’s and Martinez’s heads ramped up at that 19-31 start last year. By the time they shoved the Milwaukee Brewers out of the wild card game, upended the Los Angeles Dodgers in the division series (something about a guy named Howie Kendrick detonating a grand slam at the expense of a manager who misread his bullpen even worse), and buried the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series, executions were no longer an option.

When Rizzo’s midyear trade acquisition Daniel Hudson struck Michael Brantley out swinging to finish what a gutsy Scherzer started (pitching five innings on fumes and probably lucky to have only two runs pried out of him) and Kendrick overturned (that pole-ringing two-run homer turning a deficit into a lead the Nats never lost) in Game Seven of the World Series, the calls weren’t for executions but canonisations.

Lately Rizzo has been more than just the deft rebuilder. The Show’s contradictory COVID-19 issues of late got a verbal beatdown from Rizzo after Nats’ tests were still delayed 72 hours after July 3.

“We cannot have our players and staff work at risk,” Rizzo said. “Therefore, we have cancelled our team workout scheduled for this morning. We will not sacrifice the health and safety of our players, staff and their families. Without accurate and timely testing it is simply not safe for us to continue with Summer Camp. Major League Baseball needs to work quickly to resolve issues with their process and their lab. Otherwise, Summer Camp and the 2020 Season are at risk.”

He wasn’t alone. The A’s, the Houston Astros, the Los Angeles Angels, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and other teams found themselves canceling workouts or intra-squad games over testing delays. This is no bowl of Raisin Bran they’re dealing with.

Letting Rizzo be the face of the Nats when it comes to coronavirus safety protocols is one thing, Nightengale writes. Letting him sit as a lame duck otherwise isn’t acceptable. “It’s insane,” he continues, “but again this is the same ownership that fired manager Dusty Baker after winning back-to-back division titles. It’s the same owners that told Bud Black he was their new manager, only to offer him a one-year deal. The same owners who have perhaps the smallest and lowest-paid front office staffs in baseball.”

The same owners whose manager earns barely more than infield comer Carter Kieboom would have earned in a full 2020 season.

Nightengale notices something else, too. He notices that, during Rizzo’s tenure, not one Nat—other than longtime clubhouse leader Jayson Werth hit with a reckless driving charge (going 105 on the Beltway)—has made room for even the mildest scandal: “No PED suspensions. No domestic violence suspensions. No discrimination lawsuits.”

No extracurricular, off-field-based high-tech cheating, either. So far. The Astros and the Boston Red Sox may or may not be right that they weren’t the only ones operating illegal intelligence agencies during their World Series-winning seasons. The New York Yankees still have some splainin’ to do about that illicit dugout phone and possible other extracurricular Yankee panky. But nobody’s pointed any such finger toward the Nats just yet. They might be the only part of Washington you can still call scandal free. So far.

When ancient questionable tweets by shortstop star Trea Turner surfaced, Turner simply manned up, said he was young and stupid and not necessarily in that order, and that was that. No muss, no fuss, no attempt to duck, nothing more than a quick apology.

Loyalty is one thing, and Rizzo has that in abundance to his bosses and his players alike, so long as he doesn’t think those players are in the way. But what does it tell you that only two other teams won more games than the 2010s Nats while the Nats finished the decade with the keys to the Promised Land but you can find almost ten teams with better-paid front office people?

Rizzo and Martinez have earned new deals. For Martinez, it might make up for his not being named Manager of the Year over the Cardinals’s Mike Schildt as he should have been for 2019. Schildt lifting a slightly leaky boat isn’t even close to Martinez raising the Titanic.

“[T]his is a proud baseball franchise,” Nightengale writes, “and shouldn’t be run like a construction site, sitting back and making bids to get the cheapest cost.” Maybe some Nats players—who are as loyal to Rizzo and Martinez as those two bosses are to them—could drive the point home further by having their batting helmets re-shaped into construction site hard hats?

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Let us not forget: The Homestead Grays, playing their home games in Washington’s ancient Griffith Stadium, beat the Birmingham Black Barons in the final Negro Leagues World Series in 1948.