By Andrew Kahn
I’ve attended hundreds of sporting events and have yet to hear any of the following: “That fly-over was lame.” “The beer line is too short.” “The refs/umps/officials are doing a great job.”
That last non-comment comes with the job for baseball umpires and their counterparts in other sports. Umpires should aspire to be seen and heard but not discussed. That they’ve been in the news so much lately is not a good look. To recap:
- Umpire Joe West was suspended by Major League Baseball for three games for comments he made about a player.
- Tigers’ second baseman Ian Kinsler called out a particular umpire and was subsequently fined.
- Many umpires expressed their displeasure with the way players have treated them—and their perceived lack of response from MLB—by wearing white wristbands for a day.
The day after Kinsler was ejected by Angel Hernandez, Kinsler ripped Hernandez, saying, “He’s messing with baseball games, blatantly,” and “He needs to find another job.” He was fined—reportedly a relatively massive sum of $10,000—but not suspended, and the World Umpires Association (WUA) had a problem with that. The group released a statement citing “escalating verbal attacks” and demanding the commissioner’s office take stronger action. The wristband protest was dropped after one day once the commissioner agreed to meet to discuss their concerns.
While West’s suspension was not mentioned in the statement, the WUA had previously expressed its disapproval with that decision. West was punished for singling out Rangers’ third baseman Adrian Beltre in a story for USA Today. Under a section titled “Biggest complainer,” West says, “It’s got to be Adrian Beltre. Every pitch you call that’s a strike, he says, ‘Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!’ I had a game with him recently and the pitch was right down the middle. He tells me, “that ball is outside.’ I told him, ‘You may be a great ballplayer, but you’re the worst umpire in the league. You stink.’”
While it doesn’t appear MLB consulted with Beltre—who said he felt West’s comments were said in jest and didn’t think the suspension was necessary—before handing out a punishment seven weeks after the USA Today story published, the league can’t afford to look the other way. If there’s any perception that an umpire has a beef with a specific player, manager, or team, it hurts the integrity of the game.
On the flip side, Kinsler’s comments could be dealt with less severely—though the severity of a fine can be debated—precisely because he is a player. He made it very clear he does not care for Hernandez. So what? That vendetta has no impact on the outcome of games.
What upsets the WUA most is what West talked about—before any of the aforementioned events happened—for a profile in Sports Illustrated. “I think, as in everything in this country, there’s not the respect for the official that there was when I started,” West said. “And I think that’s a failure of our system, not so much baseball, but the way of life. People don’t respect authority like they used to.”
Ignoring, for now, the societal implications—and West does mention the public’s relationship with police—West has a point. Umpires must enforce the rules to keep order. For the system to hold up, the players have to respect the umps. That’s important to remember, but so is this: Performance helps maintain that respect.
Hernandez was voted by players as MLB’s third-worst umpire in 2011 (SI poll), 2010 (ESPN), and 2006 (SI). (I couldn’t find any more recent player polls.) He’s in the midst of a lawsuit against MLB that alleges racial discrimination has cost him advancement opportunities. It’s not hard to find a baseball fan who wonders how Hernandez—who once blew a call and refused to overturn it on replay—continues to work important games (such as the NLCS last year).
Hernandez takes heat because many share Kinsler’s opinion. C.B. Bucknor, for the record, was right there with Hernandez in those player polls. West’s demeanor makes him harder for players to pin down. He often appears on lists for both best and worst umpires.
Umpires crave respect. They deserve it, too. Until they don’t.
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local. He writes about baseball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn