BASEBALL: Free the Umps!

There’s an irony growing in baseball that is a drag on the nation’s pastime, one that could weaken the new popularity the game has been growing in this century. It erases the amusement of that momentary uncertainty that the fan feels as an umpire’s arm movement is about to rule ball or strike, out or safe. There’ve been no guarantees of right or wrong. Fans cherish their right to agree or disagree. “Your eye doctor needs to see you, you bum!”

Now that right is gone. The ump is never a bum anymore. All this amusement is gone — sucked away by a faceless panel of analysts tucked away in a supposed array of TV monitors in the nameless canyons of New York City. A group who have the last word on whether the umpires got it right. For starters, who trusts New York?

This relatively new wrinkle in umpiring, intended to get calls on the bases right every time, not only dampens fun for the fans, who revel in umpiring for themselves, it clouds umpiring with a double standard. Calls on bases first, second and third, each with its own umpire, must meet perfection now. But calls at home plate, of balls and strikes, suffer the same delicious margins of doubt, consistent in the mind of the man in the mask and heavy vest, they always have.

Such is the shadow of error on balls and strikes that a batter’s mates in the dugout must refrain from loud dissent to those calls. Any slightly boisterous second-guessing of the umpire can provoke ejection without warning. Even the manager must tread very —very lightly — and converse no more than rarely with the umpire, and always in a friendly voice, or face ejection.

Yet in contrast to the new standards of perfection for calls on the bases, balls and strikes are miscalled with embarrassing regularity. In almost any half inning, a half dozen calls at the plate are likely to be wrong, as computed in the video strike zone that overlays the camera image. The outcome of a game may turn almost as often on a bad strike call as on a play at a base, if such data were kept and reviewed intensively.

No one would argue that the game belongs less to the fans than the players. The players are paid evermore outlandishly, while the fans may cut the family food budget just to squeeze into the bleachers a few times a season. So the least we can give the fans is their right to call the game as they see it, loudly second-guessing the people on the field paid to make them. No other team sport matches baseball in this liberal and incessant impeachment of the umpires, and it has always been a large measure of the popularity of the national pastime. After a close game of close calls, it often runs on irately over dinner and far into the evening, even into fitful sleep. It defines pastime quite perfectly.

So please, MLB, get that unknown panel of video officials in New York out of the game. Get it back to where it rightly has always belonged: the endless war between fans and umps.

Make those “bums” earn their money!

Frank Mensel — August 2015

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