The past few weeks have been tough on the Tigers — they still haven’t found their rhythm. And what’s been even more disheartening has been the terrible umpiring we’ve seen at many recent games.
Umpires have become front and center in recent years for missing calls, mostly because we have so many cameras capturing every angle of every play.
The missed calls are going to happen from time to time, but it’s not so much that they miss calls as the way they act when they miss a call that gets everyone so angered. It seems that umpires are so upset when their calls are questioned that they decide beforehand to throw a manager out of the game, instead of listening. Sometimes, they act like the little kid who isn’t getting noticed, so they made a big ruckus to force us to pay attention to them.
The job of the ump is to maintain order and enforce the rules of the game, not to get a big head and take a game over because they have an ego to feed.
I can think of several recent Tigers games that illustrate my point, the May 8 Tigers-Mariners game being the first of those examples. In that game, Brian Knight, the home plate umpire, essentially hijacked the bottom half of the third inning -- first by not calling strikes on multiple pitches that hit the zone, then missing a check swing. After the missed check swing, Jim Leyland (apparently) lost it and got tossed by Knight in an awfully quick ejection. The Skip never even made it out of the dugout and wasn’t even on camera yet when he got the boot.
Immediately following that, Justin Verlander came as close as anyone could come to getting thrown out thanks to a yelling match with Knight. Watching the game, it seemed that Knight egged JV on.
And that exchange got me thinking: How can an ump justify walking towards an adrenaline charged superstar who’s all amped up about some bad calls, as Knight did with Verlander? A truly good ump would know to not even make eye contact at that point. The actions by Knight that inning warranted at least a fine, if not a suspension.
Then, on May 24th in Cleveland, there was another obvious missed call -- or rather, a non-call. Justin Masterson was pitching in the fifth inning with Quintin Berry on first and Andy Dirks at the plate. Masterson got his pitch sign and, from the stretch, never stopped his motion before making the pitch. To most watching, it was a clear balk and nine times out of 10 that call is made. Yet, none of the four umps in that game caught it. This non-call helped kill any chance at a rally for the Tigers, who were down 2-1 at the time and with a runner on base.
After the missed balk, Leyland got the boot, Miguel Cabrera struck out, Prince Fielder grounded out and the Tigers went on to lose that game.
Once again, the umpire’s call seemed to shift momentum. And once again, the umpires lacked all professionalism when being questioned on it. In fact, Tom Brookins got thrown out too, for what has to be one of the first times ever as Detroit's first-base coach. In those instances, it would serve the umpires well to realize that they might have made a mistake and take the heat for a few minutes.
On May 27 at Fenway Park, Doug Fister sent a two-strike pitch in to Mike Aviles, who swung and missed. Gerald Laird caught the ball -- but according to the first base umpire, the ball hit the dirt and the play was ruled a foul ball. Apparently, home plate ump Jeff Nelson couldn’t see a ball three feet in front of him, so he had to ask the guy 93 feet from the ball for help ... Makes perfect sense.
Anyway, Leyland came storming out the dugout and was -- to put it lightly -- livid. He quickly got the boot again, but at least let the umpire have it before leaving the Fenway field. Replays showed Laird clearly caught the ball, and it should have been ruled a strikeout. After the amazingly inept display of umpiring, Boston went on to score three runs in the inning and the Tigers lost the game by, of course, three runs.
After the game, Leyland let loose: "There shouldn't have been a second-inning rally," he said, his voice rising. "There were three outs. I've been in the game a long time. You guys need to write something and hold people accountable."
Let’s be real: The Tigers are not where they are in the standings because of the umpires. However, the officiating at their recent games has done little to help them get out of this funk. I can handle the balls and strikes being erratic. And, although I could write a whole essay about the ridiculousness of having a different strike and ball pattern every night, I’m trying to focus on the big stuff -- missing a strikeout and a blatant balk is a problem.
When umpires make bad or inappropriate calls, they need to prepare to take the heat coming their way. Safe or out, balk or a ball that never hit the dirt -- in my mind there is a very simple solution: use replay.
We could even take it one step further and consider giving coaches a challenge option, like the NFL system. Right now, the MLB uses it sparingly, only on disputed potential home runs. To me, it’s a mistake. Why would you not use the technology available to make sure that every call is perfect and correct?
Some of these calls actually have prevented a team or player from making history, like the Tigers’ Armando Galarraga in the infamous 28-out perfect game. Another baffling one from Major League Baseball -- how does Bud Selig not correct that?
That (almost) perfect game was the perfect opportunity for Major League Baseball to make changes to its use of replay, but that did not happen. Instead, two gentlemen of the game, Galarraga and umpire Jim Joyce, came out front and center to demonstrate how to handle a debacle from both ends.
Joyce did what umps need to do more often, he fessed up and said he got it wrong -- even letting go of a few tears at one point. Gallaraga showed an immense amount poise and understanding while dealing with what was the strangest turn of events he’d ever experienced. Though they both handled it well, the overall scope of the incident is still disappointing, because it have could been avoided, using the technology available.
Nobody is perfect and umpires makes mistakes. Sometimes they are real mistakes, sometimes they simply make a judgment call that one side disagrees with.
It's important for the umpires to avoid the spotlight and, where possible, let the players and the game run its course. Using the technology we have for using replay more frequently is one way to prevent this, but that's on MLB to step up and make it happen.
The bigger issue is that umpires need to be more disciplined and stop trying to stick their nose out at coaches or players, because they think they are right or need to prove it. The best ump (or any official, for that matter) is the one you never see or hear or read about, even when they are challenged by the teams.
Arguments are entertaining, but have it and move on. Twice this season, Leyland’s been thrown out while still on the bench, and hitting coach Lloyd McClendon was thrown out while still in the dugout as well. I have no idea what those exact exchanges consisted of, but I am sure the ump didn’t have to toss them at that point.
The Tigers have been on the short end of the umpiring stick more times than not lately, but I have to believe they aren’t the only team feeling this way -- just look up "Todd Helton missed call" and have a laugh.
A little consistency from the umps wouldn’t hurt anyone.