This past week the Baltimore Orioles along with the baseball community watched as two different incidents with umpires occurred in games. We all saw both situations, however just to review: in incident #1 umpire Angel Hernandez looked at the replay of a clear Oakland home run in Cleveland on Wednesday, only to let the play stand as a double. In incident #2 on Thursday, Fieldin Culbreth incorrectly interpreted a rule that allowed the Houston Astros to remove a pitcher before actually facing a batter.
Both situations were clear blown calls, however they’re both different. According to MLB, the Hernandez play was merely a judgement call while the Culbreth play was the incorrect interpretation of a rule. Culbreth has since been suspended by baseball for two games, and the entire umpiring crew was fined. I would commend the league for taking action against Culbreth. This isn’t unprecedented in the sense that umpires have been suspended before, notably Bob Davidson last season. However, there is just criticism to be made of them hiding behind the “judgement call” stance with Hernandez. I say this for two reasons; first off the home run call was ten times more blatant than the rule interpretation case. However this is not the first time that Angel Hernandez has been involved in some sort of controversy. It seems that at least once or twice a year there’s some situation involving Hernandez, be it a blown call or some on-field spat with a player or coach.
Players and coaches are held to a standard of professionalism, and they have every right to expect the same from umpires. Last weekend John Hirschbeck ejected Washington’s Bryce Harper for gesturing his hands in the air. In no way does that violate the standards of professionalism of the game. Yet an umpire can literally not know a rule…? As they say on ESPN prior to Monday Night Football, “…c’mon man!” In fairness, we don’t know if the league handles disciplinary matters with umps internally. Guys might well be “held accountable” for their miscues in private. For the most part, I agree with an organization or company publically supporting it’s employee while privately scorning. However baseball is a bit different; when a player struggles to the point of going to the minors, it’s done very publically. When a coach is fired, it’s done in a very public manner. Why are umpires held above that?
I really do want to be fair; these kinds of incidents are news partially due in part to the fact that the unpires generally get the calls right. However it’s the unwillingness to listen to reason that ticks off a lot of people. To top it off, Peter Gammonds was on the radio in the aftermath of the Hernandez play, and he insinuated that Hernandez purposely blew the call (link to article). According to Gammonds, Hernandez is dead set against the use of instant replay and he made the wrong call on purpose in protest of that. If that’s true, I think we’re going to need more than just a suspension to atone for this. I would call on baseball to seriously look into who’s umpiring their games. What if Oakland finishes one game out of the playoffs? But hey, at least Hernandez’s voice about instant replay was heard.
I’m not suggesting that baseball needs to publically cut these guys’ necks off. However if a call is blown blatantly or a horrible decision is made by an umpire, someone needs to be accountable. With that said, there’s one aspect of the Culbreth situation that stands out from the Hernandez issue: Anaheim played under protest. Section 4.19 of the MLB rulebook discusses playing under protest, and it specifically says that it cannot be on a judgement call by an umpire. Mike Scioscia informed Culbreth that he was violating a rule in a game, and Culbreth disagreed and did it anyway. Scioscia then informed Culbreth that he was playing the game under protest. Anaheim won the game in the end, so the protest was dropped, however had Houston won the game Scioscia would have had to file a formal protest with the league. A decision would have come from the league office on the matter, and if their disciplinary action against Culbreth is any indication I suspect that they would have ordered the game replayed.
One could justifiably argue that the Hernandez call wouldn’t be “protestable” given that it was a judgement call. However at best you could claim that Hernandez was interpreting what is and is not a home run incorrectly, therefore it was rule interpretation. However we don’t see teams playing under protest like that so much anymore, and it’s almost seen as an archaic part of baseball. Perhaps if more managers were willing to go this route we’d start seeing the calls get tighter. It’s obvious that managers and players aren’t getting through to umpires and the league by making veiled comments about the umpiring in their clubhouses after games. So why not use the protest rules that the league provides? If the league has to listen to more protests, they’re going to make attempts to shore up what the umpires are doing and saying.
I think that for the most part, big league umps do a fair job of calling these games. However all it takes is a renegade ump to screw things up for the other guys. There are some great umpires out there, including the crew who’s done this weekend’s Orioles’ series with Minnesota. And the good umpires will also accept blame for what happens. When Jim Joyce blew the perfect game call a few years ago, he admitted it immediately and it was obvious he felt terrible about it. The same is true of Richie Garcia in the Jeffrey Maier game in 1996 at Yankee Stadium. I have a lot of respect for those guys, as they owned up to their errors. I call on the league to protect the good ones by weeding out the bad.