Kill the Umpire

June 05, 2012 | Thyrl Nelson

They call him Blue because of the color that he wears (or wore) on the field, but the name Blue speaks to more than just that. You refer to him as Blue instead of by name because you don’t know his name, and shouldn’t care to. “Blue” speaks to his anonymity, as the best umpires are the ones that you never notice. “Blue” works on another level too, as (pun intended) when we do get to know their names it’s because blue, or more often blew, has entered the picture.

Fans don’t pay to see (or know) the umpires and generally when we learn Blue’s name it’s because he screwed something up. We remember Richie Garcia because of the call he blew in the “Jeffrey Maier Game” in the 1996 ALCS. We know the name of Jim Joyce for the call that he blew at first base as Armando Galaraga and the Tigers secured what should have been the final out of a perfect game. We know the name of John Hirschbeck because of the spittle (and whatever else) that Roberto Alomar blew at him on an ominous night in Toronto in 1996. And we know the name of “Cowboy” Joe West for the vocals he blew on his album “Blue Cowboy”. All things considered, fans would likely prefer that all 5 were simply anonymous “Blues” again.


The other funny thing about Blue is that, at the end of the day, he may simply be a remnant of a bygone era, a token who remains relevant and necessary simply because that’s the way that things have always been, and for possibly little other good reason. As the world calls Major League Baseball to task for its failure to take better advantage of the technology at hand and implement a more encompassing replay system, perhaps we can look at the whole matter as another symptom of baseball’s inability to get out of their own way or to simply embrace the present and take legitimate steps to make the game itself better…and more fair.


In an era of technology in which replay has pervaded the landscapes of nearly every major professional sport and sporting league, in an era where the NFL implemented, refined, scrapped, debated, revived and continues to refine their own replay policies, baseball finally and begrudgingly implemented an archaic replay policy of their own, specific only to home run calls, without uniform camera angles from ballpark to ballpark and one involving a parade of umpires vacating the field to convene in a secret room in the bowels of the stadium for the last month of the 2008 season and beyond. (Furthermore, in typical baseball fashion, the move was seemingly done in response to Alex Rodriguez being denied a homerun before his own steroid revelations, as baseball clamored for the day he’d write Barry Bonds out of the record books.)


So here we are, in the year 2011, with high definition technology in every ballpark, and a better view of the games from your living rooms (even without the benefit of replay) than you could possibly have from any spot amidst the action. Historically, MLB has seemingly always been a step or two behind the times, and in this case there’s no difference. As baseball looks squarely back into the barrel of the instant replay debate, it’s evident that they should already be way past that point. Baseball should, by now, be looking to get rid of the umpires altogether. The next time the huddle of umps retreats to the video room to look over a homerun call, someone should lock the door behind them and tell them to stay there. Let them stay there until they get it right, or so that they can get it more right more often.


The biggest, and most effective argument against replay seems to be that it will slow the pace of an already lethargic game to the point that even more fans will be put off by its lack of tempo. While that, especially under current practices, is probably true, it’s conceivable that eliminating the umpires altogether, or at least their presence on the field could and should actually speed up the game dramatically.


Start with the home plate umpire. Every umpire’s strike zone it seems is a little different, and old baseball logic says that as long as the umpire is consistent throughout the night the size of his strike zone shouldn’t matter, and hitters will adjust. How often though are umpires consistent throughout the night? QuesTec proved (to some degree) that cameras and computers could measure strike zones. Argue its accuracy all you like, but there’s little denying its consistency or its potential to improve. Every broadcast it seems has an instantaneous pitch tracker to show fans the arc and location of a pitch as it crossed home plate. While likely not perfect, they are consistent, which is all we ask of good umpires anyway.


Furthermore, pitch trackers, set up to a uniform standard in every ballpark will never expand or squeeze the strike zone based on human nature and game situations. The computer won’t be affected when pitchers or batters roll their eyes when close calls don’t go their way, and who in the hell is going to waste time arguing with the computer? (Which by the way makes about as much sense as arguing with an actual ump as they rarely if ever change those calls anyway.) It’s also unlikely that the computer would issue any 3-ball walks like we’ve seen on a couple of occasions in MLB this year, as the umpire in the control room wouldn’t require a coordination with the scoreboard operator, his counter could be the stadium scoreboard.


MLB could mandate video boards in uniform locations in every stadium that would relay calls made from the video booth and could easily add accompanying audio to play over the stadiums’ PA systems, as umpires really aren’t required to say very much anyway. Likewise uniform camera angles could be mandated to insure good replays of homerun and fair/foul reviews. Calls on the bases could be made in a similar way, on video boards with accompanying audio calls, “safe at first”, “out at second”, relaying calls made quickly, easily and much more accurately from the video room.


Once play is stopped and the ball is ruled dead, umpires could review any video of controversial plays, and in cases where calls are fixable without compromising the action or game situation (like the Joyce and Meals calls) they could fix them; all done quickly and without a parade of umpires retreating off of the field to deliberate.


If baseball really wanted to speed the pace of games, then they could require umps to enforce the 12-second rule in which the pitcher has to release his pitch from the time he receives the throw back from the catcher. Twelve seconds may be a bit quick, and therefore the rule is never enforced, and umpires have enough to look out for without putting the stopwatch on pitchers too. The computers though…


Since we’re already blowing the lid off baseball, albeit for the betterment of the game, and digitizing, mechanizing and computerizing the whole thing anyway, why not go for broke? Get ready for the blasphemous part for purists…a clock in baseball?!?!?!?!?


Put up a shot clock; make it 15 seconds, with a buzzer at the end if the pitcher is still holding the ball. If he steps off, reset it. If he steps off too much, warn him. If the buzzer goes off, call a ball. If the batter wants time out, he can raise his hand and wait for the audio/visual acknowledgment that timeout is granted. Once it is, put a 10 second clock on him too. When 10 seconds is up the pitcher is free to pitch. Pace quickened…problem solved.


At the end of the day it sounds pretty simple, and to some degree overdue. Will there be issues to consider? Certainly. That’s what spring training and Triple-A are for. Stage some of those games at big league ballparks, using the installed technology and test it out and refine it. The human element argument is past its time, and fixing these things would enhance the game, and it’s meaningful components without prolonging it. It could draw fans (if for no other reason, than simply for its inherent spectacle) and by insuring the attention isn’t focused on those who are supposed to remain anonymous anyway, might showcase the game in a way that would keep them.


Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, as there are people’s livelihoods and an Umpire’s Union to consider here too, killing the ump doesn’t actually eliminate him, it simply removes him from view, and notice and scrutiny. It restores his anonymity and provides him a better means to be right more often. Manning the video controls is by no means a one-man job, and umpires would have specific call designations and areas of responsibility on which to focus. It’s also certainly not a practice that could be emulated at lower levels of baseball, and is only conceivable at the Major League level. They don’t get a fresh ball for every pitch at baseball’s lower levels either.


In the wake of the latest rounds of ump bashing, it makes sense for baseball to again begin to investigate ways to restore Blue to anonymity, as he’s supposed to be…and oh by the way, to try and make sure that calls are made more accurately in the first place.