Getting over the Ump

added 6/3/2010 by Darrell Pittman

Recently, MLB umpiring has come under scrutiny for two very different reasons. The first is that (gasp!) umpires sometimes blow calls. The second is that umpires are increasingly quick with the thumb.

On Wednesday night, Detroit pitcher Armando Gallaraga was robbed of what would have been a perfect game when umpire Jim Joyce ruled Cleveland's Jason Donald safe at first base on a fairly routine 3-1 play that should have sent the game into the record books as MLB's 21st perfect game. Replays clearly show that Donald was out by a fraction of a second, and Joyce himself admits he blew the call.

Any of us, viewing that play in real time on the ground, could blow the same call.

The problem is that this will renew calls for video review of each close call in a sport that already struggles to play its games in under three hours. If every manager were allowed to call for a video review of each call he disagreed with, every baseball game would take six hours or more.

The truth is that the umps do a fantastic job, and they get it right 99.99% of the time.

Perhaps the answer is to expand the limited video-review rule already in place. Each manager can protest any call (aside from balls and strikes) once each game, and once only, and the protested call gets immediate video review.

Human error and blown calls have always been, and will always be, part of the game. That's something to be treasured, not trashed. I doubt that many of us would show up to watch a pitching machine in action. But perhaps there is room for technology to help where it's appropriate, just as mitts and batting helmets once did.

It's also true that umpires hate to be shown up, going so far as having their union prohibit in-stadium replays of close calls on the JumboTron. You can bet that Tiger fans did not see the replay that we did, at least not until they got home.

That leads to the second problem: Umpires are becoming overly sensitive, and increasingly quick to give the heave-ho.

Roy Oswalt was tossed from Monday night's game, essentially for yelling at himself after missing a pitch. Plate umpire Bill Hohn didn't see it that way, however, so Roy got the hook in the third inning, taxing Houston's bullpen. Rays manager Joe Maddon, not known for polemics, has been tossed twice in the past month. Umpire Joe West was recently fined by MLB for his quick thumb.

I doubt it was Alexander Joy Cartwright's intention that the umpire should become another player, yet that is what's happening as umpires more and more become a factor in a game's outcome. Umpires do best when they are noticed least.

With all the other controversy swirling around MLB these days, with Jose Canseco testifying against Roger Clemens before a Federal grand jury today, about the last thing baseball needs is questions about the umpires.

They're supposed to be, as George Will put it, the "designated adults" of our game.