Tuesday, October 28, 2008

I've Been Accused of Being Harsh on Umpires/Refs

Hey, I know I've been all over the men in blue who call balls and strikes and miss safe and out calls, most of the time. But the league has seen the ineptitude of these attitudes-in-need-of-adjustment and decided it was a good thing to go to the replay for fair/foul calls and balls that are hit for home runs but not easily distinguished by those arbiters in blue. Between ball and yellow line, foul pole, fan-leaning-over-fence, or whatever it may have been (some stadiums don't make the site line as easy to recognize as others) sometimes they need a little help and the powers that be have decided to provide them with a tool to use for this difficult decision (on some occasions).

In this 2008 Major League World Series of the Philadelphia Phillies versus the Tampa Bay DevilRays we have all seen that replay may not be limited to foul calls and home run determinations.

I have shuffled through some ideas gathered either from other sports or trial and error of baseball's past and here are a couple of those examples I'd like to share. I hope I don't stray too far from the beaten path.

In the ESPN magazine dated September 8, 2008 was a Page 2 piece on Norm Chryst, a 24-year chair umpire for tennis who says: "Instant Replay works. Best innovation since the tiebreak. It makes the game fairer and helps us get close ones right. Everyone-chair umps, line judges, players-makes mistakes. It's made some chair umps more conservative about overruling calls, and some players more willing to admit they don't always see the ball correctly. No one is perfect."

Maybe my memory doesn't serve me well, in that I was around 5 years of age when I began following major league baseball. I would read books and get as much information as I could whenever the chance became available. In other words, when I went to the library and wasn't doing a homework assignment for school I was reading something about baseball. And when the baseball books were all finished it was on to football books.

Because I was young I have memories as fresh as if they just occurred. And this was back in the day before ESPN or when games were televised as frequently as they are now. This was when fans remembered a player's jersey number because chances are his name wasn't on the back of that jersey.

My hometown Giants only showed away games versus the Los Angeles Dodgers. Then they branched out to one game at Wrigley Field (Cubs), one at Forbes Field (Pirates), and one at either Shea (Mets) or Crosley Field (Reds). But there were always at least 6 games vs. the Dodgers. If it was a 12-game schedule, they'd jostle the teams they would show. Maybe even Connie Mack Stadium (Phillies) or Busch (Cardinals) would be shown.

And my recollection of the umpires wasn't that they were these obnoxious individuals whose strike zones varied from one ump to the next. I recall it being rather consistent, with an ump, like any human being, having an occasional off day. But they all followed the rule book definition of what a strike was and you knew if you were watching an American League game, because of the pillowy chest protectors that league's home plate umpires wore, they would tend to call higher strikes than those umpires in the National League, who wore the inside protector.

Nowadays, you see a Cole Hamels and you wonder if he's getting the favorable strike zone, the way the Atlanta Braves did when they had Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine, or if he's really that good. Then you see the opposing pitcher and you notice he isn't getting the same strike zone.

Or it could be that way for a hitter as well. I cannot help but remember the Houston Astros when they had Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio (in the days of the killer B's) when they got the favorable strike zone until the playoffs began and then once the season reached the post-season it was goodbye favorable strike zone and the Astros would flame out in the first round, every time!

Some umpires make it so a pitcher has to throw the ball over the plate. The umpire won't give the pitcher any corners and this favors the hitters, especially those with home run hitting potential. Whenever Kirk Rueter was on the mound and he had to deal with an umpire of this sort, we as fans knew it was going to be tough for Woody to get the win on that particular day/evening.

The strike zone over the years has really taken on a life of its own, because of the way each and every individual umpire has taken it upon himself to devise his own personal interpretation of what he believes the strike zone to be. Leaving people to their own interpretations of something rather than following it by the book can make for a lot of discrepancies.

So if I come off as harsh when speaking of umpires or referees I just hope you allow me the opportunity to plead my case.

(thanks to ESPN mag for the chair umpire knowledge)

Kevin Marquez