By Diane M. Grassi
As we embrace the initial games of the 2009 Fall Classic, otherwise known as the World Series, brought to you by Major League Baseball (MLB). Historically, it will be the latest start ever for a World Series, commencing October 28, 2009 and to possibly conclude as late as November 5, 2009, should a Game 7 be necessary.
But let us not digress, as there are more problems which should keep the minds of the brain trust of Major League Baseball, Inc. occupied, after a horrid conclusion, in the umpiring department, during the 2009 American League Division Series (ALDS), the National League Division Series (NLDS), the American League Championship Series (ALCS) as well as the National League Championship Series (NLCS).
However, contrary to the public outrage by supposed baseball fans, sports radio and sports TV talk show hosts, most of whom could care less about MLB during its regular season, there is reason for cooler heads to preside. Before knee- jerk cries for instant replay actually become a reality, it is essential that the underlying umpiring problems be examined.
Former MLB Commissioner, Fay Vincent (1989-1992), in an October18, 2009 New York Times editorial stated that, “Major League Baseball does not train its own umpires and therefore it has not established practices that would attract the best people. Those who wish to enter the profession attend schools run by former umpires. But these are entirely private businesses; the commissioner of baseball doesn’t control the curriculum or manage the training.”
What Fay Vincent is alluding to is the fact that without a uniform standard overseen by MLB, simply implanting new technology will not solve the systemic problem, demonstrated by numerous 2009 post-season bad calls, most notably one by Phil Cuzzi in the ALDS Game 2, when the Twin’s Joe Mauer hit a potential double to left field, clearly within fair territory but called a foul ball, and in the ALCS Game 4, when Tim McClelland blew the call at 3rd base with two Yankee base runners clearly off the bag and yet calling only Jorge Posada out and not Robinson Cano as well.
What each of those two most egregious calls has in common is that both umpires were exactly where they needed to be. They were both right on top of the plays, yet still missed the calls. They were not bang-bang plays such as a stolen base play or a runner beating out a throw to 1st base. The problem was clearly one of ineptitude by the umps.
Necessary to understand the gravity of blown calls during the all important MLB post-season contests, however, is to put them into some type of historical context. Obviously, incorrect calls have been part of baseball lore since the introduction of the first professional umpire in 1876.
But the advent of technology will not correct MLB’s systemic problems with the training of umpires, the selection process and evaluation for post-season umpire assignments and the remaining political tightrope between the World Umpires Association (WUA), the umpires’ union, and MLB.
Firstly, the infrastructure that oversees MLB umpiring must be a priority for MLB Operations. To wit, the MLB commissioner should give its MLB Operations, which presides over its MLB Umpiring Operations, autonomy in providing it with its own budget, the necessary resources that would give it more umpire supervisors – it currently has 7 – better training resources and better compensation at the minor league level. Currently, the average minor league umpire averages a salary of $1,900.00 per month, with a maximum of $20,000 per season. Additionally, most minor leagues umpires serve in the minor leagues an average of 10 years.
MLB also needs independent evaluators, rather than strictly relying upon MLB umpires, or private umpiring schools, strictly run as private enterprises by present and former MLB umpires. MLB has never provided any training schools, financing, nor oversight for its up and coming umpires headed to the major leagues.
But MLB wants it both ways. It does not invest in the quality of training or evaluation of its umps, yet now requires umpires to compete with, in many cases, television’s super slow motion replays, MLB’s Pitchf/x and Hitf/x technologies, radar technology and other high tech camera equipment all installed at MLB ballparks, without giving access to or benefit of such technology to its umps.
Not unlike its refusal to use an independent lab and auditor for its illegal substance abuse testing program of its players, MLB may have to revisit its head-in-the-sand approach to many of its policies; and in this most recent bugaboo; its umpire training, evaluation and post-season selection process.
And with regard to the selection process, that also must be overhauled. As a last-ditch effort to save face, due to the repeated gaffes by the 2009 post-season umpiring crews, MLB decided to go with an all-senior World Series crew of 6. Since 1983, MLB has selected 1 or 2 World Series umps who previously never had worked the World Series. But clearly, seniority or past experience is not necessarily the solution, as Tim McClelland’s 28 years of MLB experience did not prevent his blown calls in Game 4 of the ALCS.
More problematic is that no umpires are allowed to work the World Series two post-seasons in a row. Add to that, no umpires are allowed to work consecutive post-season series in one year. Therefore, no umpires who worked the 2009 ALCS or NLCS will be working the World Series, though they may have had outstanding regular seasons or did good jobs in World Series past.
Additionally, out of the 68 full-time MLB umpires, a dozen, including 7 crew chiefs, from the 2009 season, are either injured or ill and were not available for post-season assignments. That means less umps were available to choose from in the experience arena.
This current selection process for post-season umpiring assignments is actually quite recent in that there were no Division Championship Series (DCS) prior to 1995, and now the DCS is the only pool of 24 from which MLB may select those who can work the World Series. Prior to that, the criterion was obviously different. And this year, as just decided by MLB, no DCS umpire who has not worked a prior World Series will be eligible for such assignment.
Another concern is the post-season bonuses paid to MLB umpires. Not only do the post-season crews get a paltry $15,000.00 for working the DCS and a $20,000 reward for each umpire working the LCS and the same reward for those working the World Series, but some level of financial compensation is awarded all 68 MLB umpires, whether or not they worked the post-season or had less than favorable regular season performance reviews. Therefore, this means there is less of a financial remuneration for the post-season working crews and such is a disincentive for other umpires to excel.
There are a combination of MLB executives and employees including: Executive VP of Baseball Operations, Vice President of Umpiring, 7 Umpire Supervisors, Special Assistant to the Vice President of Umpiring, Director of Umpire Administration, MLB Umpire Administration Specialist, 11 Umpire Observers, amongst other extraneous personnel that comprise MLB’s oversight of umpiring. How this translates into due diligence of its umpiring post-season selection process remains an open question.
The criteria for post-season selection considers regular season strike zone performance, situational management, plays handled, number of missed calls, overall umpiring knowledge, pace of game, in-season supervisor comments, mobility, hustle-focus-demeanor and experience. But how objective or scientific these measures are applied by former umpires and MLB suits remains a red flag.
Also to note, for the instant replay proponents, it has taken years for the National Football League (NFL) to streamline its replay technology in coordination with its on-field officials. And for those who can no longer recall, the NFL initially instituted instant replay in 1986 and it lasted through the 1992 season. However, after the 1992 season, NFL owners voted to discontinue its use, which at that time was used at the discretion of the referees. It did not return until 1999 and at such time two coach challenges were allowed per game per team only to be amended once again in 2004 when each coach was provided a 3rd challenge, if the first 2 challenges were proven successful.
Although the reason given for the NFL’s ending instant-replay after the1992 season was due to length of game, an overriding concern in MLB, it still remains a question as to whether the replays resolve all challenged calls, as the referees must still consider the NFL’s ever-changing rule book and its phantom whistles, fumbles versus tucks and the limitations of the naked eye, even in slow-mo.
In sum, if MLB intends to do right by its teams, its players and its fans, then it must play a role in the development of MLB umpires; much like that which it does for its minor league players. Also, minor league officials hire minor league umpires, doing business as a separate entity from that of the major leagues. Therefore, it works in a vacuum and eliminates the potential for cohesiveness and assurance for a natural progression to the MLB level for its umpires.
Without the necessary resources and training guaranteed by MLB, in spite of potential discordant collective bargaining issues and politics, we will never be assured that the best quality product is on the field. Financial reward for performance excellence and post-season assignments, as well as fair compensation in the minor leagues is also essential for its umpires’ success.
So as the WUA collective bargaining agreement with MLB expires as of December 31, 2009, on the heels of one of the most demoralizing post-season umpiring performances in the past 25 years, it might serve as a silver lining for MLB to take the time to rethink its approach before MLB becomes overly dependent upon technology, which has its place, rather than first addressing the heart of good officiating.
And let us hope that there are no snow-outs during this year’s Fall Classic!
Copyright ©2009 Diane M. Grassi