Replay Isn’t the Kind of Review That Will Make Umpires Better By BRUCE WEBER
Missed calls by umpires during the past baseball season prompted Commissioner Bud Selig to say he would examine the umpiring and replay systems. One reason the expansion of instant replay in baseball is objectionable is that it advances the notion that umpires are an addendum to the game, a necessary evil.
To the contrary, umpires are an inherent element of baseball. The guidelines written in 1845 by Alexander Cartwright and other members of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club, generally considered the game’s establishing fundamentals, included Rule 17: “All disputes and differences relative to the game, to be decided by the umpire, from which there is no appeal.”
Umpiring is in baseball’s DNA, and though making calls electronically — and ostensibly perfectly — may sound like an innovation that has only a positive side, at some point, so did installing artificial turf. Do we really want a new form of baseball, one in which fans will have to do without arguments over close calls?
Television technology has placed the umpires under greater scrutiny than ever, making manifest the difficulty of their task, revealing more missed calls than many fans are comfortable with and leading to desperate declarations of woe. “The state of umpiring has never been worse,” Sports Illustrated declared last week.
But instead of reducing the role of umpires by expanding replay, why not help them improve?
The way to do this is for baseball to begin thinking of umpires as they do players, as assets to be maximized.
Players, as they develop in the minor leagues, are overseen by major league clubs, but Major League Baseball plays a minimal role in the development of umpires. In fact, the system that feeds umpires to the big leagues is meant to encourage them to quit before they get there.
Two schools, independent from Major League Baseball and with virtually no entrance requirements, train umpires for the lowest levels of minor league baseball, and then Minor League Baseball (an organization also separate from Major League Baseball) administers and evaluates them until they reach Class AAA. Umpires are paid abysmally and thought of as seasonal employees and apprentices rather than professionals.
Minor League Baseball is preparing to start an umpire school to compete with the independents, but that will not alter the system or the product. Major League Baseball needs to be involved in the training, development and administration of professional umpires. Promising amateurs working high school and college games should be recruited. Uniform standards for the strike zone and for positioning should be taught and enforced throughout the professional network, from rookie leagues to the majors. Salaries and benefits for minor league umpires should be increased so the job appears at least somewhat desirable to competent people.
For players, professional baseball is a year-round pursuit. The winter is for training, body strengthening, working on weaknesses. Some minor league umpires work in Latin American baseball, but those in the big leagues are essentially on vacation.
Baseball could hold mandatory refresher sessions for umpires in the off-season, during which they would view and discuss problem calls from the recent season, review the rule book and, most crucial, conduct experiments in field positioning.
Prescribed positions exist for virtually all situations that umpires encounter, but they are hardly flawless. Umpires make their best guesses about where to look for the crucial element of plays.
But many missed calls result from players’ miscues; a wide throw makes the first baseman lunge and stretch, for example, and the umpire is forced to watch the glove or the bag because both are not in the line of vision. Other blown calls, especially on tag plays, can be attributed to umpires’ views being obstructed by players’ bodies.
Subtle adjustments can solve some of those problems, and the umpires should be able to work on those adjustments the way a pitcher works on throwing his fastball and his breaking ball with the same arm angle. During the off-season, baseball could hire a few dozen minor leaguers to field and throw and run and slide, simulating game situations so the umpires could tinker with their techniques.
In addition to technological evaluations of every pitch, monitored by umpire crew chiefs, baseball could keep statistics on umpires’ calls in the field and publish them. Count the missed calls — on bang-bang plays at first base, on tag plays, on boundary judgments (including home run, fair/foul and catch/no catch) — so everyone knows who is having a good year and who is not.
It would stimulate the same sense of competition among umpires that exists among players and motivate them to improve. And it would provide solid information for administrators to hold umpires accountable for their performances.
In the minors, a couple of poor evaluations in a season could easily result in an umpire’s release. The union for major league umpires is especially forceful on the issue of job security, and the process for dismissing one for competence is so complex that it is almost never invoked. If a player can be sent back to Class AAA, the same should be true of umpires who are slumping or whose skills have declined.
Umpires represent a great tradition in baseball, one that can only be undercut by shaving away their responsibilities. Some of the most skillful umpiring is invisible; maintaining control over a game is the umpires’ prime responsibility, and that often involves how they behave after they make mistakes.
Yes, the prominent missed calls, replayed on television again and again, are bad for the game. What slow motion and high definition have taught us, though, is not that umpiring should be marginalized, but rather that it can be improved. And it should be.
Bruce Weber, a reporter for The Times, is the author of “As They See ’Em: A Fan’s Travels in the Land of Umpires.”