As baseball gets ready for the World Series, there is a sense of trepidation in the build up, the nagging - and not entirely unwarranted - fear that the game's showcase event could be adversely affected by suspect umpiring.
Blown calls could hurt World Series
As baseball gets ready for the World Series, there is a sense of trepidation in the build up, the nagging - and not entirely unwarranted - fear that the game's showcase event could be adversely affected by suspect umpiring. The first two rounds of the play-offs were compromised by a series of blown calls. In the Division Series between the New York Yankees and the Minnesota Twins, Phil Cuzzi called a ball foul which landed fair by a foot, and CB Bucknor blew two calls at first base during the Boston Red Sox-Los Angeles Angels series.
Things really got out of control in the American League Championship Series between the Angels and Yankees. In Game 4, the second base umpire Dale Scott blew a call in which Nick Swisher was clearly out diving back into second base on a pick off throw. The worst calls came from Tim McClelland, regarded as one of the game's best umpires. McClelland wrongly ruled that Swisher left before tagging up at third base, then missed two Yankees being called out at third base at the end of a run down. McClelland later acknowledged he had missed both calls, a show of accountability that many of his colleagues could learn from.
Fortunately for the umpires - and by extension, MLB - none of the calls changed the outcome of the games. In apparent response to the frequent umpiring errors, MLB changed its World Series crew, going with a more seasoned bunch. In 24 of the previous 25 World Series, MLB assigned at least one umpire to work his first series; this year, all of the six umpires have been there before. Not that experience translates to perfection, as McClelland showed, but at the very least we are assured of having umpires who are not likely to be intimidated by the event.
Talk of expanded instant replays seems like a futile exercise since the MLB commissioner, Bud Selig, is on record as being opposed to further use beyond the current boundary-only calls. There are, though, steps that can be taken to improve MLB umpiring. For one thing, baseball's labour agreement expires at the end of this year, and changes need to be bargained in the post-season selection process.
In an effort on the part of the union to spread around post-season work, rules state that umpires cannot work back-to-back marque events such as the two League Championship Series and the World Series. Umpires are also prohibited from working consecutive World Series. Major League Baseball should work to strike both of these clauses from the next contract. If the goal is to have the best umpires in the most important games, the selection process should help to accomplish that.
The emphasis should be on rewarding the best umpires, not spreading around the most lucrative and prestigious assignments to as many union members as possible. Further, MLB needs to make its job evaluations public. If McClelland grades out as the most effective and trustworthy arbiter among the 60 or so full-time umpires, that should be made known. Conversely, if an umpire rates poorly then that, too, should be publicised. And if an umpire consistently grades out poorly, then that umpire needs to either be fired or, like players, be sent back to the minors to further develop his skills.
Finally, Major League Baseball should take a page from the NFL and acknowledge on-field mistakes. MLB's stubborn refusal to do this reveals an unwillingness to confront the obvious - that human beings are prone to occasional gaffes. That said, the fewer the better. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org