The media is all a-twitter about the sudden inability of baseball umpires to make any correct calls during this postseason. Safe is out and out is safe. The Alice-in-Wonderland performance of the men in blue has increased demands for instant replay. Baseball purists explode in response that, after all, the game is not football, where the referee escapes from the field to don his video hood and watch the replay for ten minutes while the network shows commercials. But the flubs on the baseball diamond are troubling. What are we to do?
Some demand a technological response to every questionable call. We have all seen umpires miss ball-and-strike calls according to the Amica strike zone. Replay on the base paths are even more telling. He was off the bag! No one seems to bother with the abundant calls the umpires get right, all in an instant. We expect them to be perfect, and then improve. National League Umpire Harry Wendelstedt suggested what might happen: "If they did get a machine to replace us . . . the players would bust it to pieces every time it ruled against them. They'd clobber it with a bat."
Umpires have always been subject to criticism. In the nineteenth century, umpires were attacked by the crowd of "cranks" and had to be escorted from the field when the home team lost. It was not by chance that the most ubiquitous chant in the game was directed not at the opposing team, but at the officials: "Kill the umpire!" Johnny Evers of the Hall of Fame double play combination of Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance, said: "My favorite umpire is a dead one." Ugh. Even the glorious Christian Gentleman, Christy Mathewson, expressed his negative views: "Many baseball fans look upon an umpire as a sort of necessary evil to the luxury of baseball, like the odor that follows an automobile."
I still prefer the way games were umpired when the sport began in the mid-nineteenth century. There was but one umpire who sat on a raised chair adjacent to the first base line. When he could not see a play, he would turn to the crowd and ask their opinion. Now there is an improvement.
There is no reason why instant replay should not be extended to all so-called "boundary" calls. Currently, umpires can go to the videotape when there is a question whether a hit was a home run, fell short or went foul. It would be easy to use tape to check calls about fair or foul balls down the line, and it shouldn't take much time. This way Joe Mauer's hit in the second game of the Twins division series against the Yankees would have been called a double. The Yanks still would have won the series.
I guess that my overall feeling about this newly-discovered lack of confidence in the umpires is that it is a tempest in a rather small teapot. In the long run, it will all even out - but, as John Maynard Keynes reminded us, "in the long run, we are all dead." New, enhanced technological replays, however, will not bring a pennant to Cleveland or Baltimore.
Baseball is tailor-made for controversy, which, I guess, is part of its charm. No other game allows (perhaps encourages) a manager to run out on the field and vocally protest an umpire's call directly to his face. On occasion, the manager may be tossed out of the game, but that is rare. Generally, I find this tantruming amusing, although terrible role modeling for our children. Earl Weaver, the longtime manager of the Orioles, was my favorite. Heading to the dugout after one song-and-dance with an umpire, Weaver said, "I'm going to check the rule-book on that." The umpire responded, "Here, use mine." Weaver quickly replied: "That's no good - I can't read Braille."
Here's one idea no one has suggested. If an umpire makes a really bad call, maybe the offended team can throw him out of the game. Hit the showers, ump.