Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Few, The Proud, The Officials


I have been watching the Divisional and League Championship Series in Baseball with great interest, as always. And as always, I am half-annoyed, half- amused to see the reaction to game situations and official calls from people with a poor notion at best of what really happened.

This year seems to have had more controversy than most seasons. In Game 2 of the ALCS, A.J. Pierzynski of the White Sox swung through a low pitch on a two-strike count, for strike three. However, Josh Paul did not catch the ball cleanly, and while Plate Umpire Doug Eddings correctly rang up the third strike, he did not call “out”, because he understood the ball remained in play. Pierzynski picked up on that and ran for first, but Paul made the poor assumption that the inning was over and rolled the ball out to the mound, which pitcher Kelvim Escobar also had left, seeing his catcher head for the dugout and so thinking the inning was done. While replays were disputed about whether Paul actually caught the ball before it hit the ground, the stupidity of so many fans forgot the basic fact; that unless and until the Umpire calls the play over, it is still in play.

Then, in Game 4 of the NLCS, Phil Cuzzi called from behind the plate what looked to me to be a large but consistent strike zone, which worked well for both starting pitchers, but which reliever Jason Marquis found difficult to find. LaRussa, who had been moaning about the zone all game long, came out of the dugout to protest a walk issued to Lance Berkman on four straight pitches, which replay ironically showed were nowhere close to being strikes. LaRussa, not always able to accept reality, appeared to me to be trying to get thrown out of the game, as a spark to charge up his team, a tactic desperate managers use from time to time. In the actual event, it only inspired Jim Edmonds to get himself thrown out for the same stunt a half-inning later. All in all, not smart game management by LaRussa.

And then there was Game 6 of the NLCS. In the bottom of the fifth inning, with Houston leading 3-0 but the Cardinals threatening with nobody out, Adam Everett made a sweeping tag of Yadier Molina at second, who was called out. Cardainals fans and the less-than-balanced TV crew claimed the tag was missed, ignoring the fact that the umpire was closer and in position to make the call.. With one out and two on, John Rodriguez hit a sacrifice fly which allowed the Cards to score and close the margin to 3-1 Astros, but that was as close as they got, so the call never factored into the game.

The fans and more than a few chattering hairpieces have been demanding Instant Replay be used in MLB, or new umpires be brought in, or both, for some time now. The umpires and the league office have resisted, and with good reason. In the first place, devotion to video misses the fact that the camera can and does miss perspective. A good example is the way camera shots claim to spot whether or not a pitch is a ball or strike. The problem is that camera shots are only two-dimensional, and when the frame is frozen at any one spot, it misses the motion of the ball, and the fact that the window used by the umpire for the strike zone is actually a three-dimensional box, and where the ball finishes, or where it is any one point in time does not determine whether it is a ball or strike. Thus, even with replay footage of the pitch, almost every commentator fails to understand the nature of the ball/strike call, and so cannot speak with authority on the umpire’s opinion. The same thing happened in the Everett/Molina tag; the two camera angles used to show the play did not, if you pay attention, show a clean miss by Everett, but a close play which may or may not have been a tag. The plain fact missed by the chattering critics of the call, is that the umpire made the call, from a better position and with better preparation than anyone else.

I am hardly claiming that umpires never make mistakes. Yet they are an unalterable fact of the game, like weather and field conditions. If people demand an absolutely consistent, unchanging official standard on every pitch call, on every catch call, on every tag call, they must reasonably demand that every field in baseball be built to exactly the same size and dimensions; no more “Green Monster” or “Tal’s Hill”, no more roofs of any kind, or else everyone gets them. Same crowd capacity, no matter the size of the city, and oh yes, same starting times and weather conditions, or the games don’t count. If this sounds ludicrous, it should. It’s equally ludicrous to remove the human element of the umpires. While umpires work awfully long and hard to get every call perfectly right, they are human, and baseball is a sport which requires many judgment calls, and it’s a tough-skinned individual indeed, who can make so many high-pressure calls with all the attention thrust on them. Athletes, when they are honest about it, often admit that professional officials do a job which they themselves could not do, and meet a very, very high standard. Unfortunately, just as fans far too often take the hard work, preparation, and dedicated effort of an athlete for granted, they also fail to understand what it takes to work a plate or a bag in such conditions.

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