Saturday, May 29, 2010

Say it ain't so, Joe

By David Newhan

Not again, Mr. West. Please tell me this is just a crazy dream. Not for the second time in less than two months are you making news?

Correct me if I am wrong, but aren’t umpires supposed to stay out of the headlines, controlling and calling the game in anonymity and obscurity while they blend into the field?
I like Joe. He is a quality umpire who has a tremendous amount of experience.

But maybe his ego got in the way here. Maybe Joe, who is a country music artist, is just trying to advertise his CD. Perhaps, this baseball thing is getting in the way of his real love--making music. Or this is just a stage for him to get a little more publicity since he is the only umpire with a publicist. I doubt that, but this season I have been reading about him too frequently.

It was only the first series of the year when he interjected his two cents on pace of play. He had the Yankees-Red Sox opening day series. Joe ripped the two teams and was disgusted with their pace of play.

Now, I have played in the AL East and whenever you go up against those two powerhouse clubs you are in for a long game. That is just the way it is. Both teams have quality, professional hitters up and down their lineups--hitters who will make a pitcher pay for any mistake. In order to pitch to those teams your “stuff” needs to be good, of course. But on top of that you have to be locating your pitches away from the heart of the plate. Needless to say, a lot of pitches are thrown because the pitcher is always trying to locate on the corners and the hitters are disciplined enough to lay off borderline pitches.

Playing in those games can be tough. The Yankees especially are renowned for their plate discipline, making a pitcher work. Look up, and it’s the still only the fifth inning, your starter has 110 pitches on his count and its approaching 10 o’clock. Wow, you had better have a good pair of insoles because there is going to be a lot of pitching changes over the next four innings! But then, everyone knows that going in.

It’s our job, and you had better be prepared to focus for those four hours!

On top of this, TV contracts mandate that baseball must take at least a two minute break between every half inning (longer in the post-season). Usually, most pitchers and defenders are ready to go way before the commercial break ends but will be forced to wait until the umpire at second base, who is holding a stopwatch, gives them the thumbs up to resume play.

If we could take 30 seconds off that allotment every inning it would cut 15 minutes off of the game time. This would also take a big chunk out of the owners’ collective wallets and isn’t going to happen. All this goes into pace of play. Besides, to the purist, isn’t the timeless nature of baseball one of the main attractions to the sport?

Joe knows this but still felt the need to be the face and voice attached to cleaning up pace of play.

This brings us to this past Wednesday. Oddly enough, Joe ejects one of the fastest paced pitchers in all of baseball in Mark Buerlhe. The Chicago White Sox pitcher gently tossed his glove after Joe, who was the first base umpire, called the second balk of the day on him in only the second inning. Buerlhe is known for having a great move and has been using that same pickoff move for the last 10 years or so.

But, my man Joe felt the need to interject himself and be a part of the game by calling two balks in two innings. I have no problem with calling the rules. In fact, I wish it was done more often. But in this situation I get the feeling that Joe maybe let his ego get the best of him.

Buerhle’s manager, Ozzie Guillen, came out to protect his pitcher and was tossed from the game as well. Ozzie, never lacking an opinion, was candid in his responses during a postgame interview. “Sometimes he thinks he’s the – in the field,” Guillen said. “People pay to watch players play, not umpires and managers.”

Guillen added “…he’s the type guy that wants to control the game.” The ejected and dejected Buerlhe responded in similar fashion. Mark said “I think he is too worried about promoting his new CD, and I think he likes seeing his name in the papers a bit too much.”

Now, Guillen and Buerlhe have been fined for their comments. Why? Just because MLB always protects its umpires and does not like what it is hearing despite the fact that it might be true? Ironically, West was also fined for giving a radio interview to two broadcasters who found out how to reach him on the road even though MLB does not permit umpires to give out their hotel locations. In this instance, Joe’s publicist couldn’t resist.

In any case, umpires in the major leagues are entitled to respect.

At the same time they need to leave their egos in the dressing room. Make the calls, do it fairly and unbiased, and blend in with the field. Sure, there are going to be arguments, and the umpires have to stand up for their decisions as long as they don’t initiate or prolong the argument in the process. Do not let ego and pride get in the way of doing a professional job.

My hope, as the summer progresses, is that Joe West and his publicist do not make a mockery of the sport and create the impression that they are trying to become larger than the game by once again stepping into the limelight.

I am sure that Joe will ump some of the biggest games and probably have the World Series again because he does a good job and has the tenure to warrant such responsibility. However, he needs to take a step back and let baseball and the players take center stage from here out.

(More on umpiring soon)

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