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YOU CAN’T ARGUE WITH THE UMPIRE… OR, CAN YOU?

BY JOE BRIDANO

It happens in all sports: a game official makes what looks like a “blown call” and the player goes ballistic. What starts out as an impartial interpretation of a play disintegrates quickly into a turf war.

This scenario is not new to sport. Many of my fondest memories of sports history and its legendary characters involve an animated difference of opinion between players or managers versus umpires.

Who can forget the special way Lou Piniella got into an umpire’s face while challenging a call? Lou might contend that he was merely getting close enough to overcome the crowd noise. After all, the umpire might misunderstand what he was saying and think he was being disrespectful.

Earl Weaver of the Orioles had a certain amount of character value in his frequent discussions with umpires. He gets my vote for the most entertaining in his challenges of authority. As the first baseball personality to wear his cap backwards, his style was the forerunner of a fashion trend that continues among trendsetting contemporaries. Of course, his reason for the backwards cap was to keep the brim out of the way so he could get “nose-to-nose” without any interference from his uniform.

Other famous umpire incidents include the “pine tar” temper tantrum when George Brett was called out for having too much of the substance on his bat. Or, who can forget the range and viscosity of Robbie Alomar as he doused his demon umpire with saliva after being called out on strikes. Billy Martin’s displays were spread evenly between umpires and his own players making one wonder whether anger management therapy could have extended his career.

While these incidents of the past all began with a difference of opinion with an umpire, they seemed to be part of the game. They were fun. It was an added bonus that a fan got to see if you were lucky enough to be at that game. Instant replays of arguments lack spontaneity and the anticipation of potential escalation, so you have to see the incident live for the full effect.

The old timers knew how to argue with style. I don’t know of a time when these “verbal reviews” of a play turned into an actual physical event (although the Alomar incident did rise to the level of an assault). By the time the game was over, the incident was over too. Grudges with umpires were not held over to the next day. It seemed like all was forgiven.

But somewhere along the line something changed. I am not sure when that happened, but it may have been coincident with when free agency began or when the umpires formed their collective bargaining unit. This period also gave rise to the “me” generation and instant gratification.

The “old timers” came from an era of hard work and limited means. There were no multi-million dollar bonuses and contracts.  Baseball was a great way to earn a living, but most players needed off season jobs to survive.  It was a privilege to have the talent and opportunity to play baseball.  It was a labor of love, no doubt, but a special privilege nonetheless.

Today, the life of an athlete is much different. An elite athlete is treated as special. They are used to being “important” and they develop a sense of superiority. Respect of authority has a different meaning than it did in times past.

Umpires, have a different outlook. Some are former athletes, some not. Attitudes are more defiant and authoritative.  They are not held accountable for the quality of their work. They are rewarded based on seniority. Egos get in the way of pride. How can Major League Baseball even permit the idea of “interpreting the strike zone” to exist? The rule book defines the strike zone, not the umpire.

What we have are two groups in conflict. Both are privileged.  Both do not understand the limits of their power.  It is a setting that leads to the conflict we see on the field of play.  It is about time that control and common sense becomes a priority. The tradition and greatness of the game demands it.