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June 17, 2004

Breaking Balls

The Umpty Dance

by Derek Zumsteg

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The state of umpiring today is amazing. While umpires are devoid of the kind of personality that, say, Ron Luciano had, as a group they have improved so markedly since baseball broke their union that it's amazing to watch old games on ESPN Classic. Umpires today are faster to get into position and more observant. They're willing to consult other umps who might have a better view of a disputed play. They're far more professional than their predecessors.

I am more convinced than ever that the umpires have demonstrated the need for better strike zone measurement tools. We haven't heard much about Questec this year, due in part to Tom Glavine enjoying a bounceback year. But I watch so much baseball it frightens small children, and I see blown balls and strike calls all the time. And I don't even mean close calls, either, I'm taking about clearly up, down, or off the plate and my favorite, Ye Olde Hit the Target Strike. Like the other parts of the umpire's game, it's gotten better, but it's still not as good as it needs to be.

Other facets of umpiring need to be improved too. I'm all for an active and vigorous exchange of ideas. But I just watched Frank Robinson argue for five minutes whether Luis Rivas's 11th-inning home run was actually foul. Even with many replays, it still wasn't clear to me whether the ball got past the mark on the fence before curving out.

So Robinson had a point. His players--Brad Wilkerson and Tony Batista among them--were arguing when he came out, and so Robinson probably also wanted to take over the argument for them so that they wouldn't get tossed. And so the former manager of discipline for MLB went on a tirade.

Robinson came out of the dugout twice--once letting Jeremy Fikac throw a pitch--made repeated choking gestures at the umps and said some bad words. They gave him five minutes to say his piece about the call at issue and then to get into what you could consider fighting words.

Third base ump Brian Onora talked to home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi, and the other umps. None of them saw anything that made them want to change the call, they explained this to Robinson, and then Robinson kept on.

Five minutes is a long, long time to yell at someone. In situations where the manager clearly wants to get thrown out, would you not indulge them just to see how high their blood pressure might go? Robinson looks like a guy in good health, but he's getting up there in years, and there's a higher-than-zero chance this kind of activity might end up with him walking down a tunnel of light to an entirely different kind of clubhouse.

It took about four minutes of saying nasty things to Cuzzi before the ump even looked animated. Robinson played 2,808 games in the majors over 21 seasons. I can only imagine that he knows all of the magic words to say to provoke umpires and get ejected, and they tried to talk him down for five minutes as he went increasingly insane.

If this latest generation of dedicated, hustling, men in black can't manage to discern fair from foul, balls from strikes, is there any hope that humans will ever be able to perform these tasks accurately enough? Rivas' home run was just one dramatic, game-winning call. But the strike zone is at the heart of the game of baseball, and games can turn just as easily, if more infrequently, on other calls made within a game.

As impressed as I was with the umpiring in this game, the umps' excellence only served to point out the limitations of human observation. Technological solutions aren't romantic, but they're sorely needed. To some extent they're already here. More are coming soon.

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