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August 22, 2013

Skewed Left

Miking Up Umpires

by Zachary Levine

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Picture this. You’re at a ballgame. Yeah, you. At a baseball game. You’re sitting behind the third base dugout when this play happened.

Max Scherzer, who was not pitching that day, was ejected from the game. But you didn’t know that. You bought expensive Yankee Stadium seats with prices well into the triple digits for your family and had no idea who was ejected—whether it was Torii Hunter, someone due up later in the inning, a bench coach, a bat boy, it could have been anybody.

The TV announcers didn’t even have a clue for about 90 seconds of this clip. Initially, they thought Hunter had been thumbed and then presumably got a correction from a producer in their ears. If they didn’t know, how were you going to know? There is nobody there to tell you anything.

Baseball’s on-field apparatus and its fans have a communication problem, and that’s not a new thing. Of the major team sports in North America, baseball is right down there with soccer as the one with by far the least communication coming from the playing surface. Most of it would be extraneous. We don’t need anything like “Power play goal scored by…” or “three-point basket for…” or “Pass complete to Johnson for a gain of…”

It is for the most part a series of one-on-one happenings taking place right in front of your face with fairly obvious results, and if there’s an official scoring controversy, that will usually flash on the scoreboard as soon as it’s settled. However, that doesn’t cover everything, as the Scherzer ejection clearly indicated, and there are plenty of more examples of confusion beyond just ejections. From my experience being in press boxes, it’s often unclear what a call was until well after a play is over. And that’s the place in the ballpark where people are supposed to have the best information.

The solution, while carrying a few side effects, is a fairly easy one to rig up. Major League Baseball should give its umpires—either all of them or just the crew chiefs—microphones to address the crowd like the NFL and NHL do.

This is something we’ve heard very little discussion about in baseball, but it’s not a completely new idea. The proposal to give umpires a microphone in the style of NFL referees was floated in 2004 by an MLB-established group called the 21st Century Committee. It didn’t go anywhere.

Now, with the drastic broadening of instant replay review resulting in possibly even more confusion, it is time to give the field a direct communication pathway with the customers.

Absolutely do not make them central characters. Stress that the less they open their mouths, the better it is for the game. But there have always been at least three plays on which we’d be better off hearing from umpires, and now with the institution of replay reviews, there are at least five places where it would be helpful if they could just clear things up a little. Starting with the new ones under a replay system…

1. Replay results
This was pretty easy when it was just home runs being reviewed. Either it was out or it wasn’t. Either the umpire would do that little twirly thing with his hands, or he’d point to a base, or if the guy went back to hit, it was a foul ball.

Now there are just so many different elements of the play that it would be helpful to have them announced, so that the fans knew exactly what was going on. Model it after the NFL, which—unless the referees start tripping all over their words—does this pretty well.

Examples:
After review, the original call stands. Los Angeles will have no more challenges until the seventh inning.

After review, it was determined that the ball was not caught in the air. Because the runner was moving from first with two outs, we will award him third base and place the hitter on first. Los Angeles gets to keep the challenge.

After review, it was determined that the ball actually was caught in the air. The batter is out, but the run counts because the ball was sufficiently deep that the run would have scored. Los Angeles gets to keep the challenge.

After review, the ball went foul before the first base bag. Runners are returned to their original places and the count is now 2-2. Los Angeles gets to keep the challenge.

A small bit of reasoning behind placing the baserunners would really help broadcasters and fans alike, and the umpire should always reset the scenario when a plate appearance that we thought was over has to continue. Beyond those two things, less is decidedly better.

2. Announcing why the play can’t be reviewed
This is just as important as a short and comprehensive explanation of a review that did happen. The manager signals a challenge and the umpire acknowledges receiving it but explains to the crowd why it can’t be challenged. Nobody is confused as to why he didn’t go to the central office. Nobody is furious at the manager for not challenging a play that looked a little off. And as a side bonus, as more casual fans get used to the changes, the rules of what is and is not challengeable become clearer with increased explanation.

3. Ejections
This will be particularly helpful after ejections on the bench and for multiple ejections after a fight when announcers often take forever to sort through who’s not here anymore. Keep it nice and simple. You don’t even need a name if you don’t want.

Number 37 on Detroit is ejected.

Note that if any umpire takes a page from this NFL referee and says: “that player, by virtue of his actions, is disqualified from further participation,” then we’re shutting this whole program down.

4. Balks
The idea for this whole topic actually sprouts from our discussion on Episode 264 of the Effectively Wild podcast, in which Sam Miller was talking about a balk that took place and was enforced without the television commentators ever noticing. Sam laid out the scenario fully in section five of this piece on the mysterious nature of the balk rule.

Umpires should have to announce all balks. Not so much for the reason above, though the fact that announcers didn’t even notice and didn’t have anyone in their ear telling them is incredibly silly. It’s an isolated case. But the umpire should have to announce what rule was violated since so often we’re left wondering what exactly a guy did when he was called for a balk.

That would lead to better understanding of the rule, more accountability for umpires who were calling certain aspects of the rule incorrectly and maybe over time, cleaner enforcement of it.

5. Double-switches
This is the least important of the five and would be the most helpful when it’s the least desired—spring training full lineup changes. I think it wouldn’t be in any umpire’s best interest to read a whole new lineup in the sixth inning of a split-squad game.

But just give us a “changes are straight-up” or “new pitcher bats seventh” in the event of a double-switch and throw a bone to the scorecard crowd.

* * *

Of course, in a system in which umpires talk directly to the crowd, there will be some drawbacks and some side-effects that could be positives or negatives, starting with the inevitable failures of technology. The system is guaranteed to go down at the point of first review in Game 1 of the World Series, for instance.

Also, as umpires adapt to using their new toys, there will be instances of unintended live microphones. The NFL got a taste of this in 2012 when one of its referees started to make an announcement, aborted to confer with other officials, and gave the CBS crowd a little insight on the discussion with a very public “Goddamn it.”

And you know this one’s going to happen. Some umpire is going to think this is his moment to be a TV star and start developing a style or bringing some new vocabulary to the game. Basically you’re going to be stuck with a small fraction of the crew chiefs who want to be this guy.

Trusting the umpires to do more can always be a dangerous thing, and their personalities will have to be somewhat restrained, but with the addition of more ways to confuse the people watching live, it’s time to give them a direct line out to the world.

Zachary Levine is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Zachary's other articles. You can contact Zachary by clicking here

Related Content:  Umpires,  Replay Review,  Microphones

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