Thursday, May 17, 2012

On Players and Umpires

I don't often stray from fantasy baseball topics. Today I did. I'll return you to your regularly scheduled programming tomorrow.

On Tuesday night, Brett Lawrie lost it in the ninth inning after one clearly poor strike call and one borderline strike call from home plate umpire Bill Miller. By now, everyone's seen the clip or at least heard the news so it's not worth rehashing here. After flinging his helmet to the ground and accidentally hitting Miller with it, Lawrie got ejected and was given a four-game suspension. 

Lawrie's incident pushed a separate umpire-related incident from the same day off of the radar. Bob Davidson ejected Charlie Manuel in an expletive-filled tirade that was the definition of unprofessional. For all the talk about how Miller may or may not have misbehaved in the Lawrie incident (my opinion is Miller did not), it is clear that Davidson did misbehave and should face some kind of fine or suspension from Major League Baseball.

Will Davidson get suspended? Fat chance.

It would be one thing if the Lawrie or Davidson incidents were isolated events, but unfortunately it seems all too common in recent years that bad behavior involving a player, manager, or umpire  dominates the headlines. A well-worn cliché that always gets trotted out when something like this happens is "I didn't pay good money to see the umpire showboat." This can also be said for players and managers. If I wanted to see grandstanding, I'd buy tickets to professional wrestling.

This is a fixable problem. Baseball could easily institute an on-the-field code of conduct to minimize these incidents. Not that anyone asked, but if I were Commissioner for a Day, here's what I would do.

The first and most important thing all umpires should do is never initiate an argument. This should be obvious, but too many times the umps are seemingly baiting players or striding up to a player or coach as if they're looking for a fight.

If a manager or player does come out to argue, umpire should listen to the complaint and then explain why they made the call that they did. The umpire should then walk away from the player or manager. This is how umpires were trained once upon a time. Umpires are not supposed to continue an argument with a player or look for an excuse to toss him. If the player chases the umpire to where he's walking, then the umpire certainly can continue the argument and - eventually - eject the player.

Although I'm probably in the minority, I think that players are a larger part of the problem than umpires in terms of on-the-field conduct. I have nothing against arguing your case - and like the fact that you can blow off steam by yelling at or even cursing at an umpire. However, there are certain lines that should not be crossed.

The most obvious line is the one Lawrie crossed on Tuesday. Don't throw equipment. It's clear from the video of the incident that Lawrie didn't mean to hit Miller with his helmet, but that's not the point. Throwing a helmet, a bat, or a ball is a dangerous thing to do because someone could get hurt, even if that's not your intent. If you really feel the need to throw stuff, go into an empty clubhouse and have at it.

What disturbed me most about the Lawrie incident wasn't the helmet tossing, but rather the intensity with which he charged at Miller afterward. We lose sight of this on television or while we're sitting in the upper deck, but most baseball players are big, muscular dudes. It's one thing to argue but once you start using your physical size or strength to come after an umpire, you're practicing a form of intimidation that straddles that line between arguing and violence. No one should feel threatened during his workday, and this applies even to umpires. It's easy to lose sight of this because we all have our day-to-day complaints about umpires, but they have the same right not to feel threatened in their workplace that I do.

I'm not singling out Lawrie by any means. Yadier Molina's tirade last year against Rob Drake was far worse. And while excuses shouldn't be made for umpires who grandstand and look for fights, I can almost understand in a culture where outbursts like Molina's are mildly punished why some umpires might sometimes act belligerently against a player.

Umpires and players aren't alone. When managers or coaches misbehave, it sends an even far worse message. Managers are leaders, and should be expected to behave as such. When they act poorly, it tells their players via implication or otherwise that such conduct is acceptable.

Two examples immediately spring to mind.

1) September 16, 2009. Los Angeles Angels/Boston Red Sox. On the last pitch of a nine pitch AB; Nick Green gets a gift ball four from home plate umpire Rick Reed. But earlier in the AB, a ball on a check swing set Mike Scioscia and his coaching staff off. Pitch after pitch, he and his entire staff were on the top of the dugout steps, berating Reed, screaming at the top of their lungs, and throwing up their hands at every pitch (despite the fact that only the final pitch was an obvious bad call). While Scioscia and his staff were right on the last pitch, they weren't right on any of the other calls but acted as though they were...and in an extremely unprofessional manner that lacked leadership of any kind.

2) September 1, 2010. Florida Marins/Washington Nationals. Everyone remembers this as the game where Nyjer Morgan charged Chris Volstad after Volstad threw behind Morgan after hitting Morgan with a pitch earlier in the game. While Morgan's behavior certainly was memorable, lost in the melee was the fact that one of the Nationals coaches raced out of the dugout to inappropriately join in the fight. Pat Listach ran to the mound not to break up the brawl but get a few punches in for reasons that to this day elude me. While Listach was suspended, a three game punishment for a coach who raised a hand to opposing players was a joke and a half.

So what can Major League Baseball do about all of this?

Umpires, players and managers all bear some of the responsibility. Umpire shouldn't be a job for life, but rather a meritocracy. Every umpire is bound to make a bad call now and again, and reasonable fans and players understand this. But umpires that make a great deal of bad calls should be coached in the off-season in an attempt to improve their craft. If they don't improve, then they should no longer have the privilege of being Major League umpires. And umpires should behave a certain way on the field. There is a level of decorum that the game's arbiters should have on the field.

But players and coaches must behave with a certain decorum as well. I don't want to see a bunch of robots out there, but you can argue with an umpire without storming toward him, threatening him, or using other means of physical intimidation to make your point. Major League Baseball should have stricter discipline in place for behavior that crosses this line from arguing or even verbal abuse to physical bullying or intimidation.

Managers and coaches should be held to an even higher standard. In the Listach example above, he should have been suspended for a minimum of 20 games and perhaps been sent home for the rest of the season. An off-season seminar or workshop for coaches who don't behave properly would go a long way toward fostering a culture of mutual respect across the entire game.

While I believe these suggestions are constructive, I'm wise enough to know that none of this is ever likely to happen. The umpires and players are both represented by strong unions that aren't in the business of giving away what they perceive as their constituents' rights. And while reigning in poor player or umpire behavior would improve the quality of the game there isn't a financial incentive for any of the parties involved to do so.

All that being said, I'd love to see a game where umpires and players aren't at war with each other on the diamond and engaging in games of one-upmanship or macho bullshit. As I said above, when I go to a game or watch in on TV I'm interested in watching the game. I don't want Country Joe West to be a personality any more than I want Brett Lawrie to act like the tough guy or Pat Listach to charge the mound. It's a child's game, but I want to see everyone on the field behave like men...and I don't think this is too much to ask of Major League Baseball from it's loyal fan base.

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