After a few questionable umpiring calls in the LDS round, we saw another controversy on Saturday night. Erik Aybar did what he does on nearly every double play: got his feet within a few inches of the bag at second and threw to first. Second base umpire Jerry Layne thought he strayed a little too far on the Jorge Posada grounder, and Melky Cabrera was safe at second base. It brings into question how to deal with standard umpiring fare. The neighborhood play isn’t in the rulebook, so how can MLB ensure that its umpires are making the right call in each instance?
Matt Pouliot of NBC Sports tells the story of the neighborhood play’s origins, though it only takes a little critical thought to figure it out. Runners are sliding hard into second in order to hinder the relay throw and break up the double play. The second baseman or shortstop already faces the disadvantage of throwing with one foot on the base and one foot on the dirt. The neighborhood play allows them to throw on firm ground, presumably reducing injury risk.
Pouliot thinks that the best way to fix the situation is to reign in the baserunners. No oversliding the bag, no forearm shots when popping up on the bag, no sliding three feet wide of the bag to take out the shortstop. The problem with that is of penalty, as Steve S, b/k/a The Artist says. The runner at second is typically out anyway. That leaves two options: ejection or automatically calling the batter out. Steve thinks the former is draconian, and I agree. Why put that much power in the umps’ subjective hands? To the latter, it would be assuming the double play, which is something baseball tries to avoid. There doesn’t seem to be a good solution here.
I agree with Steve that the neighborhood play is just fine as is. It protects the shortstops and second basemen while still allowing for aggressive baserunning. He concludes by saying that the umps need to “try to make it look good.” That relates to what former commissioner Fay Vincent wrote in the New York Times. It’s a story of the relationship between MLB and its umpires, which is not a lot. MLB doesn’t even have a hand in umpiring schools. There seems to be an opportunity here.
Robot umpires would not be a popular change. Complain as we do about the umpires, it seems that most people still prefer the men in blue (or black) over an automated counterpart. How, then, can MLB ensure that it has the best quality umpires, so these bad calls do not persist? Vincent has an idea.
From the beginning, umpiring has been seen by those who run baseball as a necessary but marginal aspect of the game. Major League Baseball does not train its own umpires, and therefore it has not established practices that would attract the best people. Those who wish to enter the profession attend schools run by former umpires. But these are entirely private businesses; the commissioner of baseball doesn’t control the curriculum, manage the training or do anything to lure people of all races and ethnic groups to become umpires.
After graduation, new umpires seek jobs with the minor leagues, which hire and fire officials separately from the major leagues. The beginning salary for a junior umpire is about $9,500 for the five-month season, hardly a living wage. A young umpire may spend as many as 10 years in the minors, earning at most about $20,000 at the Triple-A level and scratching around for other work during the off-season.
To attract the kind of young people any business would want, Major League Baseball should establish a thoroughly professional training system for umpires — and ensure that every official it hires is up to the job.
Taking ownership of the umpires would do MLB a world of good. They can use their resources to attract more umpires and then train them better. Even more importantly, they can train them in a uniform manner, so everyone has the same body of knowledge. Everyone is trained the same way. It should make for a more consistent umpiring experience.
If MLB has any intention of doing this, the time is now. Many veteran umpires are missing from this postseason because of injuries. This isn’t to say that all of the injured are old and breaking down, but that’s certainly the case for some. When these umpires hang it up, who will replace them? MLB has a vested interest in the performances of its umpires, and should ensure that the umpires who replace their most experienced veterans are capable of mind, body, and vision.
No one wants to complain about umpires, at least no one I know. They should be in the background, officiating a game between players and teams. MLB would do well to put more of its resources to work in recruiting and training umpires. It will make for a smoother, less controversial game, which is what I hope all of us want. I don’t think anyone wants to look at a playoff schedule and cringe because Marty Foster is the crew chief.