May 12, 2013

Umpires’ ugly week proves need for more changes

MLB, NFL would be wise to follow hockey’s replay example.

If manager Ron Washington had a more devious sense of humor, he would have made the Texas Rangers bat out of turn Saturday night.

Astros manager Bo Porter’s head would have exploded.

As all kids know from our Little League days — most kids, anyway — no one divergence from the rules of baseball provokes such a lengthy and rambling treatise in the game’s official rule book as the two full pages that explain what to do if Baker bats before Abel.

Equally ingrained is the rule about a relief pitcher having to face at least one batter before being allowed to be removed from the game.

As the great Larry Bowa said on the MLB Network on Friday, “Everybody knows that rule — everybody.”

Uh, apparently not.

It was a lousy week for the umpires of Major League Baseball. Not only did the men in blue fail to correct Porter’s misinterpretation of the must-face-one-batter rule, but they also scored an F in TV Replay Watching 101.

Umpires are human and make mistakes. No breaking news there.

But in an increasingly high-tech society, in an age with TiVo and FaceTime, the two low-tech blunders last week were inexcusable.

Umpire Fieldin Culbreth and his crew, one would think, have to know the baseball rule book, forward and backward, inside and out. It is their hired task to enforce that rule book.

Umpire Angel Hernandez, meanwhile, had the benefit of a TV replay in which he could slow down or freeze any frame to see that Adam Rosales’ fly ball cleared the fence and tied a game Wednesday for the Athletics. Yet he blew both the original call and the high-def replay.

What’s going on here? Should the umps all start spending the night at a Holiday Inn Express?

Culbreth was given a rare public reprimand — a two-game suspension — and his crew was assessed fines for their Who’s on First? mishandling of Porter’s illegal pitching change Thursday night.

Hernandez, however, was able to hide behind the veiled contrivance known as “judgment call.” He also ordered the media’s pool reporter, the respected Susan Slusser, to turn off her voice recorder when she went later to the umpire’s room, asking questions.

Hernandez, who’s worked major-league games for 22 years, is a fixture on every publication’s or website’s annual list of baseball’s worst umpires.

His excuse this time? The ball’s path was inconclusive, based upon the TV he saw.

So now it’s Sony’s fault?

This is ridiculous, of course. Why should an entire umpiring crew have to leave the playing field to view a TV replay of a call they should have gotten right in the first place?

Umpires and NFL officials need to get out of the replay business. No one should be allowed to play the face-saving “inconclusive” card. It doesn’t save as many faces as the refs and umps think.

Replay reviews in baseball and football need to be handled independently, much in the same way that the National Hockey League handles them. Each night of the NHL season, a review crew convenes on the 11th floor of league headquarters in Toronto to render final judgment on every scoring play.

The NHL Situation Room — the “War Room,” as players call it — has immediate access to high-definition replays and direct voice contact, as needed, with the on-ice officials.

There’s no Star Trek technology involved. In baseball, no one would have to beam up Angel Hernandez to the MLB Man Cave.

There’s no extra travel involved, either. No costly infusion of manpower. Baseball’s War Room could convene nightly at the MLB Network’s modern studios just across the Hudson River from Manhattan.

Thanks to Hernandez, Commissioner Bud Selig’s quest to expand the use of replay in baseball was sacked for a loss last week, if I may mix metaphors. But from controversy should come clarity. Baseball needs to take another look at what the NHL does.

There would be no shortage of baseball devotees who would give their firstborns in order to spend hours every night watching every major-league game. Most of us do that anyway.

We also know the rule book, just in case the Astros get any openings.

Related content



Sports Videos