On Wednesday, 24-year veteran umpire Joe West made some pretty bold statements about the Yankees, the Red Sox, and their roles in what is perceived to be the declining pace of baseball games. The big quotes:
“They’re the two clubs that don’t try to pick up the pace,” said West, the chief of the umpiring crew working the three-game series, according to the report. “They’re two of the best teams in baseball. Why are they playing the slowest?
“It’s pathetic and embarrassing. They take too long to play,” he said, according to the report.
Now, as you may know, I am no fan of umpires. Over the years, it has become apparent to me that they consider themselves not only integral to the game of baseball (debatable), but also a key and indispensible component of the game’s majestic historical tapestry. Their sense of importance is overinflated, which unsurprisingly produces off-putting self-importance. In an effort to be fair, I read Bruce Weber’s As They See ‘Em, a firsthand chronicling of the professional and personal lives of today’s umpires. It was a fascinating book, and I remember becoming sympathetic to the umpires’ plight on more than one occasion. Their job is difficult and comes with no adulation. But by the end of the book, the hyper-objective Weber revealed enough about the men in blue that my suspicions were confirmed: most umpires simply need to get over themselves. Joe West’s comments fall right into line with that sentiment.
My main quarrel with West’s opinion is its abject lack of fairness and self-reflection. Most sports fans, I think, would agree that baseball players are charged with an extraordinarily difficult task. Hitters must make contact with a projectile traveling anywhere from 70 to 100 miles an hour with various degrees of spin and break. Pitchers are the ones flinging this projectile, but they must do so over a small, imaginary, and often shifting zone. Both of these jobs are really, really hard. And, far more often than not, players don’t whine or complain when an umpire makes either of these tasks more difficult by missing or making a dubious call. They might exhale deeply or silently look at the umpire, but generally speaking, they continue doing their work even when its degree of difficulty has increased unexpectedly and unjustifiably. They accept it as part of the game. Umpires also have a difficult job, one that arguably cannot be performed by a human being with any sort of consistent accuracy. The home plate umpire in particular has a cruel job description. So when players do things that bother umpires like Joe West – things like stepping out of the box, frequent mound meetings, etc. – it seems only fair to me that umpires do what the players do and accept it as part of the game.
Of course, there are limits to this mutually understanding relationship. A player screaming at an umpire after a called strike three is not part of the game. A catcher making five mound visits in as many pitches is not part of the game. But there is a natural give-and-take in baseball. If a hitter can put up with an amorphous strike zone that varies wildly from game to game, then an umpire can deal with a few extra time outs or mound visits.
That’s my major issue with West’s comments, but there are three other problems with his assessment. The first is pretty obvious, and that’s the issue of objectivity. Like any individual charged with officiating a game, umpires are asked and assumed to be impartial, consistent, and steady. If an umpire gets cranky and unhappy with the length of the game while the game itself is going on, there’s nothing stopping him from taking arbitrary and unfair measures to move the game along. I suppose umpires are human, which means they can get tired or bored after calling balls and strikes for three hours, but the nature of the job should come as no surprise to them. If umpires like West loathe long games so much, then perhaps baseball – a sport during which the threat of extra innings perpetually looms – isn’t the right place for them. In any case, West’s comments raise certainly raise serious questions about his integrity, and about the integrity of umpires in general.
Another issue is West’s almost obstinate and misguided sense of entitlement. While he would surely disagree, just because he’s been an umpire forever doesn’t mean he’s entitled to brisk or seamless play. If games are “too long” for him, that’s fine, but perhaps a career change is in order then. Because if there’s one thing I learned from Weber’s As They See ‘Em, it’s that there’s a long line of willing, enthusiastic, and totally competent replacement umpires working and waiting in the minor leagues for their big chance. Unfortunately for them, the only way new umpires break into the big leagues is via an incumbent’s retirement or illness. The world of umpires is not exactly a meritocracy. If Joe West has better things to do, he should go do them instead. The game will survive just fine without him.
Lastly, I would like to abandon my reasoned and circumspect tone for a moment and point out the utter stupidity of West’s “they’re two of the best teams in baseball, why are they playing the slowest?” comment. The reason they’re playing the slowest is precisely because they’re two of the best teams in baseball. Unlike some other baseball teams, the Yankees and Red Sox understand the importance of being patient and working the count. Their hitters have plans at the plate and stick to them. The result is longer at-bats and more runs being scored. If this concept offends West’s sensibilities, then that’s too bad. Perhaps he can put in a special request to only umpire Royals, Astros, Mariners, or Pirates games. Those hack-fests should be over in two hours, easy.
Joe West needs to do one of three things: retire, privately complain to the proper authorities, or simply get over the fact that baseball games can be long. I mean, when even Mariano Rivera thinks you need to shut up, there’s probably something to it.