A debate and minor uproar across the MLB took place over the weekend as umpires across the league wore white sweatbands on their wrists to protest escalating verbal abuse from players.
The furor started with noted curmudgeon Ian Kinsler sounding off on umpire Angel Hernandez.
From Kinsler via The Detroit News:
I'm surprised at how bad an umpire he is. I don't know how, for as many years he's been in the league, that he can be that bad. He needs to re-evaluate his career choice, he really does. Bottom line.
If I get fined for saying the truth, then so be it. He's messing with baseball games, blatantly.
He's changing the game. He needs to find another job. He really does.
Kinsler earned himself a quick toss from Tuesday’s action against the Rangers for arguing balls and strikes. Many observers noted the hook was quick and Kinsler exchanged choice words with home plate umpire Angel Hernandez before the tirade quoted above. This is the same Angel Hernandez who sued Major League Baseball and Rob Manfred for racial discrimination and bias against minority umpires.
Tigers manager Brad Ausmus revealed that Kinsler was fined an unspecified amount for his comments but not suspended. Ausmus described the fine as “one of the largest he’s ever seen,” which was revealed today to be $10,000.
The World Umpires Association took umbrage with the lack of a suspension and issued this statement, detailing that umpires would wear white sweatbands to “protest escalating verbal attacks on umpires.”
In relation to the many ills and current state of the United States with protests occurring en masse across racial and political divides, the umpire’s protest seems to have fallen on eye-rolls and deaf ears. These are officials paid to officiate a game. While not paid as handsomely as the actual players, an umpire’s paycheck is nothing to sneeze at (around $150,000-$350,000). Umpires are expected to be the paradigms of the game of baseball: as the police (don’t get me started there) of the field, the blues are expected to uphold the rules of the game of baseball in a fair and unbiased manner. A good umpire is considered invisible; they do not draw attention to themselves and instead allow the focus of the game to be spent on the players and the play on the field. More often than not we’re treated to Joe West staredowns of players walking off disgusted at a borderline strike three call or a (deserved, though still funny) Gerry Davis throwout of Adrian Beltre moving the on-deck circle in a 22-10 blowout loss.
If players wore wristbands for as many times "we were under verbal attack" we wouldn't be able to move our arms. Smh MLB umpires— Jp Arencibia (@jparencibia9) August 19, 2017
Former catcher JP Arencibia has a good point here: players are under near-constant verbal abuse from fans. Heckling is considered a pastime for many fans across the league, and plenty of players get more than an earful of colorful language from the peanut gallery. For umpires to immediately fold under one complaint feels weak and petty. Kinsler’s tirade pales in comparison to dust ups of yore: slugger of legend Babe Ruth once slugged umpire Brick Owens after being tossed from a game. Players are immediately suspended for any sort of physical contact with an umpire, so a fine for verbal complaints seems fair in comparison. Not for umpires, however. Not when they get suspended for comments, and there’s a fair hypocrisy.
Joe West was suspended three games for comments about Adrian Beltre being the biggest complainer in baseball. West contends the comments were made jokingly. Umpires note that they’re not allowed to vent by making comments on players, but that’s the entire point of impartiality. If umpires were allowed to speak freely on players, how would a player trust their strike zone or their call on a close play on the basepaths? Umpires are paid to call the game and absorb the derision. The world of umpiring is also shrouded in a haze where accountability is rarely seen. Umps do nothing to police within their own ranks. The last time I’ve seen an umpire be accountable for a bad call was Jim Joyce tearfully apologizing for Armando Galarraga’s blown perfect game. In a world that demands more transparency from authority figures, it’s not surprising to see fans question how long-tenured umpires who continue to puff out their chests and adhere to bad objective game practices stay on the field.
My complaint is as shown: if umpires didn’t want to hear verbal abuse, they should do a better job overall. Instant replay was put into place in baseball as a wide admittance to the fact that umpires are human and are not infallible. An automated strike zone should be next. Though there are nitpicks to how such a system could be implemented, I’m of the belief that such an automated zone is not a matter of if, but when. If umpires refuse to be consistent with a strike zone, a computer making the calls sure could take those calls out of human hands. As for calls on the bases, I believe that those will be manned for some time yet, or at least until electronics are discrete enough to be implemented into the uniforms, baseballs, and bases. Imagine knowing instantaneously if a runner beat out a throw to first from the third baseman?
It’s indeed a shame that the relationship between baseball players and umpires mirrors the current state of the people and those placed in authority. Umpires, while fallible and full of hypocrisy themselves are people too and deserving of respect. That respect, however, is a two-way street. Staring down players after a minor complaint or a quick hook after a comment isn’t going to earn that respect back among players or fans who pay to watch them play.