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In Defense of the Men in Blue

August 11, 2019

Hugh Atkins

Major League Baseball should implement some new rules to protect the umpires. After 150 years, it’s time for baseball to keep the managers off the field. No other major sport allows head coaches to stomp onto the field and berate their officials.

Arguing with the umpire is as old as baseball itself. Baseball likely allowed it to continue all these years because, at times, it makes good theater. As a fan, I used to enjoy seeing a manager go out and give an umpire a piece of his mind. Over the past couple of seasons, however, I began to feel that the managers have no business on the field. A recent ugly incident completely convinced me that, as soon as a manager’s foot touches the ground outside the dugout, the umpire should send him to the showers.

On July 18, New York Yankees’ manager, Aaron Boone, berated plate umpire, Brennan Miller, over Miller’s strike zone. Video coverage showed Boone pointing his fingers right in Miller’s face and screaming obscenities. Boone served only a one-game suspension for his hissy fit.

Throughout the hysterics by Boone, Miller somehow remained calm. Boone came across as a bully.

Media coverage, especially from hometown newspapers, usually defend the manager. Kristie Ackert, writing for the New York Daily News, said Boone knew MLB would suspend him because “the bill of his cap touched Miller’s,” as if that were the only justifiable reason for Boone’s punishment. Describing Boone’s meltdown, she said Boone “went on an amusing tirade.”

Original 27×41 movie poster for the 1950 film KILL THE UMPIRE, starring William Bendix. Available for purchase on ebay.

Maybe baseball should use technology to call balls and strikes. Combined with the existing replay review, then there really would be little need for the manager to argue with the umpires. Unlike some of the other proposed rule changes, reigning in the managers’ treatment of the umpires would have no effect on how the game is played; actually, it would speed up the game.

Managers would not tolerate in-game criticism from the umpires whenever the manager made an error in judgement.  Billy Martin, who wore out his welcome in several cities, was infamous for his on-field antics. But I wonder how Martin would have reacted in the Pine Tar Game had umpire Tim McClelland rushed over to the Yankee dugout, waving his arms, tossing dirt, and screaming, “I can’t believe you let Gossage face Brett again!” I’m sure as soon as McClelland turned his back, Martin would have attacked him.

Bobby Cox, the Hall-of-Fame manager of the Atlanta Braves, holds the record with 158 ejections; for that, Braves’ announcers routinely refer to him as a “players’ manager.” For me, however, that record is not aging well.

On the flip side, baseball really has no excuse for letting guys like Joe West and Angel Hernandez hang around, seemingly since Cobb was a rookie, making terrible calls. Umpires are going to make honest mistakes, but baseball should not allow incompetence to stand.

Fielders make errors in virtually every game, and these days it is acceptable for a batter to strike out 200 times in a season; but fans accept errors and strikeouts as part of the game. Umpires are the only people in the game from whom fans expect perfection. I have been as guilty as any other fan in that regard, but I am making an effort to change. After all, fans still can express their frustration with umpires–just like they do with the players and managers–by yelling at the television from the comfort of their recliners.

Umpires and referees have a thankless job, even when they perform it well. I believe it’s time to cut them some slack.

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