By Ryan Robbins
The Maine Campus
Baseball umpires get a bum rap. Especially during the playoffs, when the media descend like a pack of wolves upon an umpire whose call is debatable. In last year's American League Championship Series, the media and public wouldn't leave Rich Garcia alone after he ruled a Derek Jeter fly ball deep to right field a home run, despite a 12-year-old's reaching over the wall and catching it before - depending on to whom you talk - it would have hit the top of the wall for a sure double or landed in Tony Tarasco's glove for an out.
This year's playoffs haven't disappointed umpire critics either. In Game Five of the National League Championship Series Florida Marlins pitcher Livan Hernandez took advantage of plate umpire Eric Gregg's wide and high strike zone en route to a 15-strikeout performance. Then there was the botched suicide squeeze in the Cleveland-Baltimore ALCS, in which umpire John Hirschbeck called a swinging strike on Cleveland hitter Omar Vizquel. The ball glanced off Baltimore catcher Lenny Webster's glove, allowing the winning run to score. Baltimore cried foul, saying Vizquel tipped the pitch.
Baseball has long been dotted with the love-hate relationship between players and managers and umpires. The relationship is part of the game. But the advent of technology has upped the ante, adding the media into the foray of umpire critics. Today, TV networks feel compelled to replay every hit and almost every pitch. And if there's a close play, viewers are treated to a dozen or so replays, in real time, slow motion, reverse angles and even overhead shots in some cases.
Naturally, some fans want to see technology move from the press box to the field. Balls and strikes would no longer be called by the plate umpire. A computer would make the calls. Close plays would be subject to review by replays.
A certified umpire, I shudder at the thought. A replay that proves once and for all what really happened on a close play is rare. In this year's AL division series between Cleveland and New York, New York's Joe Girardi was tagged out in a rundown between second and third. NBC funny man Bob Uecker disagreed with the call.
"I don't think he tagged him!" Uecker said. "I think he missed the tag."
Even after a half dozen replays at different speeds, some from different angles - one of which showed the runner's shirt giving way to the tag - Uecker insisted there wasn't a tag. Then he and fellow announcers Joe Morgan and Bob Costas wondered why Girardi didn't try to run. (Maybe because he knew he was out?)
The traditional slow-motion replay, super close-ups and overhead shots are nice toys, but they don't always tell the whole story, mostly because theirs is a story of two dimensions: height and width but not depth. More often than not, the media don't want to believe what the camera does - or does not - show.
Although television can give us a unique perspective on what happened, it doesn't have the potential to give us the best angle every time, something proponents of instant replay avoid addressing.
The late umpire Ron Luciano once said, "With all the crazy slides, (baseball) becomes a game of angles. Some guys use a hook slide, some a head first slide. Some guys reach out with this arm, others with that. With each different way they go into the bag, you have to use a different angle."
Which is the problem with instant replay: TV cameras can't move. Umpires, on the other hand, can. And often the difference between getting a call right depends on angle, not distance - something TV directors think they can compensate for with close-ups.
The biggest cry lately, though, is for automated ball-strike calls. Fans, of course, are making this claim from their living rooms. They forget they're seeing pitches from a camera that's anywhere from 10-20 feet toward left field and 15-20 feet above the field. Pitches that appear to be four inches outside to a right-handed hitter are actually well over the corner of the plate, and pitches that appear too low are actually at the knees.
What most fans don't want to believe is that players and managers don't want calls made by the book. While fans fumed at Gregg's bloated strike zone, Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said, "I like umpires that call strikes. (Gregg) is a great umpire, and he's probably going to give the pitchers three or four inches, which is great. That's the way it should be."
I prefer calling pitches by the book; the hitter has feelings too. However, if I can't decide whether the ball was a strike, I'll call it a strike. Nobody complains.
At the heart of the matter is tradition. Baseball is a game of inches, skill and luck. The field is just the right size to ensure close plays on the bases. The game is played by humans, who are subject to making mistakes, be they errors in strategy or physical play. It should be umpired by humans with the same fallibilities. Perfection is nice to strive for, but impossible to achieve. Not until we have perfect players - who never throw the wrong pitch, never drop the ball, never throw the ball away, never run into an out, never swing and miss - should we have instant replay or machines calling games.
It's OK to question umpires' judgment calls from time to time. But to demand perfection is to put down humanity. And what a dull world it would be.
© 1997, Ryan R. Robbins.