Major League Baseball last week suspended long-time umpire Joe West. (So long-time as to be calling ’em like he sees ’em in the show since 1976.) MLB put West on the porch for three days for saying, in answer to a reporter’s question, that Texas Ranger third baseman Adrian Beltre was the biggest complainer in the game.
“Every pitch you call that’s a strike, he says ‘Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!,’” West said to USA Today in preparation for an article commemorating West’s 5,000th Major League game. “I had a game with him recently and the pitch was right down the middle. He tells me, ‘That ball is outside.’ I told him, you may be a great ballplayer, but you’re the worst umpire in the league.”
For this honest and jocular assessment, the killjoys at Major League Baseball handed down a punishment that seems priggish in the extreme. More like the sentence an aged, spinster schoolmarm might pass on a grade-school boy who had just pulled the hair of the girl sitting in front of him than like the honest just deserts a grown man would expect for a real offense on the professional athletic field. A man, by the way, who has been a big leaguer for 41 years. West was calling balls and strikes in the bigs when current Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred was still in high school.
Baseball, after all, is a game. And games are supposed to be fun, something the drones at MLB’s head office seem to have lost track of. This particular game is played by strong, competitive, and assertive young men. And it takes the same kind of man to keep control of the games. (OK, the umps don’t have to be as young as the players, but they can’t be wallflowers either.) A certain amount of back and to between players and the men in blue is to be expected, and has been a constant since “Play Ball!” was first heard in the land of the free and the home of the Braves.
This is exactly the point the World Umpires Association, the MLB umpire’s union, made. “Joking interactions between umpires and players are a routine part of the game,” the union said in a prepared statement. “We disagree strongly with the decision to punish Joe West simply for sharing a humorous exchange with a player.” Even Beltre said after the suspension was handed down that he didn’t think it was called for, and that he and Joe are OK. Just a player and an umpire jawing at each other. Business as usual.
Major League umpires on the field get most of the calls right. And the umpire’s union has this one right as well. Joe West is not my favorite umpire. I watch a lot of games and Joe misses at least his share of calls. And he can sometimes be more cranky and imperious than the on-field situation calls for. (USA Today alludes to this in the June 20 when they call West “the most polarizing umpire in baseball.”) But I rise in his defense in the present case. His remarks about Beltre were harmless, not to mention amusing and true. They do not, as Manfred said in defense of the suspension, create an “appearance of impartiality.” That’s ridiculous. Joe may be a crank sometimes. But there’s no reason for anyone to believe he plays favorites on the field.
And in most areas of life, truth is a defense. Beltre is a bit of a whiner. But perhaps not, as Joe puts it, the biggest complainer in the game. In an aside to this story, I have to say my vote for the biggest cry-baby in the bigs is the Tampa Bay Rays’ right-fielder Stephen Souza, Jr. Souza is forever taking a really close pitch with two strikes on him and then turning around and whining to the home-plate umpire when he’s wrung up. (On the tube you can see the two of them exchanging pleasantries. Of course TV viewers can’t tell what’s being said. I can’t help but hope the home plate umpire is saying, “Whuddya getting on my back for, Junior? I’m not the one who just took a third strike.”) With two strikes, batters should follow the advice of the late Professor Berra, who said, “Hit the ball — that’s what it’s there for.”
For those, like me, who believe MLB’s punishment in this case fits a far more serious crime than the announced charges and specifications, may uncover a clue to the real offense if they read to the end of the USA Today’s original story on West’s long career. In his advice to young umpires, West urges them that, “Your first responsibility is to the game of baseball, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the Commissioner’s office.” Hmm. Maybe this is what Miss Grundy, I mean Commissioner Manfred, is really sore about.
Baseball fans appreciate a tight game. What we don’t appreciate is a tight a— in charge of the games.