MLB umpires have increasingly complex relationship with fans, players

Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons talks with home plate umpire Angel Hernandez. (Mark Blinch/CP)

There’s nothing particularly novel or enlightened about hurling invective towards baseball’s umpires. The insults are so common that joking offers to lend the umpire a pair of glasses are rote and obvious and unfunny.

Yet, somehow, in a more rational age of fandom, umpires find themselves more scrutinized, and with less sympathy than ever.

Calling balls and strikes in a baseball game must be one of the most challenging jobs in pro sports. As hard as it is to hit a baseball, assessing precisely where it was when it crossed the plate while bracing to be hit by foul balls and errant bats is not nearly as easy as watching where the dot shows up in the corner of your screen or on your app or in your Twitter feed. A 95 m.p.h. pitch hits an inch outside an electronic measurement of the conceptual strike zone, and fans holler for robot umps.

A close play occurs anywhere on the field, and after endless minutes of multi-angle, frame-by-frame examination, we discover that the play was called correctly, or was certainly close enough that one couldn’t fault the naked eye for missing the play in real time.

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Follow along, pitch-by-pitch and play-by-play, and you’ll recognize that in the vast majority of cases, umpires do a good job. But if you were to ask most fans, they would tell you that most umpires are bad, and some are worse, and others should lose their jobs immediately, or should have been shown the door ages ago.

In the heat of competition, the umpires are bearers of bad news, and as someone who is passionately rooting for one outcome to be true, the desire for something closer to perfection from the arbiters becomes that much more heated, and in the moment, one can understand the kneejerk howls of protest from fans.

What’s unfortunate is that the momentary hostility towards umpires has coalesced into a general antipathy among many fans.

Not that the umpires do themselves any favours. Last week’s “white armband” protest was a needless and tone-deaf reaction which only served to create more division between themselves, the players and the fans.

Moreover, it lined up all umpires in support one of the worst impulses of some of their brethren: Putting themselves ahead of the game.

It seems that among some umpires, there’s a view that they are authority figures who need to be respected on the field, hence their traditional ability to eject players and managers from games for the relatively minor infraction of arguing balls and strikes.

The rationale behind that code is that with 300 or more ball/strike decisions in the run of a game, prolonged deliberations about each one would make baseball as compelling as watching junior varsity debate teams.

But increasingly, umpires have taken their privilege to remove players and staff from games for the slightest of offences. The recent triple ejection of the Blue Jays’ manager, pitcher and catcher by umpire Will Little was senseless, and put one team at a decided disadvantage.

Josh Donaldson was ejected for swearing in the general vicinity of an umpire last year, and Kevin Pillar was run this week for making a comment as he walked behind the umpire. Examples like this demonstrate the abuse of this privilege and they feed a mistrust on the part of fans.

An ongoing conversation about the strike zone between the umpires, the managers and the players should be a part of the game, so long as it does not disrupt the flow of the game. A player should be able to ask a question and assert some disagreement. A manager should be able to discuss the strike zone between innings, even if only to vent frustration. The ejection of a player or manager should not take place when an umpire has decided that it’s time to end the argument, but rather, should only take place when the argument is impeding the flow of gameplay.

Moreover, fans – as empowered consumers – expect transparency from the officials. Umpire crews and the MLB office should provide more immediate clarification on replays or disputed calls. While some hockey pundits wailed at the content or consistency of the NHL’s explainer videos around officiating and suspension decisions, they at least gave more substance for informed discussion of the plays.

Baseball fans also want to know how umpires are made to account for their work. The line in last weekend’s press release that elicited the greatest outrage was the suggestion that umpires are held to the highest degrees of accountability. While umpires may feel that this is the case, these assessments happen in absolute obscurity, further diminishing fans’ trust.

What fans expect from umpires is an even-handed administration of the rules and flow of the game. They are best appreciated when they are unnoticed. But what’s galling to fans is when umpires make themselves an aspect of the drama or entertainment.

Taking off their masks, following players back to the dugouts, staring down pitchers and inciting conflict reinforces the suspicion among many fans that umpires willfully have an undue influence on the outcome of games.

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