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The Role Of An Umpire

If you had just pulled over and asked for directions, we wouldn't have gotten lost in the first place!
If you had just pulled over and asked for directions, we wouldn't have gotten lost in the first place!

I have spent 10 seasons as an umpire for Little League baseball and softball. Now, there is a huge difference between umpiring Little League baseball and Major League baseball: MLB players are adult-sized, whereas Little Leaguers are tiny little kids, which makes it terrifyingly hard to crouch low enough to see a Little League strike zone. Those MLB umps have it easy!

In seriousness, though, I'm not suggesting that my Little League career qualifies me to say what it's like to umpire in the Majors, any more than those 2 homers I hit when I was 12 qualify me to hit cleanup for the A's (actually....). I do, however, have a first-hand understanding of the role that an umpire should play in a baseball game.

The umpire must walk a fine line between being the head official, and being completely invisible. You have to be on top of every play, but only be noticed when everyone looks to you for the call. You must be a robot, calling everything completely objectively, leaving aside your biases, opinions, and grudges. Your personality and your ego must be left in the Knaack box with your street clothes.

Today, I think that Laz Diaz let either his personality or his ego affect a call, and it cost the A's a run (and almost cost them a win). Join me after the jump to hear all about it.

With 1 out in the 6th, Texas attempted a squeeze bunt, but the ball was popped up. Brandon McCarthy made a diving catch about 30 feet away from Diaz, and threw to 3rd for what should have been an inning-ending, rally-killing, Web Gem of a double play. However, Diaz inexplicably ruled that McCarthy didn't make the catch, negating both outs and scoring what was, at the time, the go-ahead run. It is unclear how Diaz could possibly have missed such an obvious call (and it really was an obvious call), but that's not even the point. The issue that I have is that Diaz refused to ask for help on the play when Bob Melvin came out to challenge him.

This is where my experience comes in handy. We were always trained that, if a manager wanted us to ask for help on a call, we should do so (we had one plate ump and one field ump). The catch was, if your partner asked for help, and you didn't have a specific reason to overturn his call, you were to blindly agree with him no matter what. On the off-chance that you saw something egregious from your angle that the other guy didn't see, you could bail him out from making an embarrassing call. This way, the manager was appeased because of the illusion that his appeal was honored, the umpire's authority hadn't been questioned because his partner backed him up (99% of the time), and the ump removed all possibility that he had made an obviously awful call due to part of the play being blocked from his line of sight. It was a no-lose situation. In the Majors, the rules specifically state that the ump can ask for a second opinion. Rule 9.02(c):

If a decision is appealed, the umpire making the decision may ask another umpire for information before making a final decision. No umpire shall criticize, seek to reverse or interfere with another umpire’s decision unless asked to do so by the umpire making it.

The thing is, the other umps can't offer to help unless the ruling ump asks for it. My question is: Why didn't Diaz ask for help? In fact, why don't umps ask for help more often in general? What did he have to lose? If he really thought he was right, then asking his partner would have almost certainly resulted in his crew-mate backing him up. If he was afraid that he'd gotten it wrong, then asking for help would have given him the chance to bail himself out. If he was afraid that he'd gotten it wrong but he didn't want to admit it because it might hurt his authority or his image or his ego...well, that's the problem right there. I worry that he may have put his ego ahead of his best efforts to get the call right. There is no situation that I can think of, no possible motive in his head, which would excuse not asking for help on a close, run-scoring, lead-changing play which was within reasonable line of sight of at least one other ump. (Not to get into a discussion about instant replay, but in the NFL, this would have gone to automatic review even if no one argued it, just to make sure.)

Was Diaz's sense of propriety so unusual, though? When was the last time that you saw an umpire ask for help on anything other than a checked swing? Every so often, they huddle up and discuss something, but those instances are few and far between. It's just not part of the culture for the umpire to show any sign of weakness or uncertainty. Perhaps that is in an effort to appear confident and correct at all times, or perhaps it is because they genuinely never think that they are wrong. Either way, it jeopardizes the accuracy of the calls in the interest of casting the ump in a certain light of invulnerability.

All of this leads back to the original point: What is more important, the image of the ump, or the accuracy of the calls? Should it even matter if an official's authority is "questioned?" With virtually no video replay to turn to, shouldn't umps be reaching for every possible resource in order to get their calls right? There's not going to be a revolt because an ump allowed one of his calls to be challenged. On the next play, everyone is still going to look to him for the call, just like they do after an NFL ref has his call overturned by replay. It seems to me that this is all about the umpire not wanting to look bad, and there is just no place for that in sports officiating. That is, there is no place for being afraid to look bad; if you miss a call, you had better be prepared to own up to it, lest you compound your mistake by also appearing overly stubborn. That is a great way to get your authority questioned in the future.

I usually hesitate to criticize umpires, because I know that the job is a lot harder than it looks. Sometimes you just miss a call, and it is virtually impossible to please everyone on both sides for an entire game. That's why I'm not upset that Diaz blew this call, and why I wouldn't have been upset even if it had cost us the game. It happens. I'm upset because after he blew it, he refused to ask for help from his partners. He refused to exhaust all available options in order to get the call right, which is his primary job duty. On a grander scale, all umpires usually refuse this option. I can't possibly know what was going through Diaz's head, but from where I was sitting, it looked an awful lot like some combination of ego, stubbornness, and fear that he might look bad.

There is simply no place for any of those things in umpiring.