This past MLB season saw something happen that not many people noticed:
The World Umpire Association (WUA), which is union that represents MLB umps, rebranded as the Major League Baseball Umpires Association (MLBUA), and became the fifth of the "big five" professional team sports to have a major online presence through websites and social media.
MLB umpires join officials from the NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLS as becoming more transparent to the public. Granted, the public will probably go the way of abusing this privilege (see the #RefWatchParty that occurred during the NBA Finals), but the intent to keep the conversation open and ongoing is a fantastic thing.
The union has actually been very active on Twitter (@MLBUA), showcasing good calls by umpires in an attempt to educate the general public on how they work. Possibly the best part of this work, however, is even more highlights for the UMPS CARE charity.
Officials in these major sports take unfortunate abuse from the uneducated public. Players, coaches, and the media have a tendency to speak and act in ways that do not represent the educated point of view of the official. These actions speak to a psychological issue of scapegoating, leaving the officials as the common enemy among rivals.
The officials are tired of being treated as sub-humans. These platforms will allow their voices to be heard. The public would be smart to recognize this and know they are proud to uphold the integrity of the game and do their job.
On August 31, 2018, a feat occurred in a baseball game between the Yankees and Tigers that doesn't happen too often: both managers were ejected.
Aaron Boone (Yankees) was ejected by Home Plate Umpire Nic Lentz for arguing balls and strikes. Ron Gardenhire (Tigers) was ejected by First Base Umpire Paul Nauert for arguing a check swing no-call. Both cases contained an element of absurdity that further proves that the theater of baseball disqualifications regarding managers is not only a joke to the game, but also an abhorrent way to influence others who witness it.
Boone took exception with the strike zone of Lentz to the point where he made contact with the umpire and put on a demonstration in a catcher's crouch that did nothing more than delay the game and solidify his ignorance towards the arbiters of the game. What Boone probably didn't know is that, according to the official plot of the zone after the game by Brooks Baseball Pitch f/x tool, Lentz really only missed two pitches the entire game.
Further, Boone was clearly upset at his team's lack of offense and used the ejection as a way to "fire up" his team. This translates to the idea of yelling vociferously at an innocent umpire to vent your frustrations over your own team's inability to hit with the hope that your players decide to change their ways somehow.
The fact of the matter is that these arguments are rarely filled with the tirade we think they are. Usually, the manager is yelling about how bad his team is, leaving the umpire the unfortunate target of hate where the fans usually pile on him as the bad guy for tossing the manager (assuming it's the home team). In fact, even if the manager is yelling about his displeasure with an umpire, the confrontation has the ability to make even a professional umpire begin to question his calls, resulting in more displeasure.
On the flip side, Gardenhire was ejected when Nauert ruled that Yankees hitter Luke Voit did not swing at a pitch. It was a close pitch and a tough call to make in real time, but the replay seemed to make me think the call was incorrect: Voit did offer at the pitch. Gardenhire's argument resulted in ridiculous accusations that Nauert could obviously see through, but it wasn't until the argument finished that it was clear it was a joke of an argument.
As soon as Gardenhire turned around to walk back to the clubhouse, he looked right at Voit who was standing on first base (the no-call resulted in a walk) and asked him, "Did you swing?" as he walked by, followed by a smirk .
Even Gardenhire knew this was a joke.
A few days later, Boone was hit with a one-game suspension for making contact with Lentz during the confrontation. To quote Boone:
"I was arguing, I got kicked out of the game, I reacted how I reacted. Unfortunately, I got a little too close, and I do regret that. I always want to be in control of my emotions, to a degree. But sometimes you also have to state your claim and defend certain things that are important. I definitely shouldn't have nicked his cap."
In this brief statement, we got a cop-out about responsibility for one's actions and emotions as well as evidence of misplaced priorities. No mention of an apology...no mention that Lentz actually was doing a good job...just a lame way of getting around talking about something where Boone was at fault.
Sorry, Aaron. Cancer is important. Poverty is important. Borderline pitches are not.
In our continued discussion on self-esteem and how it relates to sportsmanship and competition, consider the following:
Why does losing lead to poor self-esteem? Well, perhaps it is because most competitors lose most of the time!
Think about it statistically. The best probability is a 50/50 chance when the competition consists of two teams (or just competitors). So when competitions increase to more than just two competitors, the odds change and each team has a better chance to lose than to win; that probability of losing directly increases as the number of competitors increases. As such, people who compete are exposed to much more failure than success, whether it be athletics or a simple contest.
Further, this is just a macro view of failure being rampant in competition. Specific examples such as the science (or art) of hitting in baseball drive the point home. The best hitters in baseball, on average, get a hit three out of every ten times they come up to bat. That means that the greats who are enshrined in the Hall of Fame failed seven out of every ten times!
If people feel the need to prove themselves worthy by winning, they're in for a rude awakening. The worst thing we can do is attach our self-esteem to whether we win or lose at any competition.
The snow in New Jersey throughout March kept me from most of my baseball scrimmages, leaving me all of two games (only one behind the plate) to be ready for the regular season. However, one play during my final game proved a very important point.
With a runner on first base, the pitcher, while in the stretch, did not come to a complete stop. My partner correctly ruled it a balk as the pitch was delivered. The batter, however, swung and lined a base hit through the left side of the infield. Immediately, I came out from behind the plate and yelled, "TIME! DEAD BALL!" The first base coach, however, was already disagreeing with me. "You have to play that out! A balk is not a dead ball!"
"Yes it is, coach," I said. "In NFHS (high school) baseball, a balk is an immediate dead ball."
He immediately dropped his argument, which was amazing, in my opinion. But my partner took the time to explain it to him. The runner from first base was advanced to second, and the batter resumed his at-bat.
The conflict that arose is that, in OBR (official baseball rules, which is what MLB uses, as do many other forms of baseball), a balk is a delayed dead ball. That is, you wait for the play to be over before deciding to enforce the balk. In the case above, we would have let the play go, then given the offense the option of taking the balk penalty or the result of the play. However, high school rules do not allow this: they clearly state that the ball is dead immediately and the balk is enforced. It's an odd shame when something good happens, though...what if the batter hit a home run? You guessed it: I become the bad guy and have to nullify the home run to award the balk penalty.
Sometimes these rules don't make sense. But it's not my job, as the umpire, to debate the rules. I just have to enforce them. Further, the coaches should probably take the time to understand these rules as well. When offered a high school coaching job, it's not as simple as just teaching the game and leading the team. You have to understand that there are MAJOR DIFFERENCES between high school sports and other levels of those same sports.
As much as officials do their homework to know these odd rules, coaches need to do the same. After all, high school athletics are an extension of the classroom. They are another opportunity to educate student athletes on valuable life lessons. We, as coaches and officials, owe it to the kids to get it right.
In a society where people are innocent until proven guilty, we must preface this story by stating that we cannot prove intent. The only judgment we can give is that from the court of public opinion, not one with any actual legal weight.
Last season, an incident occurred where MLB umpire Quinn Wolcott was hit with a fastball up around the head/neck area from Detroit Tigers pitcher Buck Farmer. The incident immediately followed Wolcott's ejection of both Tigers catcher James McCann and then manager Brad Ausmus over balls and strikes.
The problem wasn't just that Wolcott was hit, but that the immediate reaction was incredibly telling by the Tigers. As soon as Wolcott went down, Cleveland Indians batter Yandy Diaz was the only one to tend to Wolcott until base umpires Brian O'Nora and Paul Emmel made it to the plate at a dead sprint, meeting the Indians training staff at the same time.
Replacement catcher John Hicks and pitcher Buck Farmer paid zero attention to Wolcott.
The key to this incident is in Hicks' response. Catchers and umpires have a kinship because they both wear the gear behind the plate. They are both subject to the bumps and bruises of foul balls and other minor injuries throughout the course of a game. They work together to get strikes called for pitchers. Even though they're not on the same "team," per se, they are on the same team. When one goes down, the other tends to him.
So when Hicks immediately ignored Wolcott, that told you all you needed to know.
No postgame comments from anyone on the Tigers could sway the opinion otherwise. Following the incident with the Yankees earlier in the year, it was pretty clear that the 2017 Detroit Tigers were no longer playing for their late owner: they were in a selfish free fall that can best be described as unfortunate.
"You don't get in front of a man and his nachos."
That quote from Cubs shortstop Addison Russell summed up a fantastic scene at Busch Stadium toward the end of the 2017 MLB Regular Season.
During a game between the Cubs and the Cardinals, Russell ran towards the stands in an almost Derek-Jeter-like fashion to make a catch and fly into the seats. The problem? Russell fell into a Cardinals fan and his big tray of nachos. Andrew Gudermuth would forever be known as "Nachoman" following the incident as a result.
So what happened? Well, Russell didn't catch the foul ball...in fact, Jedd Gyorko finished the at-bat with a homer. But the staff at Busch stadium brought Gudermuth a complimentary new plate of loaded nachos for him to enjoy.
But it doesn't stop there.
Between innings, Russell ran out to Gudermuth with a tray of plain nachos (with cheese) in an act of contrition. He even posed for a few selfies with Gudermuth.
In a rivalry as tense as that between the Cubs and Cardinals, this is how you put things in perspective: by remembering that the fans are humans, and it's very easy to make new friends, even if they don't root for your team. I guarantee you that Gudermuth probably will never boo Russell again, nor will he think of the Cubs as a hated rival in the same way.
That's the power of nachos.
Here's a cute story from the end of the 2017 MLB Regular Season...
As the Yankees were facing the Twins with only a few games left in the regular season, the Bronx Bombers went on a torrid run to sweep the three game series and flex their muscles against the team they would eventually defeat in the American League Wild Card game. In one instance, Didi Gregorius came to the plate and drilled a home run into the right field seats.
But what happened as Didi swung? His bat drop hit catcher Jason Castro.
So what did Didi do? He turned and apologized to Jason before trotting around the bases!
Imagine if the ball hadn't gone out of the park. Imagine if Didi's actions were the difference between hitting a single and a double. That's still a pretty classy move. Cheers to Didi for doing what was right: apologizing for an accident and instinctively knowing that human decency is more important than a trip around the bases.
I know it's a little late to the party based on how the blog works; hopefully we will address more time sensitive matters in our podcast from here on out! But with the baseball season here, perhaps this is a nice time to examine this story again.
Last year, one of the big deals that hit the newspapers was "Apple-gate," the scandal about how the Boston Red Sox used an Apple Watch to steal signs from the New York Yankees and gained an unfair advantage that is strictly forbidden by the rules of baseball. Rather than rehash the details, take the time to familiarize yourself with the story if you haven't already.
As an aside, let's highlight just a few additional points:
So what can we take from this?
First of all, let the record state that it is illegal in baseball to use technology to steal signs or gain any sort of advantage. The most that is allowed in baseball are stopwatches, which are used by coaches to gauge times for pitchers to deliver a pitch, catchers to throw to second base, etc. Major League Baseball has actually now started allowing iPads in dugouts (and similar devices) so long as they are issued solely by MLB; this allows players to watch video on pitchers (which they do anyway in preparation) while guaranteeing that the devices are locked and governed by MLB with no threat of additional cheating.
The issue with technology is that it cannot be used to gain an advantage during the moment. If teams or players want to head back to the clubhouse in between innings to examine their most recent at-bat and try to pick up a pattern on pitch sequence, for example, that's completely fine because it does not "tip the pitches" to the hitter so they know what is coming. They're using past experiences to make an estimation on what they think will happen in the future, which is a philosophical experience that can be traced back to how humans make certain understandings about things such as the law of gravity: "I cannot guarantee that the law of gravity will continue to exist, but judging based on my experiences in life, I can place a pretty good bet that it will continue to exist."
So what did the Yankees do to deserve this fine? Well, it was never fully released as to what their sin was, but if I had to guess, it was probably a violation of the mandate that was passed down regarding how teams are not allowed to use their replay technology (especially the phone system of calling back to the replay room) to ask about an umpire's strike zone and then argue with the umpire about it. That's the same as disagreeing with a call on the field, going back to the clubhouse to see a replay, then coming back to argue with the umpire and cite the fact that you saw the replay and the umpire was wrong: that's grounds for immediate ejection.
As to the Diamondbacks, at the time of this writing (which is shortly following the NLWC game), there has been nothing released about the investigation. But it seems pretty clear: if you're lucky enough to own an Apple Watch or a similar device, leave it in the clubhouse!
As an epilogue, the monies collected in the fines were all donated to hurricane relief funds. So there is a quantum of solace to the story!
The San Diego Padres did not have a good 2017 season. But even in the midst of a poor season, some players can keep things in perspective.
Take Erick Aybar, for example. During a game in September 2017 against the Dodgers at home, the Padres infielder was running towards the third base stands attempting to catch a fly ball. The ball landed well out of reach, but Aybar's momentum took him straight to the edge of the stands, where he encountered a young Padres fan.
So what did he do? He slowed up and hugged the kid.
And the kid hugged back!
Aybar was asked about it after the game, and he discussed how kids, especially kids that close to you during a game, are blessings. It's amazing how children can put things in perspective sometimes, right?
Kudos to you, Erick Aybar!
Baseball player, umpire, coach, fan; professional musician; founder, President & CEO of The OSIP Foundation, Inc.