Hernandez gaffe highlights MLB flaw

Blown call exposes flawed umpiring human element

Angel Hernandez embarrassed Major League Baseball on Wednesday night.

In fact, he did it twice.

Hernandez, as the umpire crew chief, failed to change an incorrect call despite clear evidence on instant replay. Hernandez’s mistake was magnified by the circumstances: Adam Rosales’ drive over the left-field wall — and it did go over the left-field wall — would have given Oakland the tying run against Cleveland in the ninth inning.

Instead, Rosales was left with a double. The A’s went on to lose 4-3.

Hernandez compounded his gaffe by the way he handled it. According to Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle, Hernandez didn’t allow the media to record his postgame comments. While stipulating that his answers be written in print only, Hernandez said the umpires “didn’t have enough evidence to reverse (the) call,” Slusser reported.

That’s odd. Everyone else who viewed the replays — you, me, the French judge from Skategate at the 2002 Winter Olympics — saw the ball carom off a railing above the yellow line. It should have been a home run. Period. Inexplicably, Hernandez thought otherwise.

Since this is a subtext to much of the reaction — from fans, from players, from executives around the league — we might as well acknowledge something: Hernandez is judged by many baseball observers to be one of the worst umpires in the sport. This is his 20th season in the major leagues.

Already, irate fans are calling for Hernandez to be fired. That’s probably unrealistic. But what should happen — and this was the case long before Wednesday — is that Major League Baseball officials must change how they evaluate, hire and fire their umpires.

First and foremost, MLB must explain to the A’s — and baseball fans at large — how Hernandez came to be a crew chief in the first place. Dana DeMuth, the regular chief on this crew, isn’t working this particular series. So, Paul Nauert replaced DeMuth and Hernandez was promoted to crew chief.

How did MLB select Hernandez — one of the most combustible and least capable options — to be a temporary crew chief? The commissioner’s office must provide a comprehensive answer to that question.

Major League Baseball executive vice president Joe Torre issued a statement early Thursday afternoon, acknowledging that “an improper call was made” but nevertheless affirming the judgment as “final.” Umpiring supervisor Randy Marsh has arrived in Cleveland, and Torre said MLB officials have begun to “thoroughly review” the call’s circumstances with the crew. But of greater importance in the long run, Torre must articulate why Hernandez was in position to make the ruling at all.

MLB commissioner Bud Selig often speaks about how much he appreciates the “human element” in baseball. And that’s fine, as long as his umpiring roster is composed of the most qualified humans for the job. As Hernandez demonstrated — again — that’s not the case now. The deep irony is that his blunder occurred on a home run, one of the few plays that can be reviewed through the sport’s current instant-replay program.

We can’t expect umpires to be perfect. We should, however, demand that they be accountable. Jim Joyce showed us how umpires can maintain their dignity and professionalism even when they blow a high-profile call.

I was there when Joyce cost Armando Galarraga a perfect game in 2010, and I will never forget interviewing a tearful, distraught Joyce after the game. Joyce, unlike Hernandez, insisted on no preconditions for the reporters who entered the umpires’ room. He paced. He admitted his error. He answered all of our questions.

“There’s nobody that feels worse than I do,” Joyce said that night. “I take pride in this job, and I kicked the s--- out of that, and I took a perfect game away from that kid over there.”

That is the integrity Selig has championed. Wednesday was different: Hernandez’s actions didn’t reflect the human element. They exposed his hubris.

Either Hernandez — who worked second base during the game — was predisposed to stick with the original call, or he truly couldn’t discern that the baseball changed directions above the wall. I’m not sure which would be worse. If Hernandez didn’t see replays in proper resolution, then that’s an indictment of the system itself.

Apart from this incident, MLB should move its decisions to a centralized location, as the NHL has, which would provide a better platform for expanded replay in the future. This is particularly important when the crew chief is absent, as was the case in Cleveland Wednesday night. Why would MLB entrust Hernandez with a decision he’s not normally qualified to make?

Young fans, in particular, have grown accustomed to replay in football and expect calls to be right in other sports. In the Information Age, we demand a higher level of transparency from (and about) people in positions of power — sports or otherwise. And that is why Wednesday was bad for baseball.

We form opinions about players using any number of publicly available metrics. We judge a manager’s lineups and bullpen moves based on the available statistics. So it’s only natural that we’d like to know how umpires are evaluated. But we don’t, partly because of their powerful union.

Now, it’s true that umpire Bob Davidson was suspended for one game last year for “repeated violations” of “standards for situation handling.” Umpire Tom Hallion was fined (along with Tampa Bay Rays pitchers David Price, Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore) after a heated exchange at US Cellular Field in late April. But the specifics of baseball’s umpire evaluations remain a mystery to many of us, aside from the “retirements” and new hires announced each year.

That was sufficient 30 years ago. Not now. We see too much. And the sport’s credibility could be compromised if MLB employs anything less than the most capable umpires.

In an ideal world, MLB would have the authority to send underperforming umpires to the minor leagues. (After all, managers, coaches and players are held to similarly high standards.) Scheduling concerns between the majors and minors, though, probably would make that impractical.

So, increased transparency should be the focus. MLB ought to borrow another page from the NHL, which posts explanatory, step-by-step videos on the league’s website from discipline czar Brendan Shanahan when players are suspended. Hernandez should have stood before anyone with a camera or tape recorder to explain what he saw.

Wednesday night, umpires across baseball made countless correct calls. They are, on measure, excellent at what they do. Yet Hernandez’s mistake was so blatant — and so poorly handled — that it can’t be ignored. Baseball isn’t perfect. But to fulfill its obligation as our national pastime, it must be forthright.

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