Umpire controversies marring playoffs
Let’s get one thing straight.
Twins right-hander Carl Pavano is to blame for allowing an RBI double to the Yankees’ Lance Berkman on the pitch after plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt called a ball on an apparent third strike.
Likewise, Rays right-hander Chad Qualls is to blame for allowing a three-run homer to the Rangers’ Michael Young on the pitch after plate ump Jim Wolf ruled that Young checked his swing on a potential strike three.
Baseball games feature dozens — even hundreds — of decisive moments, not one or two. So please, no complaints from the Twins or Rays, two teams that completely gagged at home, going down two games to none.
Still, the playoffs are developing just as I feared, generating one umpiring controversy after another. And the scary part is, there does not seem to be an easy way out — no, not even through greater use of instant replay.
The initial solution, one that should be enacted no later than next postseason, is more replay and fewer umpires. But even the expansion of replay and reduction of six-man crews to four would accomplish only so much.
Baseball is getting the postseason umpires it wants now — the sport gained additional control over the selection process in its new collective-bargaining agreement with the umps.
Expanded replay, meanwhile, would not lead to reviews of every questionable call. In fact, I’m willing to bet that the next layer would not cover most of the disputed plays of the past two days — a foul tip, a trapped ball, a checked swing, a missed strike. Baseball, understandably, does not want to go too far.
Right now, I’d settle for replay on calls on the lines and calls on the bases — reviewing Buster Posey’s pivotal stolen base in the Giants’ 1-0 victory over the Braves, for example. Replay currently is used only on boundary calls on home runs.
Still, the sport would be foolish to allow blown calls — and their hotly debated aftermaths — to keep hijacking the postseason.
Over the next month, as the games grow even more meaningful, the issue only figures to get hotter.
Frankly, it’s difficult to know what to do about the umpires anymore. Baseball, as part of its new CBA with the umps, selects postseason umpires at its discretion, presumably choosing on merit, not seniority. Umpires now can work back-to-back World Series as well, though they still cannot work back-to-back postseason series in the same year.
That’s better — a lot better than in the past. But six-man crews in the postseason are unnecessary, and dilute the umpiring talent. Twenty-four of the 68 full-time umpires — more than one-third — work the Division Series. Four-man crews with additional replay on fair/foul calls would make far more sense.
The umpires assigned to the outfield lines are not accustomed to working those positions. They invoke their lack of familiarity as an excuse when they blow calls. Trim down to 16 umps for the DS, and baseball would stand a better chance of getting the best possible group.
Such a change would be difficult to enact — baseball’s new CBA with the umpires runs through 2014. The agreement, though, grants commissioner Bud Selig the flexibility to dictate the expansion of replay. Selig could use that opening to seek a reduction of the postseason workforce, provided that he gave the umpires something in return.
Expanded replay would produce its own set of complications, but Selig no longer can say that he hears little support for the concept. Two postseason managers, the Rays’ Joe Maddon and Yankees’ Joe Girardi, publicly supported additional replay on Wednesday. The much-maligned Rays fans were chanting “re-play,” for crying out loud.
Right now, I’d settle for replay on calls on the lines and calls on the bases — practically anything in addition to the current replay on boundary calls on home runs.
By failing to address the issue sooner, baseball only added to the scrutiny of the umpires, creating a postseason hothouse in which every questionable call becomes a cause célèbre.
I spoke with Selig last week after my initial column on the subject, and he raised all the familiar — and understandable — reservations about replay. He also pointed out, correctly, that he introduced the wild card, interleague play and revenue sharing, among other innovations. He is not inherently resistant to change.
Well, now baseball has a problem, in some ways a problem of perception as much as anything else. This is the time of year when only the games should matter. Yet here we are, talking about the umpires, talking about replay, talking about all the wrong things.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I just hate seeing the sport suffer one postseason embarrassment after another.
More replay, fewer umpires. Got to start somewhere.