Two days into the MLB playoffs and the drum beat for more instant replay had reached a crescendo. While instant replay may have reversed several calls, it’s not a magic elixir for umpire incompetence.
There are a number of issues in play here, not the least of which is that umpires are human, which guarantees they aren’t perfect. No one should expect umpires to get every call correct. Umpiring, especially at the Major League level, isn’t an easy job, despite what those sitting in the press box or at home with the benefit of instant replay might believe. Fortunately, MLB has many excellent umpires, but they’re overshadowed by a few incompetents.
If instant replay had been available for more than the boundary calls it is currently being used for, the umps would have gotten two of several missed calls correct. One was a safe call on an attempted steal of second when the runner was clearly out, and another on a catch in right field that was ruled a trap. But those weren’t the only controversial calls during the first two days of the playoffs. There were two checked swings that were called balls when instant replay confirmed that both should have been strike three. Given a second life, one batter knocked in a run with a double and the other hit a three-run homer.
A checked swing is one of the most difficult calls for an umpire to make, whether it’s the home plate umpire or one of the base umps who is asked to make the decision. The managers on the losing end of those calls, Joe Maddon of Tampa Bay and Ron Gardenhire of Minnesota, were visibly upset. When they left the dugout to voice their displeasure, both were ejected. In Gardenhire’s case, the home plate umpire was Hunter Wendelstedt, who, according to the website BrooksBaseball.net, missed 31 ball-and-strike calls during the game.
That comes as no surprise to anyone in the game. If players, managers and coaches could speak on the record, Wendelstedt would be their pick for the worst umpire in MLB. Beyond his incompetence, Wendelstedt also possesses a volatile and surly nature. He has a history of instigating arguments with players and managers, including several with Gardenhire. Hunter would never have made it out of A-ball if his father Harry, a veteran of 35 years as a Major League umpire, hadn’t been born before him. As the person responsible for providing Hunter with game balls and post-game towels at one of his stops in A-ball, I experienced his wrath first hand.
Wendelstedt shouldn’t be on a baseball diamond, never mind receive a post-season assignment. MLB claims playoff umpires are selected based on evaluations and recommendations. That’s only partially true. Although umpires are evaluated, they are evaluated by their peers. They are also recommended for post-season assignments by their peers. Few umpires want to offend Wendelstedt, who inherited his father’s umpiring school in Ormond Beach, FL where the instructors are invited MLB umpires. Professional baseball also selects its umpires from the Wendelstedt School, and it behooves the powers that be to remain on Wendelstedt’s good side.
In truth, umpires are selected for post-season assignments on a rotating basis. The umpiring fraternity would be very upset if those plum assignments only went to the best umpires, which would result in the same individuals being selected every year.
For reasons unknown, MLB has avoided a confrontation with the umpires’ union since the league fired 22 umpires in 1999 after they went on strike. Although three of seven umpire supervisors were axed in the wake of last year’s playoff miscues, working umpires have the equivalent of a lifetime appointment, similar to Supreme Court Justices. The result is more competent umpires rot in Triple-A until they are told to go home or they get fed up with the wait and quit on their own.
The players have decided to take matters into their own hands. The MLBPA requested a sit- down with the umpires, which has been scheduled for December. MLB will have a representative present during the meeting, but Commissioner Bud Selig is apparently allowing the players to do his dirty work for him. If Selig took a more aggressive stance with the umpires, and was more concerned with their competence, he might quiet the call for more instant replay.
Jordan Kobritz is a staff member of the Business of Sports Network. He is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Eastern New Mexico University and teaches the Business of Sports at the University of Wyoming. He looks forward to your comments and can be contracted, here.
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