GORDON WHITE: Foul Umpiring: Something Stinks About MLB Playoffs
Bad umpiring and white hankies have once again stamped their deleterious effects on Major League Baseball's post-season playoffs. And the 2009 playoffs aren't even at the midway point.
Although umpiring is not a perfect science, players and managers grudgingly accept questionable rulings most of the time through the regular seasons. But they should have the right to expect excellence from umpires working the all-important playoff games because it is assumed that the best umpires are chosen for these assignments.
Yet throughout the American and National League Division Series that ended last Sunday and Monday, respectively, there were enough bad calls to make umpires admit to poor judgments and display some rare embarrassment.
The worst blunder came nine days ago in the second ALDS game at Yankee Stadium between the New York Yankees and the Minnesota Twins.
Joe Mauer, currently one of the two or three best hitters in MLB, led off the top of the 11th inning for Minnesota. The superb left-handed batter sliced a fly ball out over third base and down the left field line. It landed at least a foot fair inside the left field foul line. The ball bounced into the left field seats for what should have been a ground-rule double.
For some inexplicable reason, Umpire Phil Cuzzi called the ball foul.
This was a ball that everyone in Yankee Stadium and millions of TV viewers saw was clearly fair. Television replays kept showing Cuzzi's major gaffe. Following the game Cuzzi and the other umpires admitted he blew it, and badly.
What followed showed how such a terrible call can play havoc with the result and possibly ruin an entire year's work by a team.
Mauer stayed in the batter's box and eventually singled off the Yankee relief pitcher, Dave Robertson. Then Jason Kubel and Mike Cuddyer singled. These three consecutive singles did no more than load the bases for the Twins with nobody out.
Had Mauer been awarded his rightful place at second base with a double to start the 11th inning, he surely would have scored to break the 3-3 tie on the first or second of those subsequent singles. As it was, the Yanks and Robertson got the Twins out without allowing them to score. Then Mike Teixeira won the game for the Yanks with a home run in the bottom of the 11th.
MLB assigns four umpires to all regular-season games but six umpires for playoff, World Series and All-Star games. Ironically, one of these two extras is stationed well down each foul line for the sole purpose of seeing that balls hit to the outfield that land near or on a foul line or foul pole are correctly called fair or foul. Thus Cuzzi, working the left field line, simply botched his primary duty.
Of course the Twins and their fans will forever wonder, "If Mauer got the double and scored would the Twins have scored more and won the game to turn the ALCS around to 1-1 instead of 2-0 for the Yanks who swept the Twins in the series, 3-0?"
That is why "if" is the biggest two letter word in our language and for some, "umpire" is a dirty word.
Cuzzi's blunder was the worst of numerous umpiring miscues in this year's playoffs during which the strike zone is expanding and contracting like an elastic band. I hope for the day when there is a uniform strike zone that pitchers and batters can rely upon. I am tired of listening to broadcasters say a given umpire's strike zone is OK "as long as he is consistent throughout the game".
That is hogwash. No umpire should set the strike zone. It is set by MLBrules. Unfortunately, few umpires stick to that rule.
Another very bad call cost the Phillies a run in the bottom of the sixth inning of their first NLCS game against the Colorado Rockies. With two men out and a runner on third, the Phils' Jimmy Rollins hit a ball to the Rockies' second baseman, Clint Barmes, who bobbled the ball. Although Barmes recovered and threw to Todd Helton at first base, the throw was too late as Rollins, one of baseball's fastest runners, beat the toss.
But Bob Davidson, the umpire at first, called Rollins out. This cost the Phils a run but did not really impact the outcome as the Phils had already scored 5 runs and won, 5-1. However, it was just another glaring mistake by a MLB umpire.
The white hankies or towels that are handed out to fans when they enter MLB stadiums are becoming a real impediment for players, particularly outfielders attempting to catch low line drives. Usually these hankies (about 12 inches by 12 inches) are white on one side and have team colors on the other side. But when fans wave them over their heads as their home team is at bat the hankies appear to be mostly white.
Then, when a home team player hits a ball that remains below the sight line of the last row of seats, an outfielder can lose the ball in the swirling mass of thousands and thousands of white hankies waving in the stands.
The Detroit Tigers' left fielder, Ryan Raburn, lost just such a ball at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, Oct. 6, when the Twins beat the Tigers, 6-5, in 12 innings in the one-game playoff to decide the AL Central Division championship. Also, the Rockies outfielders had some problems in Philadelphia with fly balls they could not pick up against that background of Phillies fans waving white hankies.
Keep your fingers crossed that umpiring improves during the remaining ALCS and NLCS games and the World Series and that someone will deep six the white hankies.
Year in and year out MLB officials from the commissioner down through the chief of umpires and working umpires themselves claim umpires do a superb job. I disagree that all MLB umpires do a good job. Those who do not perform should be gone along with the white hankies.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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