You know a thing is really a thing these days when it has its own hashtag. And there it was last week, trending on Twitter alongside #cincodemayo and #happymothersday: #umpshow, which sprang up in the wake of some shockingly bad umpiring over the first six weeks of the major league season. There was Tom Hallion earning a fine from the league for his war of words with Tampa Bay's David Price—the umpire called Price a liar after the Rays ace claimed that Hallion told him to "throw the ball over the effing plate" during an April 28 game. (Price and two other Rays were also fined.) There was John Hirschbeck ejecting Nationals slugger Bryce Harper on May 5, appearing to seek out confrontation after Harper questioned a check-swing call. Worst of all were the egregious mistakes by Angel Hernandez and Fieldin Culbreth last week. Hernandez took away a game-tying ninth-inning home run from the A's on May 8. The call was actually botched twice: first in real time, when his crew failed to see that the shot cleared the fence, and then again on the replay review, when Hernandez didn't overturn the call in the face of clear video evidence. The next night Culbreth betrayed a disturbing lack of knowledge of the rule book by letting the Astros make an illegal pitching change against the Angels, a decision that led Los Angeles manager Mike Scioscia to play the game under protest. (He dropped it when the Angels went on to win.)
We've spent far too much time this season talking about the lowest-paid people on the field. Major league umpiring has descended to a level of incompetence, tinged with arrogance, that is simply untenable. Mistakes are swinging key moments in games, but beyond the occasional fine or short suspension (Culbreth got both and his crew was fined; MLB admitted Hernandez's ruling was wrong but went no further), umpires have little accountability. It's time to reimagine what the modern umpire should be.
In the early days of baseball, a strong, neutral authority figure was needed on the field just to keep the players from killing one another. Maintaining order was as much a part of the job as making calls. Baseball is different now. It is (relatively) civilized and requires substantially less policing. Umpires should be administrators, not demigods, and the next generation of men and women to hold the job must be trained with this in mind.
First and foremost, umps have to be comfortable with technology. They must understand that replay reviews and electronic strike zone measurements will help them fulfill their mission, rather than undermine it. Baseball needs a new replay system similar to what the NCAA has in football, in which a veteran official in the booth decides whether to overturn a call, not the men on the field who may have missed the call in the first place.
Major league umpiring must become a young person's game: Recruit from the generation comfortable with technology to replace the one frightened by it. (The average big league ump is 48 and has been on the job for nearly 15 years.) Let's get umps at the peak of their physical and mental abilities, closer to the age of the players than of the managers. Next, train umps as administrators and facilitators, not disciplinarians. It shouldn't be open season on the men in blue, but candidates who can't handle being occasionally yelled at or who seek out confrontation should be weeded out in the selection process. Discipline should be largely taken out of the umpire's hands and given to the league office. Those same ubiquitous cameras that tell us the first base ump blew a call will also tell MLB discipline czar Joe Torre that a superstar earned a suspension. We no longer need umps who can win arguments. We need umps who can stay out of them.
Baseball can also improve umpiring with the one resource it has plenty of: money. To attract the best and brightest candidates, it needs to pay for them. Right now senior umps make less than $500,000 a season—barely more than the rookie player minimum. Set the salary for MLB umpires at $1 million and streamline the path to the job by shortening the current decadelong process of reaching the majors. That would ensure that MLB can hire from a pool of young candidates who can keep up with the modern game—and haven't been burned out or embittered by it. Keep that pool fresh with two changes, justified by the higher salaries: an aggressive evaluation process that would replace underperforming umpires season by season, and a 15-year term limit in the big leagues. Those moves will ensure quality and turnover.
Such a plan would mean a fivefold increase in MLB's labor costs for umpires. But how much is it worth to keep the focus of the game on figures like Harper and Price rather than on Hirschbeck, Hallion and Hernandez? It's been a bad year for umpires, but let's do more than curse the mistakes and the men who make them. Let's redefine what an umpire is. Let's bring the job out of the 19th century and into the 21st.
What's your solution to baseball's umpiring problem?
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ERICK W. RASCO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED