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MLB Umpires Are in the Spotlight… For all the Wrong Reasons

When it comes to arguing balls and strikes, umpires seem to be just as willing to battle as the players are.

Bill Welke 2011 by Keith Allison is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

MLB Umpires Are in the Spotlight… For all the Wrong Reasons

Estimated Reading Time: 3 Minutes

In theory, there shouldn’t be any noteworthy news about umpires, right? Consider that old notion often applied to offensive linemen in football: if they are doing the job you expect them to do, you’ll barely notice them at all.

Well, that’s hardly been the case for umpires these last few weeks in baseball. Not long after Manny Machado‘s one-game suspension arguing balls and strikes apparently warranted a vehement statement from the MLB Umpires Association, Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner was tossed in a controversial ejection last week. The tipping point for umpire Chad Fairchild? 

A smile and a wave, apparently.

This is clearly not a good look for umpires as a collective. The quick ejection of Turner, and the strange statement on the Machado ruling only enhance the “power-tripping” perception of current MLB umpires. Even the league itself had to come out and say the umpires were out of line.

The shining exemplar of all this, though, may have come earlier this season during a game in which Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch got into it with home plate umpire Ron Kulpa. After a few shaky calls behind the plate, a stare down with the Astros Bench, and Kulpa’s interruption of Gerrit Cole‘s warmup, Hinch and Kulpa had words. The cameras caught Kulpa mouthing “I can do whatever the hell I want” right in Hinch’s face.

Again, not a good look.

Things are getting out of hand

It would be one thing if the players were the ones out of control. But often, it seems as if the umpires themselves are the antagonists, taking a mild disagreement past the point of no return. Kulpa certainly has a history of trying to get the last word with players and managers. And it’s terrible for the optics. Ask someone to name an umpire who they don’t like, and they might have a few answers for you. Joe West or Angel Hernandez might come to mind. But ask the same person to name a few good umpires? They might need to think about that one for a minute.

Now, that’s not to say that MLB umps are bad at what they do. On the whole, they do a solid job. The problem here is perception. When the MLB umpires union released their statement on Twitter, they cited Machado for making contact with the umpire and throwing his bat against the backstop. Throwing the bat? Fine. No argument there, Machado hurled his bat. But contact? Replay shows that it’s likely inconclusive. And even if Machado did make contact with the ump, then what do you call this?

Mild or not, a player shouldn’t have to face an automatic suspension for contact with an official if the official can initiate the same contact without reprimand. If anything, this double-standard could only lead to more distrust and disputes between players and umpires down the road. The umpires aren’t above anything. They are employees of the league and should be held to performance standards like anyone else. That means instigating long-winded arguments and quick trigger pulls on players and managers can’t be tolerated. Yet right now, we often get an ego-trip behind home plate the second anyone pushes back on a call.

It’s Ironic…

The league needs to be concerned about this growing trend of behavior on the part of the umps. As long as umpires bring with them to the field the attitude of “I can do whatever I want,” there’s going to be a problem. Players and fans are getting a healthy dose of this now, which ironically begs the question the umpires asked at the end of their statement on Machado:

Is this truly what the MLB wants to teach our youth?

Ryan Kelly lives in Cambridge, MA, a stone's throw away from his beloved Boston teams. When he is not working as an editorial assistant, he is providing commentary on the Boston Red Sox and Boston Bruins for The Turf.

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