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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

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MLB Has an Umpire Problem

I know it, you know it, the players know it, the fans know it. I suspect Bud Selig knows it. The question is what he’s going to do about it.

Let’s get rid of some preliminaries: Before the pivotal call by first-base ump David Rackley, the Mets hadn’t played a particularly good game. Collin McHugh, so marvelous in his big-league debut, got whacked around by the Cardinals — in the postgame, Bobby Ojeda was certain that he was tipping his pitches, lifting his arm high on the curve and coming with a three-quarters delivery on the fastball. (If so, one hopes that’s the kind of thing that gets communicated between former pitchers working for SNY and current pitchers working for NYM.) McHugh wasn’t great, but he had plenty of company — whether it was Lucas Duda misplaying a first-inning liner into a triple or Kelly Shoppach not backing up first on a bad throw by Daniel Murphy or Bobby Parnell being ineffective in relief or the Mets’ inability to hit with runners in scoring position. More about Rackley’s call in a minute, but to be fair, it was more coup de grace than out-of-nowhere knife in the back.

The Mets looked dead for much of the early going against Joe Kelly, but they fought back on homers by Shoppach and Murphy, followed by a fizzled rally that began with a one-out walk by Ike Davis and a single by Jason Bay. Frustrating, but they looked poised to complete the comeback in the ninth: Andres Torres did a terrific job against Jason Motte, working a deep count against a closer who’d done hard duty in the eighth and then hustling into second for a leadoff double. I was explaining to Joshua that this was a case where bunting the runner over did make sense, because it was more important to maximize the chance of scoring at least one run than it was to try to maximize the number of runs scored, and … but wait, what was happening over there at first?

Oh no he hadn’t.

Oh God he had.

Rackley, an ump I’ll wager none of us had ever heard of before, had emphatically punched out Torres for missing first.

Looking at a little TV set in the beach house at LBI, I couldn’t be sure. But the consensus from those with better sets was clear: Torres had too hit the bag, clipping it with his front foot as he turned the corner. Torres stared at Rackley in disbelief and then headed for the dugout; Terry Collins protested briefly but futilely; and a few minutes later, the Mets had lost.

On his way off the field after making the last out, Murphy paused to exchange pleasantries with Rackley. In the postgame, he and Collins both explained that the guys in the dugout had seen the replay; Murph had some sympathy for Rackley, who didn’t have the same advantage.

Which is really the heart of the matter, and why I’m tired of talking about the human element, or hearing worries about the game being slowed down further. Technology has changed the experience of calls and the expectations around them, and the game needs to catch up.

First of all, we already have instant replay in baseball — we just don’t have it on the field, where it would do some good. At Citi Field and many other parks today, any close call is followed by at least half the fans swiveling their heads left or right, to look at one of the many HDTVs hanging from the level above their seats. You can hear it in the broadcasts: a kind of mutter that follows the freeze cam being shown in the ballpark.

And it’s not just the fans. As Murph made clear, the players can see those plays too — I don’t know if they’re ducking into the tunnel, rushing of to the clubhouse or looking at a cameraman’s monitor, but they know. And this trend will continue: Before too long fans (and team staffers close to the dugout) will look at their smartphones a couple of seconds after a play to check the replay. Calls are scrutinized in ways that weren’t possible a decade ago, disseminated in ways that were unimaginable then, and deplored instantly and then at length by wired fans and commenters. In that situation, it’s unfair to expect umpires to rely on nothing but real-time calls when everybody else will pick those calls apart with a slew of camera angles and freeze-frames.

OK, but how to fix this? I love baseball, but there comes a time in nearly every game in which I think, “Gee, this is taking forever.” So why would any sane fan want to introduce more delays?

I’ll tell you why: Because the problems with instant replay are theoretical, and the problems with blown calls are real.

David Rackley’s emphatic wrong call is so far from the first one blown at a critical juncture in a game. We’ve seen Armando Galarraga and Jim Joyce, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Jerry Meals, along with call after call after call in games played by the Mets and others, a seemingly daily drumbeat of incorrect umpiring.

Yeah, I know we would have lost our one and only no-hitter in a world with instant replay. I don’t regard Johan’s no-no as tainted because Carlos Beltran got a hit that was called a foul ball, but I would have sacrificed it to remove the spreading stain of bad umpiring on baseball. Instant replay isn’t needed just because it’s a presence in the stands and the dugout — it’s needed because baseball’s umpires have become so routinely incompetent that the ultimate oversight of the national pastime needs to be taken out of their hands. [Edit: This is unfair, as was pointed out to me on Twitter. Umps are probably about as good/bad as they always were; the difference is that technology has let us detect their mistakes. Regardless, expectations have changed, and we have the same problem.] The human element should be limited to the successes and failures of players, not referees who are supposed to be invisible and anonymous.

So how would instant replay work? I don’t know — but at this point the onus should be on those who think the daily parade of blown calls is a problem that doesn’t need solving, not those of us who’d like it fixed.

That said, let’s try some basics. We want the umps to get it right and we want reviews to be as speedy as possible. So let’s start with NHL-style review of critical calls. Within a minute of a call, the announcers for both teams have usually established to viewers’ satisfaction whether the ump was right or wrong. So why can’t someone in an MLB control room do what Gary, Keith and Ron do?

I don’t see any reason to limit managers’ challenges, NFL-style — the idea is to get calls right, not to get a certain number of them right when coaches are really mad. Would some manager abuse this by demanding that call after call get reviewed? I doubt it, honestly — and if one did, that’s why the commissioner’s office can suspend people. Moreover, why does an instant-replay plan have to be perfect from Day 1? Let it evolve, and solve problems as they become apparent.

The one thing I would do is keep balls and strikes out of it. That’s the Rubicon I wouldn’t cross, because the game really would grind to a halt. (I reserve the right to change my mind on this as technology advances.) Aside from balls and strikes, though, let’s get things right — because we’ve seen far too many calls that are wrong.

David Rackley’s mistake robbed the Mets of a key runner at a critical point in a ballgame they lost. But he’s not the first ump to make such an error, and he won’t be the last. Technology has progressed to the point where this doesn’t need to happen. The tools available to fans and players have progressed to the point where we increasingly don’t tolerate this happening. It’s clear that baseball has to find an answer. The question is how long it will dither before giving us one.

17 comments to MLB Has an Umpire Problem

  • Tom

    As someone who has been completely against the idea of instant replay, I’m starting to change my mind. Although in the Beltran/Johan scenario, I’d keep that out of replay’s hands. That’ll lead to further argument. Would it have been a double? Single? Where do you place the runner? Or do you just scrap the strike and let him swing again? I wouldn’t want to completely alter the game where players are being awarded for base hits based on an opinion of what could have happened if the play was called in the manner that the replay later determined as correct.

    Limit replay to plays at the bases. Safe & out calls. If the call needs to be reversed, it’s clear what the other outcome is. One or the other.

    Definitely could have used it today.

    • Z

      I think you’d see umpires erring on the side of calling balls fair, as Beltran’s hit against Johan actually was, and then letting a challenge determine if it was foul or not. Slightly similar to tennis, where players now know to keep playing in the event of a no-call, with the understanding that they can see afterwards if the ball was really out.

  • Lenny65

    I’m not opposed to instant replay, I just wouldn’t want it to become farcical like how it is in the NFL with the five and a half minute reviews and the ref with the hood and all. Given today’s level of video technology, I cannot see why a MLB “booth ump” couldn’t quickly and efficiently review a close call and deliver a correction within, oh, 45-60 seconds or so.

  • sturock

    Let’s face it: this routinely happens to the Mets. They are jobbed year in and year out. I’m okay with NFL-style where manager gets to dispute a certain number of non-ball-and-strike calls (1 or 2, say) per game. Collins should go ballistic more, though. We never get the calls anyway– why not give Met fans some satisfaction? It just seems like there are more and more of these part-time vacation-replacement umps out there. Is there no quality control at MLB?

    (On another subject, why can’t our pitchers throw at a few more opposing hitters? Ever watch replays of the 1969 World Series on TV? Every time Nolan Ryan misses, he misses high and tight. Every time Jerry Koosman missed back in the day, it was high and tight. He backed hitters off the plate. The only pitcher we have who throws that way is Matt Harvey and sooner or later they’ll tell him not to. I want to see some hard-throwers on this team who are not afraid to bust the batters inside. The Mets get absolutely no respect from anyone and, like the atrocious umpiring, this has been going on for way too many years.)

  • Brendan

    Not only should there be instant replay, but what about accountability for the umpires. Not that it’s easy to see a play in real time, but for blown call after blown call, there has been no accountability for the umpires. It doesn’t matter if they blow a call, so why do they care? A suspension? A fine? Some umpires have no business keeping their job, talking to you C.B. Buckner.

  • Joe D.

    I didn’t notice Torres putting up an argument with Rackly, nor the first base coach or the manager. If they thought the call was blown why didn’t they come out charging instead of waiting till after the game was over?

    It is reported that Beltran saw the play from the batting cage and alerted his manager to call for an appeal. That in itself seems quite odd since he had to be watching it in real time on a monitor without the replays that we all saw after the call.

    I can’t say for sure if the umpire blew the call since on one replay I thought I saw what appeared to be a shadow on the edge of the bag that Torres was supposed to have touched.

    After the game was over, Murphy and Collins did have something to say to the rookie umpire but my take on it was that they were saying that in the majors umpires ignore neighborhood plays for both sides.

  • Z

    I look forward to the first instance when a call-arguing home team manager runs out onto the field with an iPad or such device to try and show the umpire his call was wrong in front of an entire stadium and TV audience. This starts happening with any frequency, I think instant replay won’t be far behind.

    One thing I respect about the NBA is that they show close/questionable call replays on the overhead video scoreboard as a matter of course (even on foul calls, which are understandably subjective enough that no one at all thinks they should be subject to replay review), unlike MLB which blacks out close call replays from outfield scoreboards.

  • 9th string

    I HATE REPLAYS. HATE HATE HATE HATE HATE. Home runs calls are okay. I’d rather see the errors by the umps than watch baseball become a 5 hour regular event. Think about how many times the Mets got gypped this year. Not that many. Keep replays out!

    • But how many close calls are there really in most games? 2-3 at most? Home-run reviews are already short and would get shorter if reviewed by some MLB person. Don’t see why this would be different.

    • Dan

      It is rare to see a person correctly write “gypped” (instead of “jipped”), as it demonstrates knowledge of the word’s etymology as a slur.

    • I really agree. I dislike it in all sports but for some reason I really hate it in baseball. Maybe because there’s more of a past time there. I don’t know.

  • I prefer accurate calls that benefit the Mets. Take all the time that is needed to procure those. Inaccurate calls that benefit the Mets are a symptom of innocent human error and no time should be wasted on examining those.

  • sturock

    MLB needs to add a replay ump in each city, someone who sits in the press box with a bank of monitors and can be called upon to review a limited number of plays. It would actually help the umps and it really shouldn’t take that long. Think of how long some of these on-field arguments take.

    • Dak442

      That is a most salient point. People cite how replay will delay the games, but I’ll take a one-minute review in a booth over five minutes of pointless on-field jabbering by a manager which will never overturn a call and is nothing more than gamesmanship and proving how tough and gritty a leader one is.

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