Friday, September 28, 2007

Bark Back Sports: Officials should be invisible

From the betting scandals and personal vendettas in the NBA to last week's dust up in Los Angeles that left San Diego Padres outfielder Milton Bradley on the disabled list, sports officials have been in the paper too often lately for all the wrong reasons. Our own Steve Hart, sportswriter for The Staten Island Advance, took a long hard look at the trouble with today's MLB umpires and what the league has and hasn't done to remedy the problem in SILIVE's blog.

By Stephen Hart
Major League Baseball could not even ignore the fact that it was Milton Bradley, who seems to create a problem every time he steps on the field. The commissioner's office, finally and in long overdue fashion, took a stand against it's umpires this week -- a group that has increasingly broken the cardinal rule of sports officials. That rule? Be invisible.

Baseball's umpires have been anything but that over the past decade or so, where the prerequisite for the job is apparently to have a thin skin and rabbit ears.

Growing up as a die hard fan of the game in the 1970s and '80s, I don't remember seeing the kind of player "baiting" being conducted by today's umps. The only one who stood out was Ron Luciano, who was -- and this isn't a compliment -- ahead of his time. At first, Luciano's exaggerated ball/strike and out/safe calls were funny, especially if they provoked a confrontation from someone such as former Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver.
But as those video clips of Luciano and Weaver going nose-to-nose started getting airplay, from "This Week in Baseball" to "The Tonight Show," Luciano began making the talk show and banquet rounds. His calls became more pronounced as he succumbed to self-promotion and, in doing so, brought embarrassment to his profession.
Although in today's me-first society, Luciano would have his own talk show; EA Sports would've put him in one of those special suits so he could reenact his gyrations for a virtual Luciano they'd use in their latest MLB video game; and his calls would be lauded on ESPN's SportsCenter, which teaches kids (judging by its nightly highlights) the only things that count are dunking a basketball, belting homers and laying somebody out with a vicious hit on the football field.
With all that said, at least Luciano was a little funny. Today's breed of umpires are lacking a sense of humor. Up until a dozen or so years ago, players could calmly argue a call with an ump; if the player was a little heated, the ump would more often than not just walk away, sometimes with the crew chief stepping in to try and calm down the situation.
Today's umpires simply go looking for a fight. If a batter grumbles as he's walking back to the dugout after a called third strike, the home-plate ump will either a) stare down that batter; b) actually take a few steps and follow him toward the dugout; and/or c) bait him into an argument, which will last about five seconds before an ejection occurs.
Of course, it's not simply relegated to home-plate umps, which brings us back to Mr. Milton Bradley. The talented yet highly emotional San Diego Padres outfielder, who has a history of flying off the handle, may or may not have flipped his bat in the direction of plate umpire Brian Runge following a called third strike in the fifth inning of San Diego's eventual 7-3 home loss to Colorado. Runge didn't see it, but first-base ump Mike Winters did, and informed Runge he believed it was intentional.
Three innings later, Bradley reached first on a single and asked Winters if he told Runge that he flipped his bat toward him. According to Padres first-base coach Bobby Meacham, Winters followed with an expletive-laced tirade against Bradley. That led to a face-to-face confrontation, with Winters not backing down against Bradley, who was first held back then thrown to the ground by his manager, Bud Black. As fate would have it, Bradley -- one of the few hot hitters (.313 average) for the fading-fast Padres -- tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on the tumble and is out for the season.
It was expected by some, including me, that Winter would only get a slap on the wrist from MLB. But with commissioners in other sports (most notably the NFL's Roger Goodell) stepping in quickly to fix any blemishes, baseball commish Bud Selig suspended Winters for the remainder of the regular season and the postseason.
The evidence and testimony against Winters may finally force MLB to take a long, hard look at an increasing group of officials who feel they need to be part of the game ... to make the highlights ... to make hair-trigger ejections that affect not only a game but possibly a playoff berth.
Why are umps different now? Is it reflective of society's general lack of discipline? Is it their jealous way of demonstrating power against mega-million ballplayers? Who knows.
Officiating throughout the sportsworld is under increasing scrutiny -- whether it's soccer referees in Europe taking bribes; NBA refs aiding gamblers by making calls that affect point spreads; or just the basic incompetence of NFL officials, who still blow more than their share of calls even with video replay. But what can you expect from guys who only do their job once a week for half a year? (This is an inherent problem for NFL refs, one that warrants more dialogue ... and another blog perhaps).
Still, none of them flaunt their presence in the arena of sport quite like MLB umpires do, a group that should remember the cardinal rule of officials. Be invisible.

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