Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Greatest Game III: Imperfection

We gather here to discuss a part of baseball that is essential to the game, but troubling: the Umpire. The founders and developers of baseball brilliantly designed the rules of play and the dimensions of the field. Then came the human element: players, managers, coaches, owners and The Umpire. The Umpire was and is given a special place in the game; some of that is by design and some is by practice, or, perhaps more accurately, ritual. The Home Plate Umpire is at the center of each game in the same way that the Medicine Man/High Priest is at the center of a sacrificial ceremony.

The most important job of the Umpire is to call balls and strikes. In order to do this properly, he (someday she) must have a familiarity with something called the Strike Zone. Viewers of the contemporary game may be surprised to know that baseball's rules bother to define this Strike Zone. For the record, here it is:

"....area over home base the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap....determinned by the batter's stance."

If you watch a lot of games, as I do, you will be immediately struck by this "over the home base" rule. Replay after replay, disbelieving batter after disbelieving batter, demonstrate that home base or plate is wider for Umpires than for other mortals. Some nights, the Strike Zone easily reaches into the opposite batter's box, as it did in the recent Yankees-Red Sox series, or a few inches inside the active batter's box.

In the same series, batters and pitchers also seemed completely confused as to what would constitute a low strike. More than one Umpire seemed to think that this "hollow beneath the kneecap" had been kidnapped by the Ankle Gang. Tiger Woods would have been hard-pressed to reach down and hit some of those strikes. But, then a couple of batters later, these had become balls.

Let's face facts: Umpires are allowed, indeed encouraged, to "establish" a Strike Zone of their own making for each game. Home plate, to most Umps, pitchers and batters, has become a mere trail-marker, a guide. Surely batters' shoulders vary in height, and uniform pants change, but shouldn't the plate be the plate? Some nights it seems as though the Umpire is making it up each inning or making up for obvious bad calls by making another one for the other team.

You might think that this is a serious problem. You might think that players, managers, coaches, agents, journalists and announcers might mention this as a serious problem.

You would be wrong. Even the slightest hint of criticism of Umpires results in a serious fine by the League. Umpires "strike" fear in the hearts of all, just like the Medicine Man. Anger the Umpires and they might conspire to move the Strike Zone even more than they currently do. A complaining batter might be tossed or might not have another ball called for days. A complaining pitcher can fume all he wants, but he will be throwing only balls until he repents. Instead of righting a wrong, everyone extols the wonders of Money Ball and its central feature: the walk. The walk, not so incidentally, places the Umpire in an even more central role.

We exaggerate, of course, but this is a serious problem. The Strike Zone is taking supplements and is able to shrink and expand in the same game, yet it gets no asterisk. I'd like to make a bold and creative suggestion: don't allow every Umpire to get behind the plate; let them earn it. Make Umpires stick to the Strike Zone as written in the rules.

Who knows, if the umpires can actually agree on a single Strike Zone, maybe we can give them the right to force batters to stay in the batter's box and not leave it after every single pitch to tighten the stupid gloves, scratch an itch or gaze in wonder about where the hell the Strike Zone might be tonight!

Just saying.

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