Bryce Harper and the umpire with rabbit ears

Justin K. Aller

John Hirschbeck seems to have a little bit of a problem.

He doesn't seem to know his place.

There was a time when many umpires were well-known to baseball fans. I'm not smart enough (yet) to know exactly why umpires were so well-known, but for the moment I will guess it was because there so few of them. In the 1920s, for example, there were roughly a dozen umpires in each league; if you followed a National League team closely, you could probably name all of them without thinking real hard.

Also, the game in those days was looser, less regimented than it is today; that sort of thing required officials with indomitable wills, able to respond to just about anything with absolute confidence and authority.

Times have changed. Today there are ... oh, I don't know, it seems like a few hundred umpires, when you count the Triple-A guys who come up all the time while the major-league umps are enjoying their generous vacation time. And umpires don't need to be so strong-willed. They've got three friends on the field to help them out, plus the guys back in New York when one of those pesky fly balls might, or might not be, a home run.

I don't mean to suggest that umpiring is easy. It's not. The players are bigger and faster (well, a few of them) and stronger than ever, and the pitchers, as a group, are throwing harder than ever. Most of the umpires are the best in the world at what they do, and deserve their generous compensation and perquisites.

Which doesn't mean they're perfect. We know they miss calls all the time. That's going to happen. Case in point: In the first inning Sunday in Pittsburgh, Wandy Rodriguez dropped a curveball into the strike zone and Bryce Harper checked his swing but should have been called out by plate-umpire Bob Davidson.

However, the Pirates appealed the checked swing. Now, I haven't seen a replay showing that Harper actually did swing, but maybe he did. Anyway, third-base umpire John Hirschbeck thought he did, and rung up Harper.

Harper wasn't happy, and a moment later Hirschbeck ejected him. Later, here's how Hirschbeck described the incident:

"First of all, he put both arms up in the air. To me, I felt like that's showing me up," Hirschbeck said. "I yelled at him and warned him to stop. And then he continued and he slammed his bat down. I actually warned him again and then the next thing he slammed his helmet down, and I felt three warnings are more than enough."

Technically speaking, all of that's probably true (the video in the above link doesn't show both Harper and Hirschbeck's actions at the same time). But from what I've seen, here's how Harper could have described it:

"I was upset and raised my arms," Harper said. "Then he put both his arms up in the air and started yelling and walking toward me. I slammed my bat down, and he kept yelling and walking toward me, and pointed toward the dugout. Did I mention he was walking toward me and yelling? I threw down my helmet, and he tossed me."

Look, there are limits to what a player, even a player as exciting as Bryce Harper should be allowed to do, when protesting an umpire's decision. But it seems pretty clear that Hirschbeck played a key role, a larger role than he should have, in this ejection. If he doesn't like what Harper's doing, he might a) stay behind third base and just take it, or b) turn around and take a little stroll into left field, or c) if Harper continues to question the call in some unacceptable fashion, let the home-plate umpire send a quiet message.

But Hirschbeck chose another option, and it's the worst of all options for an umpire: He goaded the player, who responded as goaded players usually respond.

As is usually the case in these situations, nobody's all right or all wrong. But one of Hirschbeck's jobs is to avoid trouble like this, and instead he went a long way toward causing it. That's just rank incompetence and it's bad for the game and annoying for the fans and Hirschbeck deserves to be reprimanded and fined.

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