There's an awesome Kickstarter campaign up at the moment, spearheaded by Dan Levy, to fund a Choose Your Own Adventure graphic novel called Rise of the Robot Umpires. Essentially, the #RobotsNow campaign becomes successful, but those robot umpires become sentient, go all SkyNet on us, and humanity is doomed. It's a tale as old as time!, or at least as old as the idea of robots. But what Levy didn't anticipate is that the human umpires are already ramping up to make a play at world domination.
It's really the only logical explanation for the increase in aggressive behavior we've been seeing from the boys in blue over the last week, a banner few days for #UmpShows. First, Tom Hallion and David Price began jawing at one another, and the Rays bench erupted in objection:
#Rays Price says bench was upset because home plate umpire Tom Hallion told him to "throw the ball over the f-in plate"— Marc Topkin (@TBTimes_Rays) April 28, 2013
Hallion ejected Jeremy Hellickson and, after the game, called Price a liar. The Rays corroborated Price's story, and it all kept escalating until Major League Baseball stepped in and fined everybody and told them to shut up.
Over the weekend, Bryce Harper was called out by third base umpire John Hirschbeck on a checked swing. Harper appeared upset, and maybe said something, but then Hirschbeck threw his hands up and began walking toward Harper, who had not left the home plate area. Check it out:
There’s absolutely no reason for Hirschbeck to involve himself in that. Harper wasn’t acting aggressively, and hadn’t even had time to argue before the umpire decided to pick a fight. After Harper threw down his helmet in disgust, Hirschbeck threw him out.
Finally, on Monday night, Angel Hernandez had been taking grief from the A’s all game for his strike zone, which you can see below:
That doesn't actually look that bad to me, although the Rays seemed to be getting a lot more plate on the outside corner to lefties than the A's were. Regardless, the A's had apparently been frustrated with Hernandez. Still, nothing out of the ordinary happened until the seventh inning, when Bob Melvin came out to replace Chris Resop. Here's the description of what happened from A's broadcasters Glen Kuiper and Ray Fosse:
Kuiper: "Look at where Angel Hernandez is standing. I find this very interesting....Tell me why. He knows the A's dugout is not happy with him. Why would he stand in just about the spot where the pitcher has to come out of the game and the manager has to walk right by? That's weak."
Fosse: "As soon as Melvin walked out, Hernandez walked straight toward the exact area where he stood the whole time."
Kuiper: "Have you ever seen an umpire stand where he stood?"
Fosse: "No. They always stand behind home plate....I think it's simply him saying ‘I've had a bad night, and I'm looking for somebody to throw out."
Kuiper: "I think it's the ‘b-word:' baiting."
Nothing came of it, but it certainly seemed like Hernandez was seeking a confrontation and an excuse to toss Melvin out of the game.
Obviously, this kind of behavior is a problem. In the early days of baseball, umpires were usually local dignitaries who were blatant and unabashed homers. The National League, when it was formed in 1876, worked to change this, and hire professional, fair, disinterested arbiters of the action to ensure that the integrity of the sport was protected. They were stewards, and ideally that's what they should still be. An umpire should be something like the 25th to 28th most important person who appears on the field in a baseball game, but by inserting themselves into the action, they damage the integrity of the games they are supposed to be protecting.
Worse, if we've learned anything from Batman, it's that escalation on one side only leads to escalation on the other. Sure, the world's greatest detective is protecting some of Gotham from crime, but his efforts have encouraged Gotham's bad guys to ramp up their games. As Alfred tells his ward in The Dark Knight, "You crossed the line first, sir. You squeezed them, you hammered them to the point of desperation. And in their desperation, they turned to a man they didn't fully understand." While ballplayers are unlikely to find their own Joker (although Brett Lawrie comes to mind as a candidate), this kind of aggression by umpires is only going to lead to further confrontation with the players and managers. It's going to lead to more and more ugly on-field incidents. Bumping, shoving, screaming, maybe worse. When players and managers feel themselves backed into a corner, unable to even react without risking an ejection, they will lash out in frustration.
For all the talk about how Bud Selig "broke" the umpires years ago when they resigned en masse, he seems to have lost that control. Major League Baseball needs to rein in its umpires. It needs discipline with teeth that make its rogue umps responsible for the distracting spectacles they have a hand in creating. It needs to reward and incentivize good umpiring. While robot umpires may destroy the game and the rest of the world sometime in the distant future, the current umps are doing their damnedest to make it happen right now.