Earlier this year I wrote about a study of 4 million balls and strikes and the frequency with which umpires blow calls. It’s a compelling data set from Boston University that goes a long way to explaining something that pretty much all baseball fans can agree on: home plate umpires blow close strike calls at incredibly high rates and in predictable ways. These missed calls get magnified on social media, have led to suggestions there should be a robotic or automatic strike zone, and occasionally lead to confrontations with players.
I want to pause here because I appreciate that being an umpire must be incredibly hard. I watched my dad do it for years. It really didn’t matter how fair he was, how well he knew the rules, or anything else. Everyone had an opinion and a stake in the game in the form of their child or friend. Being right isn’t acknowledged and anything that could possibly be wrong is criticized. No one is celebrating the umpires who get the calls correct, we barely even know their names. But we all know the names of the umpires with, shall we say “unpredictable” zones or a penchant for the spotlight.
I certainly understand that it isn’t fun to have every call scrutinized when the fans at home have access to better technology than the people behind the plate. Particularly when there is certainly no glory in getting the calls correct.
That said I can’t imagine a worse idea from a PR perspective than what the MLB Umpires Association decided to do on Tuesday.
Let’s set the stage:
On June 15 Bill Welke was involved in two confrontations over the strike zone during the Padres vs. Rockies game. One involved Manny Machado and the other involved Nolan Arenado. You can see the two events spliced together in this tweet:
So, anyway. This is Manny getting tossed, and then Nolan not getting tossed. ♀️ pic.twitter.com/WAG8yA5onK— kelly (day-to-day) (@kellyawallace) June 16, 2019
Somehow this resulted in Machado being ejected and ultimately a one-game suspension from the league (which he is appealing). As far as I can tell, Arenado’s resulted in nothing.
Honestly, according to all norms and reason this conversation should have died after MLB handed down the suspension. Machado would appeal that suspension, he would lose, Padres Twitter would be (in my opinion justifiably) upset, and we would all return to regularly scheduled blown calls from the likes of Welke, Ángel Hernández and CB Bucknor.
For reasons that defy all good sense the MLB Umpires Association decided to approach this one differently. So on Tuesday, after Machado was suspended they took to social media to gloat.
From the official MLB Umpire Association Twitter:
#Disappointed #LeadByExample #NotAppreciated #Violence #TemperTantrum #Inaction #NotTolerated #MakeanExampleof #OneGameSuspension #RepeatOffender #Nonsense #MLBUA @MLB @Padres @Buster_ESPN pic.twitter.com/pkcW5O1SnB— Major League Baseball Umpires Association (@MLBUA) June 18, 2019
Overlooking the fact that they should be fined and/or suspended for their copious use of hashtags and capital letters, everything about this tweet is mindboggling to me. For starters, it is telling that they go after Machado so viciously here. I do not recall another time that the MLB Umpires Association has issued any comment on a suspension, let alone one that names a specific player or highlights their actions as “workplace violence.” A scan of their Twitter feed is full of “The Call of the Day” drawing attention to a time an umpire got a close call right, or umpire profiles and shout outs. Players are only mentioned incidentally because they were involved in a play. Admittedly I didn’t scan through their whole timeline, but I scanned through 2019 and didn’t find a single other instance of the MLB Umpires Association chastising a specific player.
In case you thought this was one rogue tweet, it certainly was not. There was a corresponding post on the MLBUA Facebook Page:
I was sort of incredulous that this seemed to be a coordinated and deliberate communications effort. Beyond that, I’ve always sort of assumed there were rules about umpires and players publicly attacking each other. It turns out I was right according to this tweet by Reds pitcher Alex Wood:
I don’t understand how this tweet is permitted by the Umpires union or @MLB ? There’s a reason players don’t take to social media on a daily basis to bash umpires or call them out. It’s because it is simply not allowed and if a guy does it he gets fined. https://t.co/GVy7xpnC67— Alex Wood (@Awood45) June 18, 2019
MLB seemed to confirm this in a statement released late on Tuesday:
“Manny Machado was suspended by MLB Chief Baseball Officer Joe Torre, who considered all the facts and circumstances of Machado’s conduct, including precedent, in determining the appropriate level of discipline. Mr. Machado is appealing his suspension and we do not believe it is appropriate for the union representing Major League Umpires to comment on the discipline of players represented by the Players Association, just as it would not be appropriate for the Players Association to comment on disciplinary decisions made with respect to umpires. We also believe it is inappropriate to compare this incident to the extraordinarily serious issue of workplace violence.”
However, that statement invited more questions than answers. While MLB clarified that the comments were inappropriate, like absolutely everything involving umpires there wasn’t any recognition of what (if any) consequences there would be for this tweet. The lack of transparency is one of my biggest problems with how all things umpiring are handled, and MLB certainly doesn’t appear to be changing that with their handling of this incident.
Frankly, the person who seemed most calm and measured about the whole thing was Manny Machado, who commented late Tuesday [VIDEO].
As far as this incident goes, I personally thought it was bizarre that Machado was ejected and Arenado was not in that particular game. It felt like Welke either had to eject both players or neither. Or that there should be some sort of explanation as to why there appears to be a double standard.
I won’t be holding my breath waiting for more transparency from MLB or the MLBUA. I highly doubt fans will be given an explanation for why some players are treated differently than others any time soon. However, the vitriol in the MLBUA statements on Machado provided a crystal clear insight into how the umpires union perceives some players. It also makes me question the ability of some umpires to fairly call a game. Baseball, like all sports, demands a neutral arbiter of the rules. The MLBUA’s actions on social media on Tuesday makes me question their ability to fulfill that role.