Opinion of Kingman's Performance

Thursday, May 17, 2012

A Post on Umpires

Yesterday’s 4-2 loss to the Padres was annoyingly frustrating for a number of reasons.  Frustrating because:
the guys didn’t take advantage of Giant and DBacks losses.  
the offense is beginning to show signs of trouble.
a hint of panic seems to be sneaking onto the faces of this Kemp-less squad.
the Padres seemed to be making a lot of defensive plays.
Brian Runge, the home plate umpire was deceptive with his ball/strike calls
So instead of dwelling on the earlier points, I’ll address the latter.  Granted, it was a well deserved loss, but some of these guys calling pitches behind the plate can drive you nuts.  To me, Brian Runge is one of those guys.  A little late with his ball/strike calls.  Not real demonstrative with his hand signals.  Players state they get confused because his audio is a bit on the low end scale when it comes to volume.
Chris Capuano had some issues with Runge yesterday.  After hearing what he thought was a strike call and turning away, he noticed that Padre pinch hitter Yonder Alonzo was trotting to first base for a walk.  Capuano demonstrably argued with Runge, not over the call but the way he made his call.  Both Matt Treanor and Capuano swore that they heard Runge call a strike.  
Matt Treanor and Chris Capuano argue with Brian Runge during Dodgers 4-2 loss at San Diego. (Photo  by Lenny Ignelzi, Associated Press)
Runge is no stranger to controversy, suspended by MLB in 2008 for a bumping incident with then Mets Manager Jerry Manuel over, you guessed it, ball/strike calls. He’s the only umpire to ever eject Ichiro Suzuki, who was tossed by Runge in 2009 even though he didn’t say a word.  Ichiro simply drew a line in the dirt to indicate how outside the pitches were, (Ichiro was correct too).
Tim McClelland is another one of those umps that can make you go nuts.  He’s a very respected umpire with years of experience that seems to take forever to call a pitch a strike.  Sometimes when he does, your mind has already filtered that the last pitch was a ball.  There have been times that he’s so slow with the trigger when calling a pitch that action is taking place elsewhere on the field, (i.e. stolen base attempt), when he has actually just called the third pitch a strike for the third out.  I haven’t figured out why Major League Baseball hasn’t addressed this issue with McClelland, who has not been a stranger to controversy over the years. (George Brett Pine Tar incident and the 2008 one game playoff, San Diego/Colorado call at the plate where Matt Holliday was called safe even though he never touched the dish).
Umpires are a strange breed.  I can’t fathom why anyone would want the job of an official.  Is there some sort of rush they get by being the arbiters of the game?  To me its a thankless job.  You have a split second to make a call and then the rest of the world gets to look at it in super slow-mo replay and then call you an idiot for missing it.  
For years I worked with a very good man that has since passed on who moonlighted as an umpire.  He got very good at it because he was actually calling NCAA games out at Stanford’s Sunken Diamond and he frequently traveled to other Pac Ten venues during the baseball season.  He absolutely loved what he did.  In his later years he settled on calling women’s softball games at the highest levels.  I asked him why he enjoyed doing it.  His answer:
“It keeps me alert.  It keeps my juices flowing and I still am a part of the game, even at 65 years of age.”  And the arguments and second guessing?  Why did he want to be involved in that?  He said, “that’s the funnest part.  I get to match wits with some very smart people and I get the final say.”
In previous posts I mentioned that the greatest college course I ever attended was back in 1980, “The Theory of Baseball,” taught by Jack Deutsch, the Cal State Los Angeles baseball coach from the late 70s and early 80s.  He told us that it was a constant chess game with the umpires.  He said his rapport with officials was for the most part good and that there were many that would work with him to make the game as fair as possible.  They all took pride in that.

Former Cal State, L.A., Baseball Coach, Jack Deutsch
Deutsch said that with some officials with which he had that good rapport, if he thought a home plate umpire missed a pitch,  between innings he’d tell him that he owed him one.  Always, invariably and without question, before the game was done, that umpire would return to him between innings later on and say “we’re even.”  Deutsch sometimes didn’t even know where “even” was, but he knew at some point there was a border line call and it went his way, and he was fine with that.  There was honor and respect amongst the men in blue and the managers of of the game.  It was understood that the game would be called as fairly as possible.
On that point, I found it interesting that veteran umpire Bruce Froemming told Bob Costas on an MLB Network interview this off season that he never would attempt to even things out after blowing a call.  He mentioned something about how that would mess him up. He had to call things as he saw them, 100% of the time.
The late Ron Luciano, a flambouyant American League umpire that was officiating in the majors for 20 years spoke on the topic, mirrored Froemming’s point of view.  Saying, “I tried to teach Bill Freehan a lesson once.  I was going to stick it to him good.  I was so worked up telling myself  ‘Don’t make yourself look bad.  Wait for a close pitch to call wrong,’  That was the first pitch to Freehan.  It was right down the pipe and I yelled, ‘Ball!’  I was so mad knowing I had to make it up to him, that the second pitch that came nearly bounced twice and I called it a strike.  By then I was the one who had learned the lesson.  I’d made a fool of myself.  I vowed I’d never do it again, and I haven’t.  You can’t spend your whole life turning your brain into a machine that automatically makes the right decision and then say, ‘OK brain, tonight we’re going to turn the circuits backwards to get Weaver.’”
For the most part, I have found the umpires that I have had a chance to talk to to be very personable guys with interesting personalities.  Froemming was one of those guys.  A resident of Vero Beach, Bruce called nearly every Dodger Spring Training game in his later years as an ump, simply due to his seniority and ability to get games near his residence to call.
During a 1999 Vero Beach Spring Training contest that I attended with front row seats behind the plate, Bruce would come speak with my two friends and I between innings. We’d give him water and chat about everything under the sun. This turned out to be a Spring Training game with fireworks, as Dodger pitcher Kevin Brown and Brave outfielder Brian Jordan had words after Brown plunked him in the first inning.  I distinctly remember Froemming telling us, “This is Spring Training, and these guys are fighting?  Unbelievable.  I can’t get a break anywhere.”  My friend told him, “Yeah Bruce, I bet you wish your home was in Ft. Myers, huh?”
One last Umpire Story
There was a National League umpire named Paul Pryor who worked in the league from 1961-81.  He was a man that befriended my father who worked in the Los Angeles garment industry in women’s sportswear.  The company that dad work for, Mr. Marty, was one of the Dodgers original sponsors when they arrived in 1958.  Part of that sponsorship meant that umpires and athletes would visit the wholesale warehouse that dad managed and shop for clothes for their wives and daughters.  Paul Pryor was a favorite to me because he’d hand my dad official National League Baseballs to give to his sons.  I must have received a couple dozen balls from Pryor (through my dad) over a 5-6 year period.  
Paul Pryor, 1962 photo
Pryor was known as the lone umpire that crossed the picket line and continued umpiring when they staged a strike in 1979.  The reason was because Pryor had his own business that required him to travel from city to city, and an umps wages in the 70’s were so low (highest paid umpires in 1979 made less than $40,000 and would call 170 games), that he needed the extra income to get by.
 And the balls that Pryor gave to us?  They got many hours of use and resulted in a few broken windows too.

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