The Fiefdom of Sports Officials

NFL refs botch the end of the Seattle/Green Bay game in 2012

Imagine it’s a dark room at Progressive Field in Cleveland.  The A’s have just tied the game over the Indians on a home run by Adam Rosales in the top of the 9th inning.  Clearly all replays show that the ball hit the railing above the left field wall.  After some torturous minutes of waiting, the umpires walk out of that dark room and tell everyone there that it’s so easy to tell that…it was a double that bounced off the wall.  Huh?  There’s a boatload of the head-scratching, but in the end we’re really not surprised.  The Indians won the game 4-3 and finished a 4 game sweep of the A’s with a 10-2 win the next day.  Then the following week umpire Fieldin Culbreath forgot the rules and let the Astros make illegal pitching changes against the LA Angels.  Fortunately Mike Scioscia, a former catcher who’s sharp as a tack called them out on it.  Is it sad to think that no one is surprised?  Let me clarify.  I’m not saying we’re surprised that a call by professional sports umpires was blown.  That happens constantly.  It’s the arrogance of this small group of people who think they are the lifeblood of professional sports.  If it wasn’t for these guys all foundations would crumble.  It definitely happens in football and occasionally basketball.  Mostly, though, the national pastime is the unfortunate victim of arrogance and complacency.

In the NFL referees really can’t take the game over because instant replay and coach’s challenges neuter them somewhat.  However their labor holdout at the beginning of this past season wasn’t a bright spot in the news all last summer into the fall.  They are part time employees who work 3 hours a week for 5 months.  How much money did they really need to make?  The NFL didn’t prepare well and thus brought in guys who clearly were over their head (right Packers fans??)

The NBA had some of the greatest referees and classiest officials from Bennett Salvatore to Greg Willard to Earl Strom.  However since the Tim Donaghy debacle in the early 2000’s, NBA referees pretty much mind their p’s and q’s for fear of being tabbed as being “in the fix”.  Most sports fans don’t totally understand the rules of hockey, so NHL referees don’t have to worry about fan backlash because most casual fans can’t tell whether its right or wrong.  So that leaves baseball, and that’s where the arrogance really takes effect.

My first experience of a “blown call” really mattering was Game 6 of the 1985 World Series between the Cardinals and Royals.  We all know that one, when Don Denkinger mistakenly thought Cards closer Todd Worrell missed the bag on Garth Iorg’s grounder that led to a Royals comeback and an eventual World Title.  Fast forward 11 years to Angel Garcia who mistakenly gave Derek Jeter a home run in Game 1 of the 1996 ALCS.  Of course the most recent big time blunder was in 2010 when Jim Joyce blew a clear 27th out that would have given Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game.  Joyce, unlike other umpires who hide in their ivory tower with the rest of major league baseball officials, admitted his mistake and in fact he and Galarraga were on the same stage at that year’s ESPYs.

Of course after Joyce’s apology and admittance, everyone expected Bud Selig to reverse the call and give Galarraga the perfect game.  He didn’t.  Unfortunately I have to agree.  Once the horse is out of the barn, you can’t reverse the globe like Superman did in the first movie.

Baseball easily has the most arrogant band of umpires/officials of all four professional sports.  Angel Hernandez is one of the worst culprits, as he will easily goad someone into picking a fight with him so he can toss them out of the game with as much animation as possible.  The reason these guys are like this is that they don’t have to be held accountable and when someone criticizes them they get fined.  I never understood the whole philosophy there. Why get punished for saying “other human beings made mistakes tonight”?    The hierarchies of the four major sports are always protecting these guys, and someday I’ll get an answer why.

See, he's already looking for the next player or manager to arbitrarily toss.
See he’s already looking for the next player or manager to arbitrarily toss.

It even bleeds down to lower levels of organized sports.  I play in an Industrial work softball league, and one night before a game, the umpire (who I knew personally) came up to our team and said “I’m not putting up with any of your team’s crap tonight”.  He went over and said the same thing to the other team.  What does that mean?  It means that they know no one can touch them, so they can botch call after call after call and act like thugs in the process.  A ripple effect occurs and players start to get lazy and pretty soon all integrity goes out the window.

How do we fix this?  Whining is one thing, but that’s just what it is without solutions.  I think umpires and referees can be held accountable, but in private.  Head coaches/managers should be allowed to write up a memo after a game (or a series in baseball’s case) on the performance of officials.  It should be sent to the head of officiating office and be looked over.  That way if different managers are complaining about the same behavior of the same guys, then it would cut back on fines because managers/coaches don’t have to blast them in press conferences and it also forces the top of the food chain to look into these things.  Trust me, if this system was in place Angel Hernandez would have been fired as a Major League umpire years ago.  The man is an egotistical SOB who thinks he’s Teflon because Major League baseball protects him.  He’s one of the few officials in baseball that gets openly booed by fans because he’s so bad at his job and doesn’t care about it.  Now having something like this will avoid public chastising of officials and fines levied, almost as a rule.

Incidentally, to add icing to the cake, Hernandez was part of the umpiring crew that blew the A’s home run call in that Indians win back in May.  Wow what a shock.

Someday, this group of striped (or non-striped) misfits will be kicked from the Ivory Tower and held accountable for being (sometimes) mediocre.  Or we can get Leslie Nielsen from “Naked Gun”.  I’d much rather shout “It’s Enrico Pallazo” than something more vulgar.