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Baseball umpires need to hold themselves accountable

Manager Joe Maddon has it out with Jerry Meals, who, typically, wasn’t available to the media after the game.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Manager Joe Maddon has it out with Jerry Meals, who, typically, wasn’t available to the media after the game.

ST. PETERSBURG — The job is difficult, no doubt about that.

The stress is high, the gratitude is minimal and the spotlight is unforgiving. And that's when things are going well. In the minutes before Wednesday night's game, these employees in question were jeered simply for showing up.

So, yes, I have great empathy and respect for the job done by most major-league umpires.

I just wish some of them weren't so stinking arrogant.

We saw it again in a Rays game against the Angels on Tuesday night. A bad call, a confrontation with a manager, and a final response too smug to be believed.

If you weren't watching, B.J. Upton was tagged out after overrunning first base and making an innocuous gesture that first-base umpire Jerry Meals construed as an attempt to run to second base.

A reporter from Yahoo! Sports called it a "phantom" turn. The Los Angeles Times characterized it as an "apparently missed" call. Rays broadcaster Dewayne Staats deemed it the second-worst call he had seen in more than 30 years in the booth, and ESPN's Baseball Tonight analysts agreed it was a blown call.

Does that mean Meals was wrong? Probably so, but that's not my point. The real issue is that the call was plainly debatable, and the umpiring crew behaved as if Joe Maddon had no reason whatsoever to question it.

It's that type of arrogance that gives all umpires a bad rap. And it's a shame because MLB umpires are, generally speaking, the best officials in major pro sports.

Watch enough instant replays, and you'll see umpires are almost always right. They make instantaneous decisions on bang-bang plays with no margin for error. And yet they are more despised than any group of onfield officials in sports.

Why?

Cue crew chief Gary Darling.

"He made an attempt to run to second base," Darling said, explaining Meals' call on Upton. "I've called guys out for less."

For less? FOR LESS?

Say the call was difficult. Say Meals had to make a split-second interpretation and you support his decision, but will review it on videotape. Say you were picking your nose and missed the entire play.

Just don't insult everyone's intelligence with your haughty dismissal:

I've called guys out for less.

"There is nothing less," Maddon said Wednesday. "It'd be less than zero."

Look around the rest of major-league baseball on Tuesday night. Johnny Damon dropped two fly balls and blamed himself for a Yankees loss, calling the plays routine. Braves reliever Will Ohman gave up a bases-loaded double to Carlos Delgado in the eighth and chastised himself for throwing a poor pitch.

Ballplayers screw up every day, and most of them are accountable when they do. But how many times do you hear an umpire say he blew a call? How many times do you hear an umpire apologize? How many times do you even hear an umpire?

MLB officials go to great lengths to keep reporters away from umpires after games. In this situation, Meals was not made available to explain himself, so Darling took over with his own particular brand of asinine reasoning.

The best umpires will quietly admit their mistakes to managers or players the next day. That's commendable, but it's not enough.

Accountability is a major part of sports, and there is not enough when it comes to umpires. Oh, they are graded more closely by supervisors than in years past. And teams have ongoing dialogues with MLB officials about umpires they deem to be less than satisfactory.

But job security is not high on the anxiety list for most umpires. Their union is too powerful, and MLB has allowed them to get away with too much.

The problem here is credibility. NFL officials blow far more calls than MLB umpires, but you always get the sense they are trying to get the call right. Umpires seem more interested in covering their backsides.

That's what was so distressing about the Upton call Tuesday night. Not that Meals may have made an initial mistake, but that he was not willing to revisit it with Darling or the other umpires. And Darling did not have enough integrity to shoo Maddon away for a moment and talk with Meals about the rule and the interpretation.

Because if Darling truly believes that was an obvious application of justice, then he's a fool.

And I've called people fools for less.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Baseball umpires need to hold themselves accountable 08/20/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 25, 2008 11:28am]
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