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Save the umpires

By Lisa Fabrizio
web posted June 2, 2008

Years ago, when only a triad of arbiters policed the baseball diamond, enterprising organists were fond of playing "Three Blind Mice" when the men in blue took the field. Of course, that was long ago and the mellifluous music that once wafted through ballparks has given way to the mind-numbing assault of rock and roll on the senses of horsehide fans. But one unchanging aspect is that Major League Baseball umpires have been under fire since some far-off fan in the 19th Century shouted, "You're missing a good game, ump!"

As has often been said, baseball is a natural fit as our national pastime; a word which is defined as ‘the pursuit of leisure'. Unlike other sports such as NASCAR, whose races have attained a holiday-like atmosphere, baseball's milestones are actually marked by our national holidays; a team gauges its success in terms of its won/loss record by Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day. And each of these holidays would be incomplete without that quintessential American backdrop; the sound of a ballgame blaring from a tinny AM radio.

Also exemplary of our nation is the tendency of its citizens to enjoy expressing their diverse and sometimes contentious opinions on just about everything, particularly sports. Baseball, with its languorous pace and abundance of statistics, lends itself to this in an almost perfect way; yet all fans would agree that criticizing the umpires is a sacred right. What self-respecting fan has not, at one time or another echoed the old chestnut, "We wuz robbed!?" As Hall of Famer Nestor Chylak said, "This must be the only job in America that everybody knows how to do better than the guy who's doing it."

But instead of embracing this time-honored tradition, some folks--angered by the seeming spate of blown home-run calls--have issued a call for the artificial and culturally invasive practice of instant replay. The increasing popularity of the NFL has brought about the odd desire of some baseball people to make the game more like football. From the institution of wild-cards and inter-league play, to the noxious attempts at parity via the imposition of luxury taxes, baseball has tried its best to conform to its gridiron stepchild.

But baseball is not, nor should it ever be, in any way like football, especially when it comes to officiating. Even without instant replay, football referees--like those in hockey and basketball--are more or less like traffic cops who from time to time interrupt the organized chaos around them. But the baseball umpire controls nearly every aspect of the game. His decisions effect every pitch, hit and catch since he, in a way, determines whether or not the ball will even be put in play because he is the arbiter of balls and strikes.

Since the very length of a game often depends on his decisions, particularly those concerning the strike zone, the official Rules of Baseball state that these decisions cannot even be argued or appealed to other umpires, let alone be set aside. In other words, the baseball umpire enjoys a prominence above all other sports officials in that his authority is essentially perceived to be beyond question. Any use of instant replay would diminish this elevated status. It would also reduce the paying customers' need to yell, "Kill the umpire." After all, no one bothers to abuse NFL refs anymore because most of their power has been technologically neutered.

And this would be a crime in baseball, because an umpire's duties leave more room for personal interpretation than in any other sport. From bean-ball infractions to balks; from catcher's interference to the short fuse of a disgruntled manager; a Major League umpire must be a baby-sitter, a mind-reader, a drama critic and a weatherman. But most of all, it is the integrity that superintends these roles which must never be in question. Lessen the human interpretive input of any of these and you lessen them all.

Finally, the very nature of the baseball season itself is reason enough to eschew instant replay. Unless an umpire's bad call is made in the late innings of the deciding game of a series--where, not coincidentally, there are two additional men in blue--there's always another day in baseball; in fact, 162 of them. In football, each of the 16 games has a life-and-death feeling to it and so each set of downs acquires a critical aspect that is happily absent in baseball.

Those who favor the adoption of instant replay in limited circumstances must be aware that its implementation would be a step out onto the brink of a very slippery slope. When was the last time ‘progressives' have been timid in advancing their agenda in any field? And, just as in a government dominated by tax-loving Democrats; once the initial incursion is made they will surely take the mile, having already won the inch.

Harness the zebras if you must, but stay true to our men in blue. ESR

Lisa Fabrizio is a columnist who hails from Connecticut. You may write her at mailbox@lisafab.com.


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