Umpires who think they are bigger than the game has been a thorn in the side of baseball for generations. With Bud Selig, who seemed unwilling or incapable of addressing the problem, now out of the way, it is time for his replacement, Rob Manfred, to address this critical issue.
The problem was amplified last night when umpire Jordan Baker, who first umpired in the majors in 2012, made a ridiculous call that has the potential to impact one of the teams involved for days.
It is one thing when umpires make the wrong call on a close play and hold their ground. While you would hope they would be most concerned about getting plays right, part of being good at your job is feeling you are correct. Fortunately, the addition of replay as an opportunity to correct umpire mistakes has helped this phase of the game.
However, the bigger problem, and the one that Baker exemplified last night is when an umpire makes a horrible judgement call that cannot be altered by replay.
With the Baltimore Orioles clinging to a 1-0 lead with two outs and no one on base in the fourth inning, pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez was working on a no-hitter when Boston Red Sox third baseman Pablo Sandoval came to the plate. Considering that Jimenez was horrible in 2014 and fortunate to even make the starting rotation this season, you can guarantee that his focus was to continue the scoreless streak he has had to start the season and to keep getting players out.
So when his first pitch to Sandoval, who as a left-handed hitter with a large figure is known for setting up close to the plate, sailed in and hit Sandoval below the shoulder with a slider, you can bet that he disappointed to have added a base runner, but ready to move on to the next batter, Mike Napoli.
Watching the game live, there seemed to be nothing out of the normal until suddenly Baker came out from behind home plate and immediately threw Jimenez out of the game. There had been no warning or any previous close pitches by either team.
According to crew chief Jerry Meals, who of course is going to defend his fellow umpire, Baker felt that Jimenez was retaliating for a hard slide Sandoval had made into second base earlier in the game.
First, even if the hit-by-pitch was done in retaliation, that is part of the game and has been for generations. However, there is no evidence that the errant pitch was related to any previous action. It was just a bad pitch.
For Baker to suddenly decide that he knows without question the intent of Jimenez’s throw and to make such a significant and game-changing decision is a great example of the long-standing problem with umpires.
Baker evidently is from the Joe West, Rich Garcia school where the umpire thinks the game is about him and he has as much (or more) right than the players to impact the game.
While Orioles manager Buck Showalter has to be careful not to criticize umpires too much, I think he did a nice job framing the situation. “It’s kind of professionally a little embarrassing to see that type of thing have such an impact,” Showalter said.
By ejecting Jimenez, Baker didn’t just impact that particular inning or play, but he made a horrible decision that impacted the Orioles throughout the entire game and could have consequences for days or weeks.
After Jimenez was ejected, Kevin Gausman entered the game and quickly ended the fourth inning. However, in the fifth inning he gave up a two-run home run to catcher Ryan Hanigan (his first of the season to go with a .136 batting average).
Gausman could get only one out in the sixth inning before Darren O’Day had to come in to finish the inning and pitch the seventh. Brian Matusz pitched the eighth inning and started the ninth before leaving after walking Mookie Betts, who eventually scored the game winning run on a base hit by Xander Bogaerts off Tommy Hunter.
The Orioles didn’t lose the game only because of Bailey’s ego-driven action, but it certainly had a role in the game and could impact the Orioles for days to come.
With games for 12 straight days before their next off-day, Baltimore manager Buck Showalter will have to be strategic in how to use his bullpen. He cannot afford for any of his upcoming starters to have a short outing or for the Orioles to play any extra inning games. He also indicated that the dominoes the Baker action put into place could lead to the Orioles having to make a roster move that would likely not have been needed otherwise.
While the Orioles can certainly recover, it does put them in a challenging and unnecessary position very early in the season.
“It just puts our bullpen in a challenge for the rest of this road trip or for a while, because we had to pitch people in situations where they shouldn’t have been pitching,” Showalter said. “Darren and Brian were the only two guys who had the proper rest. It’s unfortunate it impacted the game that much. Ubaldo had good stuff. You could tell he had the chance to pitch deeper in that game. But we didn’t score very many runs. They did a good job pitching also.
“MLB will look at it and hopefully take some action to make sure it didn’t happen again, something like that impact the game that much. It’s sad that it did. My biggest thing is the bullpen and what we had to do there.”
That Baker’s decision could impact the success of the Orioles beyond that one inning or even one game is one reason that he should be severely reprimanded and as Showalter suggests measures should be put in place to make sure that umpires understand the consequences of their actions beyond simply the moment of action.
Baker could have been well within his right to warn Jimenez and both teams. However, to decide in a split second that he knew that the action of Jimenez was intentional and to change the course of the game (and beyond) is a power that he and no umpire should be able to possess.
Umpires play an important role in baseball, but except perhaps for their own families no one goes to games to see them and no one wants them to unnecessarily and mistakenly impact the results on the field. Hopefully Manfred will use this moment as an opportunity to remind umpires that they are not supposed to insert themselves into impacting the game and that their actions can have unintended and detrimental consequences beyond simply the moment of action.