Arguably, are umps tougher? Clemens-Cooney touches off debate

October 16, 1990|By Mark Hyman

The World Series wouldn't be the World Series without at least one curiosity to keep things moving between the balls and strikes.

Last year, the earth moved. This week, the ground is shaking under the men in blue, as the baseball world debates whether umpires are less likely to walk away from arguments than they used to be.

Last week, Boston Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens was on the receiving end of what may turn out to be one of the most celebrated ejections in baseball history when he was removed from Game 4 of the American League Championship Series by umpire Terry Cooney.

Clemens' transgression, according to Cooney and others within earshot, was to hurl a nasty string of expletives at the veteran umpire, including some that attacked Cooney personally. This violated a cardinal rule of baseball etiquette, which states that a player may refer to a particular decision as dumb, but never to a particular umpire.

In baseball circles, it generally is agreed that Clemens acted unwisely and perhaps even irrationally in starting down a road that so easilycould lead to an ejection in a game of such importance.

But the Clemens incident also has caused many in baseball to take a longer look at evolving relations among umpires, players, managers and coaches. To some, the Clemens-Cooney clash isn't an isolated case. They see it as an unfortunate step in a progression of events that increasingly has placed umpires in harm's way.

Former Baltimore Orioles pitcher Jim Palmer was speaking for this group when he said recently: "Most people are of the opinion that umpires have become more combative."

Former major-league pitcher Jim Kaat, now a CBS baseball analyst, sees a similar trend. He told The Boston Globe: "I think, in the past, umpires turned away from controversy more often."

But others say they've noticed only a small difference in umpires. Or none at all.

Orioles manager Frank Robinson, who has seven ejections in the past three years, said: "They [umpires] are more aggressive than they used to be. No doubt about it. But I don't want to blame them. Players, managers and coaches are more aggressive, too. I just think everyone wants to express themselves more today."

Orioles catcher Mickey Tettleton said umpires have remained "pretty consistent" during his six years in the major leagues.

"They're aggressive with you at times," he said. "Other times, they'll let you say what you want to say. It all depends on how you go about it and the words you use."

Joe Brinkman, a 17-year American League umpire, makes a case that today's umpires actually are nicer guys.

"I don't think umpires are aggressive at all compared to what they used to be," he said.

To the extent that others think otherwise, Brinkman points an accusing finger at television and the proliferation of televised games.

"With virtually every game being televised now, we have a tendency to think [disputes] happen all the time. They don't. You're talking about isolated situations," Brinkman said.

There's no evidence on either side, just a wide sweep of impressions about how -- and how well -- major-league umpires are doing their jobs.

Cooney's handling of Clemens has sharpened these opinions, and not only because the dispute took place in front of tens of millions of viewers. Just as provocative was the manner of Clemens' ejection. Cooney apparently didn't issue a warning. When he'd heard enough from the pitcher, he simply stepped out of his crouch, whipped off his mask and dispatched Clemens.

It since has come out that Clemens had been riding the umpiring crew throughout the series. But, at the time, Cooney's reaction seemed abrupt, even precipitous.

That's how Palmer, on vacation that day, saw it.

"I was in Santa Fe [N.M.]. I'd just come in from taking a hike, and Roger Clemens took a hike," Palmer said.

"I know they say you can't have two sets of rules. There's truth to that. But when you have a playoff at stake, you have to bend over backward to keep a player in the ballgame."

Brinkman was vigorous in his defense of Cooney, who has been umpiring American League games for 15 years.

"It's unfortunate that this had to happen in a game of such magnitude. But, as an umpire, you have no choice when a person curses you personally. There's no way to maintain control if you let that type of thing go. The other team heard it. If you as an umpire don't stand up to that, you can't umpire the other team."

During the off-season, Brinkman runs an umpiring school iCocoa, Fla. Last week, the office telephone rang often, with calls from amateur umpires who wanted to talk with Brinkman and with Cooney.

"A few wanted to call Terry and lend their 100 percent support," Brinkman said. "They said what he did would help them umpiring at their levels. It shows we all have the same problems. What do you do when someone curses you? You have to eject them, if they do it personally."

Palmer sees the problems of umpires and disputes in a different light. The way to eliminate the controversies, he said, is to have better umpires.

Palmer said: "Until they increase the quality of umpires, you are going to have situations like that. That is a very controversial statement. But I think if the umpires want respect, they have to umpire better."

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