Coaches and players lament umpires' changes in attitude, blame high-tech checks and balances

Thin blue skin?

September 30, 2007|By ROCH KUBATKO

Ask baseball players about the change in attitudes among some umpires, and they'll recoil as if they've just been brushed back by a 98-mph fastball. And they're hesitant to step back in the box.

Nobody wants to carry an umpire's grudges into spring training. Their hands are full with all their gear. But it has become a hot topic in clubhouses, dugouts and closed-door offices around the majors.

Orioles manager Dave Trembley received a three-game suspension this month for a tirade that concluded with him mimicking a gesture of throwing out umpire Paul Emmel. Daniel Cabrera served six games for throwing behind Boston Red Sox rookie Dustin Pedroia and almost inciting a riot with his aggressive actions. Outfielder Jay Payton served a two-game suspension after being ejected twice in three games.

"There's no system of checks and balances," said one Orioles veteran who doesn't want his name published for fear of retribution from the umpires. "It's not like these guys have a bad season and get sent down. And you can't win with them. You can argue all you want. You're going to lose every time."

Trembley's punishment came from an animated display at Camden Yards that was fueled by a blown call at second base. Replays showed he was right. They also showed him putting on a performance that would have gotten him a curtain call on Broadway.

Trembley is sympathetic toward the men in blue - at least after his face has turned red - but only to a point.

"This is my first year in the big leagues, but they've got a real tough job," he said. "They don't like to admit when they're wrong because I think they feel like people are going to jump on them and take advantage of them. But the good ones I've been around, they won't come right out and tell you they missed it, but they'll tell you, `Hey, I'll take a better look at it,' or they'll at least listen to you.

"I think it's a real tough situation they're in. I think the good ones don't attract a lot of attention to themselves. They want to be treated with respect and dignity, but the players aren't always wrong. The umpires aren't always right. They should be respected for what they're doing, but ... "

Trembley stopped himself as if he just took a wide turn around third base. "It's a touchy subject," he said, reminded of the fine he paid for his suspension, handed down by Bob Watson, baseball's vice president of on-field operations.

"I'm going to get in trouble. I can't afford to write another check. I'll be working lots of camps this offseason.

"I don't think they're intimidated," he added. "They'll give it right back to you. I didn't see that years ago in the minor leagues. And in the big leagues, I'm kind of amazed sometimes the way the umpires' demeanor is. It used to be they would just turn around and walk away. The first rule of inappropriate behavior is to ignore it and hope it goes away. A lot of them don't do it. They stand their ground. More power to them."

Another Orioles veteran, who also wanted his name withheld, theorized that the change is based on a youth movement among the ranks.

"It's almost seems like a lot of the younger guys are the ones with a shorter fuse," he said. "I don't know if they're trying to establish some kind of presence that the older umpires have already earned, as far as respect."

Trembley's first ejection as Orioles manager came courtesy of veteran Joe West, who works the Orioles' spring training games and is widely regarded as the most confrontational umpire in baseball. Angel Hernandez also is known as an instigator, though that title might be forever held by Mike Winters. Right now, he's the undisputed champion.

Last week, Winters was suspended for the rest of the regular season after baiting San Diego Padres outfielder Milton Bradley at first base. Winters reportedly used profanity to describe Bradley, who called time and had to be restrained by manager Bud Black.

The scene took a more bizarre twist, along with Bradley's knee, when he collapsed to the ground with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

"That's not good for the game. You don't want to see something like that happen," Trembley said. "But on the other hand, you have to respect the fact that, basically, the game is doing whatever it can to make sure nobody is above the game. And I think, at times, people have felt that umpires have a carte blanche, that whatever they want to do or say is OK because there's no system of checks and balances, no sense of accountability."

Blame for the reduced tolerance is also directed at QuesTec, a ball-tracking system implemented in certain ballparks intended to give everyone a uniform strike zone and grade umpires after each game.

SI.com's Tom Verducci once called the system "the most controversial technological advance to hit baseball since Pascual Perez's hair gel." Former Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Curt Schilling became so enraged by it four years ago, he used a bat to destroy the camera.

"The umpires have admitted it. They hate it," Schilling said in a subsequent interview.

And if the umpires aren't happy, neither are the men who play the games.

"I think QuesTec has had a lot to do with all this nonsense," Trembley said.

Said Orioles pitching coach Leo Mazzone: "They get reprimanded if they call a ball a strike. I think they're more tense, looking over their shoulders. They can't be themselves. That could be a reason for them to be more touchy, more sensitive."

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