Shut Up About the Refs Already

My late grandfather, Dennis Dooley, was the most famous Connie Mack League youth baseball umpire Moweaqua, Illinois, had ever seen. An old military man with a buzz cut, six-pack abs and his dog tags hanging around his neck, he exuded authority and omnipotence. For 25 years, every kid in Moweaqua knew Mr. Dooley, and they knew he was not to be questioned. Once, a kid slid into home plate, and Grandpa called him out. The kid jumped up and yelled, “I was safe!” Grandpa stood over him, his dog tags dangling in the kid’s face. “No,” he said, calmly but firmly. “You were out, because I said you were out. You’re out, by definition. I am the law here.”

This is how we once looked at umpires, in an age of law, of authority, of firm adherence to rules and tradition. The umpire said you were out, so, thus, you were. We’re not so into authority anymore. We think we know better. An umpire is no longer an arbiter of truth; an umpire is a simply a human being, prone to the same foibles as the rest of us. The cold, dead eye of technology, of video, of the technocratic age in which we strive for perfection … it has destroyed this idea of an umpire’s infallibility, even when he’s wrong.

For decades, we would yell “Kill The Umpire!” not really meaning it, of course. We were railing against what we could not control, accepting that the result is never truly in our hands, that life can never truly be fair. Now? Now, well … now we’ve figured out how to kill the umpire. Just know—when you’re watching and screaming at, say, NBA referee Bennett Salvatore for missing a foul on Derrick Rose late in Sunday’s Bull-Hawks playoff game that could have cut Atlanta’s lead to three—that someday, they’ll be gone.

This age has been coming for a while, thanks to high definition, Ballpark Cams and our growing reliance on and trust in machines, but in the world of baseball, I think it finally reached its tipping point when Jim Joyce blew the call that cost the Tigers’ Armando Galarraga a perfect game. What finally pushed us over the edge was not that Joyce missed the call; what did was that Joyce was so open about the fact that he had missed it. Joyce, along with Galarraga and Tigers manager Jim Leyland, handled himself with class and grace and heartbreaking pathos; he said he felt horrible about “cost[ing] that kid a perfect game,” he wept, he admitted he made the wrong call. He was, painfully, human. He did not say, “He was safe, because I said he was safe.” He said, “He was out. I’m sorry.” Thus did the age of the omnipotent umpire end. Heck, Galarraga and Joyce even wrote a darned book together. That’s one thing a robot umpire can’t do. Yet.

no hitter

This is nothing against instant instant replay, of course; it seems fairly obvious that if you have the opportunity to get a call correct, you have to do it, no matter what the cost. Umpires were invented in the first place as impartial observers to make sure the right calls were made. Cameras are a clear upgrade. A camera does not know or care if a pitcher has a perfect game going, if a certain player is known for having a short temper, if the game is running too long and everyone has dinner plans, or a plane to catch. A camera is perfection: A camera has no reason to lie. A camera will never weep after missing a call and apologize to an outraged nation. A camera just tells the truth.

But a camera has no authority, and I can’t help but think that by choosing what is Correct over what is Governed, we’re losing something about sports that we’ve always loved. We’re losing the idea that baseball is a game of authority, of clear boundaries, of a stadium ruled by four men who make the right call because they SAID they made the right call, darnit. We were powerless to defy them, because they were in charge. Not that we didn’t try. Not that our managers didn’t kick dirt, and turn their hats around so they could scream in the umpire’s face, and pull second base out of the ground and throw it as far as they could. But the umps were in charge. They were law.

We are ceding that law, collectively, to the cameras. This is right. I cannot argue with this. As a society, we now demand that things are done correctly, that we have a Right Answer. We are data wonks, a culture that believes that science and math and studious research and analysis can give us a correct answer, can solve a problem. Mystery is unacceptable. Faith in another human, unsustainable. We don’t want authority; we want answers. The men in blue, they’re as archaic as that buzz cut, those dog tags, a collective belief that a man might be right because he SAID he was. I know this is good. I know this is fair. I know this is progress. But I miss believing in my grandpa. I miss not having any other choice.

But the other reason it might be for the best: I don’t want someone to actually murder an umpire. It’s happened to referees in soccer-mad nations, and it’s gonna happen here someday, at this rate. These days, in this Outrage Culture, referees aren’t just seen as incompetent. They’re seen as sinister.

The most telling example of this was at the end of the Big East tournament second-round game between Rutgers and St. John’s two months ago. You surely saw the highlights. In the final seconds, with Rutgers trying to tie the game, St. John’s forward Justin Brownlee stole an inbounds pass and celebrated by traveling, stepping on the sideline and throwing the ball into the stands. (He all but took his jersey off and sold it on eBay.) The problem was that at least 1.7 seconds remained. The referees didn’t seem to notice, and they made no call, which meant the play was unreviewable. St. John’s wins, Rutgers loses, and justice is not served.

Afterward came the explosion. It was not enough that referees Tim Higgins, Jim Burr and Carl Walton apologized and agreed not to ref any more games in the Big East tournament. No, they needed to be PUNISHED. They should never be allowed to ref again! They should be flogged at center court! They should be drawn and quartered, then drawn and quartered again! (I think this makes them “eighth-ed.”) Even worse, overheated observers accused the refs of nefariousness, calling them lazy, incompetent or even corrupt. This was not Don Denkinger in Game 6 of the World Series, either; this wasn’t even the Big East quarterfinals.

The refs are always a convenient target, but this is getting out of hand. To hear the way they are being talked about, these are men and women who specifically set out to destroy the sports they’re assigned to. They hate sports; they are the bad guys. They are phantoms at which we may direct our vitriol.

This is not what referees and umpires are. These are underpaid, overworked men and women who spend most of their lives being called horrible names by strangers, who work crazy hours in cities they don’t know, ordering out room service and mostly just hanging out with each other. But we treat them as if they are evil monsters who just want to make us sad. These people love sports; why in the world would they put themselves through this otherwise? But we turn them into boogeymen, our sacrifice, roasted on a spit so that we may pretend we can correct injustice. So that we can pretend we live in a world that is fair.

Thus, Ref Outrage, the notion that umpires aren’t folly to the same mistakes and foibles as the rest of us, but somehow gnarled devils trying to steal our sports from us. I don’t understand it. It’s taking our frustrations and pouring them out on an anonymous collection of people who can’t respond. Referees are human beings who love sports, just like you and I do. They’re doing the best they can. Let’s cut them a break. They’re trying.

After all, we’re gonna replace ’em with robots someday anyway.

 

 

 

 

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