The power of umpires
Posted May 24, 2013
A game not long ago, on May 10, served as a salubrious reminder that baseball depends almost entirely on interpretation. There are few strict definitions and very little fixed truth in this game. No wonder it’s America’s national pastime: it’s all checks and balances, and resistance to absolute authority. (It’s also individual achievement operating as team progress, but that’s for another day.)
Take the strike zone, through which just about every single baseball play passes. It is vague and variable territory, often disputed. Yes, it does have a constitutional definition, but consider these four problems with it:
1. that definition is rewritten by the stance of each individual batter;
2. no umpire abides by the zone, no matter which batter’s it is;
3. neither hitters nor pitchers would actually like a strictly called zone, given that each pitcher and hitter is essentially trying to dictate a portion of it for his own optimal use, and is thus favoring a limited part of it, hoping to skew it;
4. no umpire could call it right even if he tried.
A pitched baseball comes screaming through the zone in a nanosecond, often falling or swerving as it does. The best umpire in the world, one with superhuman vision and unassailable rectitude, will never have any hope of calling balls and strikes correctly. Baseball may be a game of inches, even millimeters—ask any slugger, after he flies out to the warning track, how much he missed the pitch by—but who can really measure them properly?
No, umpires aren’t really bearers of truth; they’re inhibitors of violence. Let a bunch of overheated, over-muscled, testosterone- and sweat-drenched men arbitrate their own disputes—the oftenest would be whether a taken pitch should be called a strike or not—and you’ll have blood and broken bones in pretty short order. The idea is to have someone else to blame, a faceless enemy we combatants can all agree is wrong. This, too, is a national pastime.
In the bottom of the sixth inning that night, May 10, the Durham Bulls were beating the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. (IronPigs, unfortunately, is really their nickname. It’s supposed to be a play on “pig iron,” a big part of the region’s economic history. But it’s an ugly name nonetheless.) The score was 7-4, itself a bloated indicator that we were not enjoying a crisply played game. This one would take more than three and a half hours to play and include five errors, three wild pitches, two balks, two hit batters, and a passed ball. The worst game of the year, perhaps.
Durham reliever Steve Geltz came in to preserve the Bulls’ three-run lead, which Lehigh Valley had helped the Bulls build with two errors in the previous inning. But Geltz promptly walked the first two hitters he faced. Walks are the worst. They are baseball’s empty calories. Walking batters is like littering—lazy, rude, selfish and morally embarrassing, and it makes a terrible mess. The strike zone, of course, is variable, but when you’re walking multiple hitters you’re missing far too often and far too badly to blame the ump. “Oh, those bases on balls!” groaned the legendary player and manager (and player-manager) Frankie Frisch. Nothing further was necessary to add to that lament.
While Geltz was walking these two batters, he was also called for two balks. The balk is a strange baseball event. It is one of the few plays that does not pass through the strike zone. It doesn’t happen often, and there are numerous ways for a pitcher to commit one, but nearly all of them are the result of little physical twitches and hitches, blurry directional intent, indistinct stops and starts—things it’s up to the umpire to spot (or for your keen-eyed, opponent to alert the ump to). To be called for one is startling; to be called for two is bizarre, because usually a pitcher who has been called for a balk makes sure to correct the tic that caused it.
Geltz hadn’t corrected it because he didn’t know what it was. But after base umpire Kelvin Bultron called the second balk—advancing the runners who had walked to second and third base, respectively—Geltz, totally confused and aggrieved, beseeched the umpire for an explanation. Bultron explained, as Geltz and his manager Charlie Montoyo later related, that Geltz “came set twice.” (This is considered deception, which is what underpins the balk rule, even when deception is not the pitcher’s intent.) That is, Geltz set his body and glove first at the belt, then again at the chin. Geltz disagreed, telling me after the game that he goes out of his way to keep dragging his foot as his glove passes the belt so that it’s clear he has not come set yet. He said his pitching motion had never resulted in a balk call. (Let the record show that Geltz had been charged two previous balks in his career, one in 2008 and the other in 2010—although those could have been for other transgressions, like unacceptable pickoff moves.)
Geltz’s on-field protest was useless, of course. The balk calls stood, and now two runners were in scoring position with the Bulls leading by three. Geltz was agitated. His focus had obviously not been good to begin with, hence the two walks; now he was in danger of really losing control. Moreover, Geltz throws lots of high fastballs, and the next batter, the IronPigs’ Pete Orr, likes those. Sure enough, Geltz threw him one, and Orr ripped it to deep right-center field for a two-run triple. That made it 7-6, Bulls, and the tying run was on third base with no one out.
To Geltz’s credit, he bore down and retired the next three hitters in order on an infield popup and a pair of strikeouts, stranding Orr on third and preserving Durham’s lead. Yet another Lehigh Valley error—plus a botched play (see below) by a pair of outfielders that resulted in a cheap double—would lead to the eighth and ninth Durham runs in the bottom of the inning. Finally, the dam broke under the game’s amassed debris in the eighth: the Bulls scored three more times and won by the unattractive score of 12-6.
“Water under the bridge,” the always insouciant Geltz concluded after rehashing the balks following the game—although he did marvel that “it’s all about interpretation” in baseball. But let’s not forget that the water, when it flooded with balks, had aggravated Geltz’s mood and nearly washed out his night on the mound. The two runs he allowed boosted his earned run average—the key statistic by which pitchers are measured—from 2.70 to 3.38. It generally takes an ERA below 3.00 for a pitcher like Geltz—five-foot-nine, undrafted out of school, recently part of an afterthought trade of relief pitchers—to get noticed by the major-league front office. Anything above 3.00 probably means that a diminutive minor-league reliever can count on sleeping on air mattresses and struggling to pay down the interest on his credit card until further notice. Bullpen pitchers usually throw just an inning or two in a game, two or three times a week, and it can take a lot of weeks of consecutive scoreless outings to get the high water of your ERA back down under the bridge of prospecthood. Kelvin Bultron’s balk call had just damaged Geltz’s bid for a major-league job. The idea that baseball is a game of interpretation isn’t exactly a reassuring one.
Geltz’s balky inning was the centerpiece of a mid-game trio of vexing interpretive controversies. In the bottom of the sixth inning and again the bottom of the seventh, a pair of Official Scorer decisions led to Press Box debates, although in the majority view (including mine) the Official Scorer had made the correct call both times. The second of these disagreements actually grew somewhat heated. The dissenter's insistence that the point was to get the call right was met with the rebuttal that the call was, officially, a judgment call, not one in which "right" had any fixed meaning. Yes, there was a rule in the rulebook, but in order to apply it, subjective judgment would first have to be made, and in this case the judgment rendered the rule inapplicable.
The whole night was strange, but the strangest thing about this second debate was that a simple and obvious response--namely, which of two fielders deserves to be charged with an error, if one must be charged?--could have quieted the matter, yet it was never made. This was a game that wanted to proceed by interpretation, it seemed, not by rules and definitions.
But these interpretive messes alone did not make this the Worst Game of the Year. What the players actually do on the field, in absolute terms, always dictates the mood of the evening. Etymology reminds us that all of us investigators--umpires and scorers and journalists (oh my!)--are vestigial: we track and trace, but we are also mere traces ourselves. The chaotic, belatedly controversial bottom of the seventh inning was made worse in real time by Lehigh Valley shortstop Michael Martinez. With a man on third and two outs, he fielded an easy grounder hit by Durham's Mike Fontenot, who didn't exactly hotfoot it down the line. Martinez thus had plenty of time to throw across to first base, but inexplicably short-armed it. The ball bounced and skipped past the first baseman, scoring the Bulls' ninth run. It was the second error of the game for Martinez, and he could easily have been charged with a third but for the Official Scorer's politeness.
In the top of the eighth inning, as if in sympathy for Martinez’s rough night, Durham shortstop Tim Beckham made his own short-arm throwing error, a virtual carbon copy of Martinez’s in the previous inning, allowing Darin Ruf to reach base. Steve Geltz, already victimized and slightly undone by the balk calls an inning prior, was this time undeterred. He retired the next three hitters easily; the last of them was--you guessed it--Michael Martinez. The best way to avoid the mess of interpretation? Don’t leave room for any.
Still, Durham reliever Adam Liberatore made sure to pad the game with a few more slovenly minutes in the ninth inning, using up 20 more pitches and allowing a double to Pete Orr before getting us all out of the ballpark. The Worst Game of the Year: clumsy, contentious, overfull, lame, sullen. With any luck, no other games will challenge its title. But they probably will—in fact, I missed one the very next night that may have topped it. Lehigh Valley drubbed the Bulls, 9-3, on May 11, but the Bulls probably beat themselves as much as the IronPigs did. Durham pitchers walked nine—nine!—batters, including four with the bases loaded, forcing in all the runs the IronPigs would need. The bases-loaded walk is probably the most deplorable, shameful play in all of baseball. To top it off, right after Durham reliever Will Inman walked consecutive batters with the bases loaded, he gave up a grand slam.
“Most games are lost, not won,” legendary manager Casey Stengel said. More interpretation.
After the controversial 12-6 game, I asked Bulls infielder Vince Belnome about the batting slump he was mired in. Belnome had been named International League Player of the Week for his astounding production from April 22-28, but spent the following week or so manufacturing equally astounding production--in exactly the opposite way: he hit just .094 in his next 32 at-bats (the Player of the Week curse strikes again).
“That’s baseball,” he said, not so much shrugging it off as allowing for the supremacy of the game’s inscrutable, hard-hearted laws of success and failure. He would say it again about a week later, after he had gone on another hitting tear: “That’s baseball”—that's baseball too, he might have added.
Interpretation notwithstanding, baseball does, after all, have some laws. Chief among them is gravity. What goes up must come down: earned run and batting averages, tempers, and especially fly balls. Some land in fielder’s gloves, some fall for hits. That is its own kind of interpretation, the interpretation of the Fates, or simply of happenstance—like how a coin lands when you flip it. The issue itself, whatever it is, is rarely all that important. It’s where you, or the Gods, come down on it that decides its impact. There’s probably something worse than worst.