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Umpire Attitudes Compound Bad Calls

October 9, 1998

Unlike Chuck Knoblauch looking for a throw that never quite arrived, the people in charge of baseball should have seen trouble coming.

Bad calls by umpires have been a problem for as long as the game has been played. In that sense, the call by umpire Ted Hendry that started Knoblauch and the Yankees down the road to ruin Wednesday night had plenty of precedents.

But make no mistake: This has been an especially bad season for the men in blue. And the bad attitude being flashed by more and more of them is making those bad calls harder to swallow.

``I don’t buy that,″ said Paul Runge, who retired last year after 24 seasons as an umpire to become executive director of the National League’s umpiring staff. ``The older guys, the Al Barlicks, the Augie Donatellis ... were just as confrontational as anybody working now. And they made just as many mistakes. It comes with the territory.

``So, no, I don’t think guys today are any less secure. What you’ve got are more games, more plays and more coverage. And as a result you’ve got more controversies.″

If only it were that simple.

Go back two decades and you can see the beginning of a pattern of confrontations between baseball and its arbiters. Emboldened by a better organized, more powerful union, the umpires have been striking back.

Over the past few years, a dangerous shift of power has taken place between the white lines of the diamond. To the players, it is less the land of the free. To the umpires, it’s more and more the home of the brave.

This is not intended to let Knoblauch off the hook. If the Yankees second baseman had just picked up the baseball, the Indians would have had runners on first and second and Game 2 of the AL championship series might still be going on.

Instead, Knoblauch behaved like Tonya Harding when she busted a shoelace at the Olympics _ pointing and whining and wondering where justice was in this world. The difference is that she was awarded a do-over; all Knoblauch’s petulance earned him was a pair of goat’s horns.

Maybe he deserved them. Everybody in baseball, from Yankees boss George Steinbrenner all the way down to the kid in his first month of Little League, knows bad calls happen. What has surprised most people is how often they’re happening, and how arrogantly the men who made them are shrugging them off.

Balls and strikes are always in dispute. This season, they’re in limbo, too. AL umpiring supervisor Marty Springstead responded to criticism of a particularly generous performance by John Hirschbeck, a member of his crew, by saying, ``Every umpire has his own strike zone.″

Someone should remind Springstead that every umpire is also supposed to have his own rule book, in which the strike zone is unequivocally defined.

But the problems have hardly been limited to the area around home plate. More players and managers have been tossed this season than any since the strike.

Umpire Bob Davidson’s call on Sept. 20 turning an apparent Mark McGwire home run into a ground rule double dominated the headlines and highlight shows. It was debatable, but give Davidson credit: He conceded as much.

That same day in Chicago, umpire Harry Wendelstedt awarded the Reds’ Bret Boone a two-run homer that replays showed was clearly foul. Fans in Wrigley Field, whose Cubs were chasing a wild-card spot, responded with boos and a shower of garbage through the next several hitters.

It was bad enough when Wendelstedt, a veteran with a good reputation, kept insisting he ``saw the ball clearly.″ But he left people wondering what else he missed when he said afterward the two runs ``had nothing to do with the outcome of the game,″ which ended with Cincinnati winning 7-2.

There is no fixed point when the men in blue started claiming more of the areas that used to be gray. Some people say it was when umpire Terry Cooney ejected Roger Clemens during a playoff game in 1990 without a warning. Could be _ the time frame coincided with some new faces in the ranks and followed a decade or so of squabbling with the owners that has continued until today.

Two years ago, in the wake of Robbie Alomar’s laughably light punishment for spitting in Hirschbeck’s face, the owners needed a court injunction to halt the umpires’ threat to boycott the playoffs. The code of conduct the umps wanted baseball to implement back then still is gathering dust.

``Do our guys feel they’re not getting enough supported by management? Absolutely,″ union spokesman Pat Campbell said. ``But they’re too professional to carry that attitude out onto the field.″

Are they?

You saw the plays. You make the call.

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