You’re Blind, Ump


Much is at stake in professional sports. Big money payoffs await players, managers and coaches who win. And let’s not overlook the intense competitiveness of talented athletes accustomed to coming out on top. It’s no wonder then that, whatever the sport, tempers will flare, and arguments break out with abusive language and offensive gestures directed at umpires and referees whose “erroneous” decisions prove costly to individual players and the teams they represent. Fans generally delight in such disputes, cheering on their heroes, who, convinced they’ve been victimized, lose their composure and take to verbally assaulting the offending official.
No major professional sport is without some level of heated encounters but few can match those in baseball. Notwithstanding the memorable tantrums of John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and several others, tennis does not generate dramatic verbal fireworks or courtside antics. Players and coaches largely are contained in soccer as well. Despite the ferocity of football and the intensity of pro basketball one witnesses few on-field battles royals. Flare ups, while not uncommon, players and coaches furious at referee decisions, these disputes are, however, “settled” in relatively short order, play resuming, delays limited.
But, turning to baseball, the situation is demonstrably different. Here players regularly engage in prolonged battles with umpires. These set pieces and mini melodramas are allowed to play out and follow a standard choreography familiar to fans. Perhaps it is because baseball has long been generous in its allocation of time and tolerates delays (despite ongoing efforts to shorten games) for on-field arguments. It is not clear how or when these “show stoppers” first emerged, but they’ve long been a familiar fixture of the game. Baseball in its formative period in the late 19th Century was a distinctly rough and tumble affair, players and managers (who were often players themselves) alike aggressive and angling for advantage. It may be that on-field clashes originated in these more tumultuous times, were welcomed in a society long suspicious of authority.

Baseball’s disputes often involve the batter taking issue with strike calls by the plate umpire, especially one inclined toward subjective interpretations of the “strike zone.” The batter may question a call so long as he doesn’t turn around and “embarrass” the umpire. Dissent under such circumstances will be tolerated. But if he confronts the umpire directly, accuses him of missing the call and questions his vision or competence, the battle is joined. Watch the umpire rip off his mask and respond angrily. Further inflaming the situation the batter may point out a location (out of the strike zone) where, he insists, the ball travelled or kick the plate or retreat from the batters’ box. By this point spectators are fully engaged and while unable to hear the verbal exchanges, can likely guess their content from the patently aggressive body language of the disputants. Every manager knows full well that should the conflict persist his player risks having the umpire throw him out of the game. To prevent this he bursts out of the dugout and rushes to position himself between the two while physically restraining his player. Even when held and forcibly escorted away from the battle zone, the player will likely continue his verbal barrage, even as the umpire disengages and moves to resume play. The flare up may conclude at this point, but it will not be readily forgotten.
Player/umpire standoffs can be fierce and furious, but more explosive encounters typically occur when managers (could it be significant that, unlike football and basketball coaches, they wear team uniforms?) charge onto the field to challenge an umpire’s decision. Over the years the protests of some, like Billy Martin, Larry Bowa, Earl Weaver Tony LaRussa, etc., led to their high rankings in game ejections, but virtually every manager understands he is expected from time to time to perform, show fans and players alike that he has what it takes and is willing to go “toe to toe” with the men in blue. After bursting out of the dugout and heading onto the field, here is what you can expect to happen:
• Manager and umpire positioned perilously close, little space between the bills of their caps, screaming at one another.
• Both produce an unending simultaneous fusillade of choice words emitted at warp speed.
• The manager gesturing emphatically, puncturing the surrounding air space with a flurry of gestures, pointing to the site of the umpire’s misjudgment.
• Anger rising to a crescendo, the red-faced manager gives little indication he’s prepared to calm down.
• In an effort to end the fracas the umpire moves off, but nevertheless is pursued by the still irate manager.
• At this point the manager may vent his fury by kicking up clouds of infield dust or may even choose to forcibly excavate one of the infield bases from its moorings and slam it down.
• A bench coach will now hustle onto the field, apply a vise-like hold on the manager and attempt to move him away from the umpire. Meanwhile the other umpires hastily arrive and station themselves between the feuding duo.
• Having run out of patience and/or suffered unacceptably nasty abuse, the umpire will, piercing the air with an emphatic unmistakable gesture, signal that the manager has been “tossed,” been ejected from the game.
• That, however, does not end matters. With the die now cast and with nothing more to lose, the manager becomes ever more animated, renews his blistering assault and continues to vent his indignation.
• Having stood up for his team (and hopefully motivated them) , bathed in the cheers and jeers of the crowd, he finally retreats, defeated (as fully expected), but still in some sense triumphant, back toward the dugout before disappearing into the inner regions of the stadium, banished for the remainder of the game. Play now resumes, spectators having been treated to a stirring display of raw emotion and mock combat.

With the season well underway, expect to see many versions of this uniquely entertaining baseball drama played out in major league ballparks across the nation. “The Old Ball Game” would hardly be the same without it.

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