By Sweeny Murti
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There has been talk again recently that umpires might start making announcements to the crowd — like NFL referees — to explain instant replay decisions.
I have only one question: What on earth is the holdup?
People in and around baseball have joked for years about the glacial pace it takes for change to come. And at times Major League Baseball has become so sensitive to it that it goes the other way to rush through rules, like it did after the Buster Posey and Ruben Tejada incidents.
And even as MLB has become quicker to embrace technology, fans at a baseball game and watching on TV might as well be stuck in 1957. How many time do we watch umpires huddle together and all we see afterward is a bunch of hand gestures to move this runner here and the other there?
We are then left to guess what might have happened until after the game when the managers explain to us what the umpire said. And if it’s controversial enough, the crew chief might concede to an interview with a single pool reporter with transcribed quotes as the only available record of their conversation.
Instant replay, now in its fourth year as part of MLB games, has added another layer to the confusion that exists with certain plays on the diamond.
The NFL taught us years ago how easy this is, didn’t they? The referee opens the microphone clipped on his shirt and he tells the players, coaches, fans and entire world what just happened on that play we were watching. He doesn’t just move the ball 10 yards forward or backward with no explanation. Easy, right?
This is not anything new being proposed here. MLB has tried to get the umpires union to agree to this for years to no avail. While replay has made it more of an issue, there are far more uses for a miked-up ump than just replay decisions. How many times have you seen a balk called without really knowing what happened? Or saw a play where the stadium ground rules come into play?
So where do we draw the line to avoid a talk show on the field? No one is asking to stop the game after every play for an explanation, but there are enough times during games when all we see is an umpire pointing this way or that way that it would be nice to hear an explanation. I would say this: If you need to stop to explain something to a player or a manager, then you should explain it to the fans watching in the stadium and on TV.
An astute fan might be able to figure out that Jacoby Ellsbury is standing on first base because of a catcher’s-interference call, despite what appeared to everyone watching to be an ordinary fly out. But we can’t assume that every man, woman and child watching knows that rule or saw it happen. We talk a lot about trying to grow the game. That should include teaching the nuances of rules that aren’t easily seen. A simple flip of the microphone on your lapel, and we are all enlightened.
Umpires are paid to know every quirky rule that can be applied during the course of a game. Part of their job should be to inform the people watching when something out of the ordinary has occurred.
Officially, no one from the MLB side or the umpires side would say much on the subject. An emailed statement from an MLB spokesperson said: “Generally speaking, we are always open to evaluating potential upgrades to our system, and we have not ruled out such a possibility for the future. A system would require an agreement between MLB and the World Umpires Association.”
Joe West, the veteran ump and president of the World Umpires Association, responded this way by email: “The World Umpire’s Association has no comments on Instant Replay announcements at this time. Our current Collective Bargaining Agreement, which sets our working terms and conditions, does not expire until the end of 2019.
“The union is always willing to discuss with the Office of the Commissioner reasonable ideas on enhancing Major League Baseball’s best interests, including the fans’ experience,” West added.
Why have the umpires been reluctant to make announcements to the crowd? For one, there is some uncertainty over which umpire would make the announcements, the home plate umpire, a base umpire where a dispute occurred or the crew chief. If it’s anyone other than the crew chief, it might be an inexperienced Triple-A umpire who could be intimidated by making such announcements in a big league ballpark and on national TV.
There is a comfort factor MLB is sensitive to in regards to umpires doing something they’ve never done before. You’ve heard the Jerry Seinfeld joke about how people fear public speaking more than death? They fear giving the eulogy at a funeral more than they do being in the casket. Well, training umpires to turn on the mic and clearly and coherently say what needs to be said has a certain amount of fear attached to it. Especially in the social media age.
I can see the point. No one wants to be embarrassed, and I’m in agreement. But it’s not rocket science. This is the big leagues. If you want to be a major league umpire, you should be able to tell the people watching what’s going on without turning it into a viral experience.
And because this is collective bargaining issue, we should assume there has to be some compensation or give and take in order to get this done. If that’s the case, so be it. Let’s just agree that the game needs to move forward and help fans everywhere understand a little more about what’s going on.
The CBA between Major League Baseball and the umpires union doesn’t expire for another 2½ seasons, but both sides have the ability to put a system into play before that if mutually agreed upon.
While the machinations of instant replay were getting ironed out, MLB decided not to push the microphone issue with the umpires. It’s now been four years since replay was introduced. It’s time to keep moving into the present and tell the world what’s happening while we are watching.
Follow Sweeny on Twitter at @YankeesWFAN