In the span of eight days, we've seen three noteworthy dustups between umpires and players.
First, there was Tom Hallion making a fool of himself picking a fight with the Rays. Then we had Yankees ace CC Sabathia scream "shut the f--- up" to a relatively young umpire. And Sunday, John Hirschbeck went overboard in tossing Bryce Harper.
Unfortunately, this isn't really anything new.
Before I get into the attitudes of some of the MLB umpires, I want to make one thing clear: In terms of the between-the-lines calls, I believe Major League Baseball umpires are the best officials in sports. They miss calls at times because they are human, but some of those so-called "bang-bang" plays on the bases are unbelievably difficult to get right with the naked eye -- and these guys almost always get it. In fact, herein lies my issue.
The attitude problems sported by so many of these umpires detract from the great job most of them do. Instead of either not noticing the umpires -- we'll get to that -- or praising them for the great work they do, we're left focusing on the "ump show."
In any situation, I like to ask myself what possible good could come from a certain action (and yes, I got it from A Few Good Men when Jo tells Kaffee to put Col. Jessup on the stand, and Kaffe replies with, "What possible good could come from that?").
So, in that vein, if you're an umpire, what possible good could ever come from instigating a spat with a player, coach or manager? What possible good could ever come from even meeting a player, coach or manager at his anger level, which elevates the situation?
I fail to see any upside. There is, however, tons of downside.
On the flip-side, what if umpires always either ignored screaming players, coaches and managers or calmly spoke with them while making zero physical gestures? The upside here is that it feels like this would make for a much calmer environment, no? And what's the downside? Very little if you ask me.
I was a high-school football official in the past, and one time at a clinic an NFL official told us he always tries to speak more quietly than a player/coach who is yelling at him. It makes sense. If someone is screaming at you and you scream back, they'll only get more angry -- as will you -- and the situation can only escalate from there. By either ignoring a disgruntled player or responding quietly, the situation is much less likely to get worse. And if it does, just eject him and ignore him while his teammates pull him away. It's no longer your problem.
On the whole, the name of the game should be to diffuse the situation, not intensify it.
Instead, some MLB umpires take the opposite approach. Hallion went nuts on Price, by his own admission, due to "body language" he didn't like. Hirschbeck "didn't like that [Harper] put his hands up with the bat." In neither of these cases was it even an umpire responding with equal venom. The umpires came with more venom than the players. That couldn't possibly be more backward than what it should be with authority figures.
In cases like these, it's very simple. You are a Major League Baseball umpire. Ignore the "body language." And, really, ignore all long-range language. It's not a difficult concept.
To this, I often hear in reply that umpiring is a "thankless job." That's lunacy and it blatantly ignores a few facts. Umpires' salaries range from $84,000 to $300,000 per year (via MLB.com). At most -- including spring training and the entire postseason -- they have to work about 8 1/2 months of the year. Their "office" is a major-league ballpark. They get to travel the country for free.
Is that not enough thanks? It's certainly not thankless. I'd argue it's a pretty awesome life.
Look, I have no doubt it would get old to be screamed at with frequency for six months and that the players and managers need to cool it. In response, I'll offer up two replies. First, it seems rather obvious players and managers wouldn't yell and scream nearly as much if the umpires didn't scream back and instead ignored them. Secondly, this is the career path the umpires have chosen. They are free to quit at any time and I'm certain there are many who would love to hop right in and fill their shoes.
If the umpires wish to continue in their job -- which, again, I believe is a very good job -- I don't think it's too much to ask that a baseline expectation of employment is to never either instigate a situation or take part in a screaming match.
Also, take note of this quote: "In the umpiring profession, we often say that an umpire has done his job well when no one knows he's there."
Unfortunately, I don't think a handful of MLB umpires -- such as Hallion, Hirschbeck, Joe West, Angel Hernandez, Bob Davidson, Rob Drake and more -- have gotten that memo. It's a real shame, too, because there are far too many excellent MLB umpires to be slapped with negative labels due to a few problem children.