Blown calls put umps under microscope

The controversy over baseball's umpiring has become a self-fulfilling prophecy during the 2010 postseason. With proponents for expanded instant replay bringing greater scrutiny to the umpires' performances, more eyes than ever are now focused on the men in blue – and much to baseball's chagrin, hardly a game has gone by without a controversial call that affects, directly or indirectly, the outcome.

To detail each umpiring gaffe would be beside the point. There have been controversial ball-strike calls, blown calls on the bases, clean catches that were ruled traps, “checked” swings that were not checked, and batters “hit” by pitches that never touched them.

“I guess it's a good thing we don't have instant replay right now,” San Francisco Giants rookie catcher Buster Posey said sheepishly Thursday night, in what stands so far as the defining quote of this postseason.

Posey had just scored the winning run in the Giants' 1-0 victory over the Atlanta Braves in Game 1 of the National League first-round series after earlier being called safe on a stolen base attempt in which replays showed him to be clearly out.

Had baseball heeded calls to expand its use of instant replay – which at present is limited only to home run and boundary calls – Posey's play at second base might have been reviewed and the “safe” call overturned.

Thursday, in fact, was a nadir of sorts for baseball umpiring, as all three first-round games that day were affected by apparent blown calls. And this comes on the heels of a regular season in which arguably the biggest single story was the blown call at first base by umpire Jim Joyce that cost Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game in June.

But while calls for expanded replay are growing louder and more strident from people outside the game – namely, members of the media and fans – inside the game there is something approaching ambivalence. Some lean toward wanting it, others toward opposing it, but almost no one takes a firm stand either way.

“I'm talking to more and more people that say we should have some type of review on plays,” Braves Manager Bobby Cox said. “I'm not so sure it's a good idea, to be honest with you. I know it cost us 1/8on the Posey play3/8, but . . . “

The “but” almost always refers to the complex questions of how a replay system would be implemented: Would managers be given a certain number of “challenges” to use, as in the NFL? Or would there be an “eye-in-the-sky” replay official above the field with the power to review and overrule calls? Which types of calls would be reviewable, and which would not?

“I like the game as it is,” said Minnesota Twins Manager Ron Gardenhire, whose team has been on the wrong end of controversial calls in each of the last two postseasons. “If they can help the 1/8umpires3/8 out, get calls right, and figure out a way to do it in a short time, good for them.”

Much of baseball's ambivalence toward expanded replay stems from such pace-of-play concerns. The sport has been trying for years to speed up games, and there is little appetite for the addition of several two- or three-minute delays for disputed calls to be reviewed.

At least some of the controversial calls this postseason – such as a critical ball-strike call that went against the Twins in a pivotal sequence in their Game 2 loss to the New York Yankees on Thursday night, and a checked-swing call that appeared to have victimized the Tampa Bay Rays against the Texas Rangers on Thursday – almost certainly would not be reviewable under any replay system.

Commissioner Bud Selig has remained mum this postseason about the umpiring, but he has said several times in recent weeks that he does not sense widespread support within the game for expanded replay.

Last offseason, Selig formed a Special Committee for On-Field Matters that was charged with brainstorming ideas for improving the game. Among its recommendations that will be implemented beginning in 2011 was the elimination of extraneous off-days from the playoff schedule, resulting in a more streamlined postseason.

But when it comes to expanding replay, “I don't get the feeling there is a lot of support 1/8among committee members3/8 for it – at least in their conversations with me,” Selig said. Selig also told last month, “I don't really have any desire to increase the amount of replay, period.”

However, Los Angeles Angels Manager Mike Scioscia, a member of Selig's special committee is on the record as supporting additional replay, telling last month, “I am definitely in favor of the expanding of limited replay.” Scioscia also said he believed the topic would be discussed further by the committee in the coming offseason.

“I think the discussion will be there,” he said. “If it moves forward 1/8to implementation3/8, I don't know.”

Rays Manager Joe Maddon, who is not on Selig's committee, took it a step further, predicting replay will be expanded “in the near future, possibly even next season.”

“I'm sure it's going to be well thought-out,” Maddon said. “I don't know exactly about the implementation, but I do believe 1/8the number of controversial calls this postseason3/8 speaks to the point 1/8that3/8 we have to take advantage of technology in a little bit more detailed manner.”

Before it takes the giant leap of expanding replay, baseball may take a smaller step toward holding umpires more accountable. As things stand, they are not required to speak to members of the media about controversial calls – and in several instances this postseason, they have chosen not to.

Further, baseball does not make public its system for grading umpires and, while it says it uses a merit system to make postseason assignments, some critics have called for a more transparent process.

However, even a greater degree of transparency and accountability from the umpires will not satisfy those who are asking a simple question this week: If the technology is clearly there to get these calls correct, why is baseball choosing to ignore it?

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