The best defence is a good offence?

(Occasional poster squizz here, chiming in with a big, long post I wrote a week ago, but which Chris seemed to like, so here it is.)

If there’s one sport where the purists reign, it’s baseball. Every small, seemingly ridiculous idiosyncracy of the game — from the incessant need of the players to puff their cheeks to blowfish-size proportions with chewing tobacco, to the peer pressure placed on a fan in the bleachers to toss back an opposing player’s home run ball — is revered and celebrated as some sacrosanct piece of nostalgic Americana, ostensibly returning us to some cherished bygone era when things were simpler, men were men, and the dark-skinned folks had their own league… oops, might wanna gloss over that last one.

Silly as it all is, I get it. I can imagine the apoplectic shock induced when interleague play was created (contrasted with the apathy and annoyance it’s causing now, as it hopefully crawls to its belated, merciful conclusion), and when video replay was introduced last year (the umpires’ steadfast to overturn a few calls this year has shown what an exercise in futility that was). People like things the way they are in baseball, and change is scary. Baseball should be the way it was, forever and ever, amen.

But seriously folks. The institutionalized argument with the umpire is one of the stupidest fucking things in any sport, anywhere. That includes my limited experience in watching Australian rules football where, I believe, the objective is to win style points by decapitating opponents with your cleats.

Thursday afternoon, I was watching the Red Sox take on the Twins. In the top of the sixth inning, Boston outfielder Jeff Bailey scored on a sacrifice fly, on a very close play at the plate. Seeing the play live, at full speed, it was tough to tell what the correct call was. Slow-motion, multiple-angle replay showed Bailey probably (not definitely) missed touching home plate, and should have been called out. Either way, as bang-bang plays go, this was as banging as they get.

Minnesota catcher Mike Redmond, completely incensed with home plate umpire Todd Tichenor’s call, instantly jumped to his feet and got in Tichenor’s face. After about three seconds, Tichenor tossed Redmond. A nanosecond later, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire had bolted onto the field, similarly enraged, and began spewing some of his own vitriol in Tichenor’s face (from a distance of about two inches). After smugly chuckling at Gardenhire’s rage for a few moments, the ump summarily tossed Gardenhire too.

Here’s where it gets weird. In the bottom of that same inning, Josh Beckett threw a pitch that looked like it might have caught the outside corner (the stupid laser strike-zone tracking thing said it didn’t). Jason Varitek framed the pitch as best he could, but Tichenor wasn’t biting. Beckett then apparently glared towards the home plate ump, which incited Varitek to pop up, turn around and get in Tichenor’s face, pointing at some unknown object or thing out in left field. Umpires being human beings, you knew what was next. Tit for tat. Varitek, you’re gone. Of course, out comes Terry Francona to voice his displeasure. And of course, he’s gone too. Two catchers and two managers, tossed in one inning. All for the same thing.

An unusual coincidence, sure. But the NESN broadcast crew were completely flabbergasted. Without saying it directly, they were suggesting that Tichenor was an embarassment to the game of baseball. Their excuse — the same one used in any situation where someone spends time barking at an umpire? They were “protecting” someone. Varitek was “protecting” Beckett by arguing on his behalf. Gardenhire and Francona were “protecting” their players.

Oh, what a giant load of bullshit. I know the “manager runs out of the dugout to yell in the umpire’s face” is as much a part of the fabric of baseball as rosin bags and human growth hormone. But if you’re a baseball fan who, like me, watches and enjoys other sports too, you must realize how God-damned ridiculous this is.

Sure, there’s a lot on the line in some of these games. Officials aren’t perfect, and these highly-charged, competitive professional athletes can be expected to let off some steam every once in a while. But do you see head coaches in hockey, basketball, football or soccer charging onto the field of play? God no. They’d face a lengthy suspension if they ever tried that. The players are given a little leeway in communicating with officials, but what would happen if they let it all hang out (verbally, of course) in the middle of the game, in the same way as baseball players do?

Hockey — ten-minute misconduct, possible match penalty, possible suspension. Football — 15-yard penalty, possible early shower, possible suspension. Basketball — technical foul, possible early shower, possible suspension. Soccer — yellow card at least, red card depending on the content.

Baseball? Aw shucks, it’s part of the game. Yeah, you might get tossed, but the whole spat is usually presented as benign, even admirable. “Good for you! Way to argue with the official!” Nice message to send to kids.

Sure, it can be exciting and get the fans on their feet to watch a chubby gray-haired man in a team jacket rush out of the dugout to yell at another chubby, possibly gray-haired man wearing a chest protector. But what the hell does it accomplish? Nothing. The umpire isn’t going to change their call (except, in recent years, they have been doing so on some occasions, which sends a dangerous message: “argue like an idiot, and you’ll get what you want!”)… plus, the whole pointless exercise just wastes time. And, I dunno if anyone’s noticed, but baseball isn’t exactly the fastest-paced sport on the planet (do they let people yell at the referees in jai alai?)

Were the players and managers tossed too quickly in today’s Twins/Sox affair? No. I’d say their treatment was about equal to what they’d receive if they played in any other sport. Unfortunately, players and managers are currently insulated by the purism bubble that says chastising a game official is as innocuous and ingrained in the game as spitting a sunflower seed. And that’s bloody ridiculous.

Baseball, more than ever before, needs to re-assert itself as a game to be taken seriously. But how can MLB be taken seriously when players and managers verbally attacking umpires — the people being paid by the league to control the game — is considered “just another part of the game”? Yes, I know it’s always been like that. Yes, I know a lot of people think it should stay that way.

But then again, in Jackie Robinson’s time, a lot of people were resistant to change too.

2 thoughts on “The best defence is a good offence?

  1. About the specific game in question: The only thing Gardenhire did wrong was not getting out there quick enough to save Redmond. When a player’s pissed (as Redmond deservedly was) the manager, if he’s on the ball CAN protect his players. Sadly, Gardenhire was too slow and couldn’t save his catcher from being ejected.

    Varitek was quick enough and, especially given the ump’s obvious quick toss finger that day, probably did save Beckett from hitting the showers. Since Beckett’s arguable more valuable to the team than Varitek (even considering his two home runs earlier in the game) he did the right thing.

    Francona’s just a joke.

    I agree that the institutionalized argument for the sake of arguing is pretty stupid (just look at Francona’s half-hearted idiocy) but when emotions are high, I think it’s justified. As long as it doesn’t get out of hand, like this shameful display that I’m sure you’ve all seen:

  2. Also, Cito’s arguments, where he doesn’t make a scene and seems to be saying something like “Now, son, you know you made a mistake there.” Are pretty nice to watch.

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