Integrity in Umpiring? Don't Bet on it!

This past week, a writer broke a story with some very serious accusations about Major League Baseball's umpiring.

No, this doesn't specifically have to do with Phil Cuzzi's embarrassing strike zone and subsequent short fuse that led to ejections of Cardinals manager Tony La Russa and outfielder Jim Edmonds in Game 4 of the NLCS.

 

It isn't entirely about the now-infamous Doug Eddings non-call on the two-out, ninth-inning swinging third strike by the White Sox' A.J. Pierzynski that led to Chicago winning Game 2 of the ALCS over the Angels. Nor is it due to a number of other obvious blown calls throughout this year's playoffs.

 

But, in a way, it may be about all of them and more; much more.

 

The recent issues came to light through Joe West, the showboating, country western-singing arbiter, who had already made a plain wrong interference call in the fifth inning of deciding Game 5 of the ALDS. The Yankees' Robinson Cano was running to first after striking out with two on and two out, but was called out even after Angels catcher Bengie Molina's throw eluded first baseman Darin Erstad.

 

Despite his terrible momentum-shifting call, incredibly West was named crew chief for the Fall Classic, as other far more qualified and accomplished umpires were puzzlingly passed over, such as Tim McClelland, who was the landslide winner as MLB's best umpire in a Sports Illustrated players poll a few years back.

 

Or, perhaps West was receiving a lifetime achievement award. After all, he has a long and checkered history of bad behavior on the diamond. West's most recent run-in with the Cardinals was the ridiculous Julian Tavarez pine-tarred hat circus a year ago August. He's run Tony La Russa from games and even noted gentleman and soon-to-be Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn was ejected just once in his long and distinguished career – by Joe West.

 

In fact, West was so despised that MLB officials insisted that he be one of the umpires who could not return when many of the 22 arbiters who had resigned in 1999 were brought back. But, West's banishment didn't last long. Like a bad penny, he not only was hired back in 2002 but made a regular-season crew chief on top of it!

 

Who rehired West and who put him this plum postseason role? Who added another of the game's worst umpires, Angel Hernandez, to the Series crew? That would be umpiring supervisor Frank Pulli.

 

Pulli allegedly is the sole receiver of all the balls and strikes data from the controversial QuesTec system. What he does with them no one knows. Certainly, Pulli's choices for key assignments seem to have nothing to do with data and merit and everything to do with cronyism. Since the '99 labor action, there has been a split among the umpiring ranks between those loyal to Pulli and the rest. Guess which camp West and Hernandez are in?

 

By the way, West, Cuzzi and Hernandez were all ranked among the worst six umps in the game in the same SI poll of 550 major league pitchers and hitters noted above.

 

Multiple examples of retaliation, including shredded positive reports on non-supporters and incidents where non-loyal umpires were purposely passed over for prestigious assignments were cited. Richie Garcia, one of Pulli's supervisor lieutenants, was called out as one of the key perpetrators.

 

But, by far, the worst piece of information was not about who was selected for important assignments and who weren't. More importantly, it was a thinly-veiled implication as to why these assignments may occur.

 

It starts with a reminder from the past. During the initial Pete Rose gambling investigation in 1989, umpires Pulli and Garcia were discovered to be associating with known gamblers and bookmakers. The commissioner at the time, Fay Vincent, allegedly covered up the investigation and merely placed the two on probation.

 

Sandy Alderson, then VP of Operations for MLB, was in charge of the umpires. To make matters worse, he hired Pulli and Garcia to be supervisors after they had been forced out in the '99 purge.

 

The writer never directly stated it in his story, but its timing and tone certainly implies there may be a connection between the series of very questionable calls in the 2005 playoffs and the potential motivation of those who placed them in those all-important roles.

 

By the way, it wasn't any writer who broke the news. It was highly-respected Bill Madden of the New York Daily News. Madden had joined the paper in 1978 after time at United Press International and has been the News' national baseball columnist since 1988. Madden has also written several books and has received many writing awards.

 

It is good to know that the Players Association and the commissioner's office are investigating the umpire grading system as a result of West's incredible World Series selection. But, the seriousness of all this clearly signals that isn't nearly enough. There is much more to this than Cowboy Joe West.

 

Does anyone want to see MLB in a situation where the integrity of the game might be compromised or even a hint of a suggestion that it could be?

 

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

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