Mike Matheny is apparently not a fan of rookie treatment, at least when it comes to umpires. On Thursday, St. Louis’ first-year first baseman Matt Adams struck out in the ninth inning, on what he considered to be a high, inside pitch. He questioned plate ump Dan Belino, then, on his way back to the dugout, turned around and questioned him again.
Belino shooed him away. The gesture was more than Matheny was willing to tolerate. Once closer Kevin Gregg had sealed the Cubs’ 3-0 victory moments later, Matheny raced toward Belino, to the point of necessitating restraint from the rest of the umpiring crew. (Watch it here.)
His frustration, he told reporters after the game, had less to do with the strike call than “with the umpire and how he mistreated one of our players, Adams.”
“It’s ridiculous,” Matheny said. “You can’t take your mask off and motion somebody away. We had not had any trouble. We hadn’t been complaining all game long. He wanted to be seen, so now he’s going to be seen.”
There is, however, something else at play: If the unwritten rule that labels such a display disrespectful constitutes one side of the coin, the other side is covered by the notion that rookies must earn their place in the game. This is true within clubhouse hierarchies, and it is true when it comes to umpires. Although it is generally less prevalent now than in past generations, umpires throughout the game’s history have taken the position that young players must earn their respect, and will test them accordingly to push the issue.
Last year Bryce Harper felt it with Angel Hernandez’s strike zone. If it was a test, Harper failed, badly.
A similar story comes to us courtesy of Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter. In his autobiography, Catfish: My Life in Baseball, he described a confrontation during his rookie season in 1965:
One of the biggest lessons I learned came courtesy of senior umpire Ed Runge. “You’ll like this guy, Cat,” my teammates told me the first time Runge was behind the plate. “He gives you everything.”
Great. A friend in high places. I fired my first pitch, a fastball, right down the middle.
“Ball,” screamed Runge, yanking off his mask like someone had just yelled “Fire!” He stared out at the mound, begging me to argue. I didn’t say a word.
Another pitch. Another fastball right down Main Street.
Same yank. Same look. Still I don’t say boo.
We play the same game a couple of more times—me throwing strikes, Runge playing hard to please—and still I don’t let out a peep. A few weeks later Runge is set to go behind the plate again. Before the game, we happened to meet.
He gives me a quick once-over. “I see you don’t argue with umpires, kid.”
“No, sir,” I said.
A smile. “It’s a good thing.”
From then on I was a card-carrying member of the Ed Runge Club. Anything close was a strike. I’d passed the test.
Credit Matheny for protecting his players, but if Belino was hoping to see from Adams something similar to the deference that Runge got from Hunter, he’s going to have to wait a while.