Shortly after Tigers manager Brad Ausmus and catcher James McCann were ejected by plate ump Quinn Walcott on Wednesday for arguing balls and strikes, Detroit pitcher Buck Farmer crossed up catcher John Hicks and drilled Wolcott in the chest with a fastball.
Cleveland TV broadcasters immediately implied that he did it on purpose.
Is intentionally hitting an umpire even a thing? There are many ways to think about this, primary among them being that no player wants to permanently find himself on the bad side of a given ump. Close calls can go either way, and just like their ballplaying counterparts, umpires have been known to carry grudges. To show up an umpire during an argument is one thing. To intentionally injure him is guaranteed to sour things not only with the umpire in question, but with the guy’s colleagues. Umpires are a tight-knit bunch, after all.
After the game, Hicks explained away the pitch as coincidental. “Obviously, it looks bad right after Brad and Mac get tossed, but it’s bases loaded, we’re trying to win a baseball game,” Hicks said in an MLB.com report. “Any thoughts of us trying to do that on purpose are just ridiculous.”
Ausmus, who heard the TV broadcast from the clubhouse after being ejected, agreed. “To imply that was intentional is, first of all, a lie,” Ausmus said. “If any player intentionally tried to hurt an umpire on this team, we’d deal with that severely. … But for anyone to imply that was intentional, it’s just completely wrong. And they’re out of line saying that, quite frankly.”
The denials from Detroit are likely valid, but there’s no getting around how bad it looks. Also, this kind of thing does happen from time to time.
In just one instance, from 1999, Tampa Bay was trailing the Angels 7-1 in the third inning, when Anaheim catcher Mike DiFelice failed to get his glove on a pitch that ended up rocketing into the facemask of plate ump John Shulock with such force that it bent the bars. It didn’t help that Tampa Bay’s starter, Wilson Alvarez, had been questioning Shulock’s calls all afternoon.
Shulock was irate, needing to be restrained from charging the mound by DiFelice.
“I know in my heart [he] meant to hit me, but I can’t prove it,” said the umpire after the game, in an AP report. “The catcher set up for a curveball outside, and he drilled me with a fastball inside. The more I think about it, I do think he did it intentionally.”
Alvarez, who was removed from the game immediately afterward, denied everything, because what else could he do?
“He’s going to get his,” Shulock said in the Los Angeles Times. “Things have a way of evening out in this game, and one of these days somebody is going to hit a line drive off the side of his head and I’ll be the first guy laughing.”
Shulock was certainly not the last guy laughing. Based on the fact that he had stormed the mound after being hit, and possibly because of his postgame comments, the umpire was suspended for three games.
Beyond that, there appears to be little aftermath. Alvarez injured his shoulder and missed the following two seasons, and never again had Shulock behind the plate for a start. (It’s interesting that during Shulock’s last season as an umpire, he worked the Tampa Bay-Oakland game the day before Alvarez pitched, and was immediately transferred to Arlington for a series against the Royals. The last game he called was on July 18 of that season.)
Buck Farmer’s pitch was far less suspicious than that, and Quinn Wolcott took it a lot better than Shulock did. That might be the end of things, but it’ll be interesting to see how and if Wolcott reacts the next time he calls balls and strikes against the Tigers.