Umpire Relations

How to Make Friends and Influence People (or Not): Umpire Edition

Things got testy for Denard Span Tuesday.

We know already that there are different ways to deal with umpires—some effective, some not so much. We know already that superstars have more leeway in this regard than the average player. And if we didn’t know already that you may as well go ahead and vent once you have nothing left to lose in a game—say, if you’ve just been rung up on three pitches out of the strike zone as your team’s final out in the ninth inning—we learned about it on Monday.

We’ve learned a lot about umpire relations since Monday, in fact. Three examples (at least), in three different situations, with three different kinds of player. Whether these examples set any sort of precedent when it comes to understanding player-umpire relations is less clear than the fact that they were all wildly entertaining, and gave some insight into the psyches of those involved, players and umpires alike.

Start with Monday’s game in San Francisco, in which Roy Halladay walked Aubrey Huff in the fifth inning on an 88 mph cutter with two outs and a runner on first. Trouble was, Halladay didn’t agree that the pitch was a ball. (To his credit, neither pitch-tracking service Brooks Baseball; thanks to Hardball Talk for the link.)  From the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Matt Gelb:

Halladay snatched the throw from Carlos Ruiz and didn’t flinch. His eyes were focused on (Marty) Foster, the home-plate umpire . . . Foster noticed the death stare. He said something to Halladay, who barked back. Then Halladay pointed to make his anger totally clear. It was a brief exchange, one Halladay later claimed was not directed at Foster. But that was the pitcher’s way of being diplomatic.

The result: Five pitches later, Halladay threw another cutter to Brandon Belt, this one well off the plate. It was called a strike, Belt’s third of the at-bat. Inning over.

“His demands had been heard,” wrote Gelb. Halladay had “conquered the umpire.”

Across the country, more balls were being called strikes, including three of Fernando Rodney’s five pitches to Cody Ross, Boston’s final batter in the final frame of a 1-0 loss to Tampa Bay.  (See them in another chart from Brooks Baseball, also via Hardball Talk.)

Ross, suffice it to say, was less than pleased, going off later in the Boston Herald about the ignominy of what had just occurred, calling the judgement of plate ump Larry Vanover “unacceptable.”

“If I’m going up there and striking out every at-bat, I’m going to get benched,” he said. “But it’s not that way with (umpires). They can go out there and make bad calls all day, and they’re not going to be held accountable for it.”

Confronting an umpire apparently made a difference for Halladay. The same might be said for Ross (who did it through the press), but not in a way that held any appeal for the player. It could be coincidence, but the following day, three Rangers pitchers struck out a total of 11 Boston hitters—a team high since opening day, when they struck out 13 White Sox—as Texas cruised, 18-3.

On Tuesday in New York, Minnesota’s Denard Span was tossed by plate ump Greg Gibson for arguing balls and strikes. Actually, he was tossed for the fact that he did so in an obvious fashion, swiveling his head backward as he stood in his batting stance to face the ump during the course of the conversation. (See it all here.)

It’s well-known that such a move is widely taken as disrespectful by umpires, and few are willing to tolerate much, if any, of it. This became clear when Span was caught by on-field microphones saying, “I didn’t disrespect you,” shortly before he was tossed.

Said Span in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “It went from Level 1 to “Level 10 in like two seconds.”

“You don’t want to turn on an umpire, to show him up,” said longtime catcher Ron Hassey, discussing the general concept, not Span specifically. “If you’re going to talk, talk straight out. He knows what’s going on. He can hear you.”

Ultimately, what do all these interactions tell us? Unfortunately, not a heck of a lot. Every ump is different, as are players’ relationships with them. Halladay’s ability to stare down an umpire certainly had no bearing on Span’s inability to try to talk sense to one.

None of the three players, of course, had anything on former Yankees pitcher Ryne Duren, long noted for his combination of blazing fastball and lack of control. Jim Bouton recounted in his book, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take it Personally, the time that Duren walked three straight hitters on 12 neck-high fastballs. Wrote Bouton:

Finally he walked across a run and he stormed up to the home-plate umpire. “Goddammit, where the hell are those pitches?”

“Right up here, Ryne,” the umpire said, pointing to his neck.

“Well, goddammit,” Duren said, “I’ve got to have that pitch.”

Angel Campos, Matt Treanor, Ned Yost, Umpire Relations

Young Umps at it Again: Royals Catcher Tossed for No Good Reason

Matt Treanor and Angel Campos share some thoughtful opinions.

What is it with the Kansas City Royals and fill-in umpires? Last year it was Jason Kendall getting shown up, then ejected by a recent call-up from Triple-A. Today it was Matt Treanor.

The incidents have one thing in common, apart from the ejections of each catcher and manager Ned Yost: neither Kendall or Treanor did anything wrong.

Sunday’s run-in began immediately after Royals pitcher Everett Teaford walked Colby Rasmus. Treanor had some things to say to plate ump Angel Campos—he insists that they had nothing to do with balls and strikes, which is an ejection-worthy offense—but never turned around as he spoke.

This is key. The umpires’ code—which every catcher knows intimately—mandates that catchers and hitters have significant leeway when addressing an umpire, but the moment they turn around to do so—in other words, when they make it look like they’re saying something contentious—whatever ice they may be standing on grows quickly and dangerously thin.

This wasn’t Treanor’s problem. He was in his squat, facing the pitcher’s mound, when Campos ejected him. There was no indication they were even having a discussion.

According to Treanor, Campos roamed to the front of the plate to address him just prior to their fateful exchange, but that was not caught on the Royals’ broadcast. (Watch it here.)

“I basically told him not to show me up by coming around the plate,” Treanor said in the Kansas City Star. “I’m not doing anything to disrespect him. I was just trying to ask him some questions. He came back around the plate, said he had enough of me.”

The motivation of a young umpire to interject himself so forcefully and ignorantly into game action is tough to explain, especially now that it’s happened twice in two seasons to the Royals. Minor league umps are generally instructed to have shorter leashes than than their big league brethren, which may have played a part in this, but it’s hardly an excuse. Baseball has enough problems with a small handful of veteran umps thinking they’re bigger than the game; if they allow young umps to grow unchecked into that role, it’s going to make for some very rocky exchanges in the future. Especially for Yost.

“Treanor did a great job in that situation,” said the Royals manager on “Nobody in the park knew that they were arguing. Nobody. And to eject the guy under those circumstances isn’t right.”

Perhaps Yost should write a new line in the Codebook for his catchers: If you’re wearing powder blue and there’s a young ump behind the plate, keep your mouth shut at all costs—no matter how correct you might be.

– Jason

Doug Harvey, Joe Torre, Umpire Relations

Torre Served as Bookend for Harvey’s Career; Not Everyone Got off So Easy

As umpire Doug Harvey prepared for induction into the Hall of Fame last weekend, an old story arose about his proclivity for ejecting Joe Torre at the most opportune moments.

In 1962, Torre was in his second season as a catcher with the Braves, and his resume flashed two primary distinctions: a runner-up finish in the ’61 NL Rookie of the Year voting, and designation as the first player Harvey ever ejected from a game.

They say that players have long memories, but those players have nothing on Doug Harvey. Thirty-one years after that initial ejection, as the umpire took a final spin around the league before retiring, he pulled Torre—who by that point was managing the St. Louis Cardinals—aside.

“He said you were the first one, and I’d like you to be the last one,” Torre recounted in the Los Angeles Times. “And I said, ‘OK, we’ll figure it out.'”

About a month later, in September, the Cardinals visited Shea Stadium, and jumped out to a big lead in the late innings.

“About the seventh inning, I yell out about a pitch,” Torre said. “I figure I may not get a better shot at this. He came over to me and I had to explain what I was doing. It wasn’t foremost on his mind.

“I started arguing with him, and I say, ‘This is it.’ And he says, ‘What do you mean this is it?'”

“And I said, ‘Remember, you wanted me to be the last guy you threw out.’ And he started smiling and said, ‘Get out of here.'”

It was as cordial an ejection as has ever been seen on a ball field.

That type of interaction does have an antitheses, however—the antagonistic non-ejection. These often take place on exceptionally hot days, when managers looking for a reprieve in the air-conditioned clubhouse try to bait an umpire into tossing them out. Umpires, however, frequently recognize the tactic, and exhibit significantly more restraint than usual.

Jose Rijo took things a step further.

With a large lead in the seventh inning of a game in which Frank Pulli was serving as plate umpire, Rijo, with a stout bullpen behind him, made an unusual request about the possibility of drawing an early thumb.

“I said, ‘Frank, I want to stay, but I can’t—I have a date tonight.’ ” Rijo said.

Pulli’s reply: “You leave this game now, I’ll never call another strike for you. If I have to stay, you do, too.”

“So,” said Rijo, “I stayed.”

– Jason

Gary Cederstrom, Joe Maddon, Umpire Relations

Maddon Vents to Garza, Gets Cederstrom’s Goat

There is a protocol to addressing umpires. Players and managers usually have a wide berth to say what they want, so long as they don’t publically show up the ump with whom they’re arguing. For hitters and catchers, this means not turning around to face him as they speak. For managers, it’s overt displays of anger during the course of a discussion.

Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon hewed closely to these rules yesterday, and was tossed anyway—to the delight of his players.

Maddon was angry that, for the second straight day, a Rays pitcher was called for a balk in a critical situation. Because managers are not allowed to argue balk calls, Maddon instead went to the mound and made his case to his pitcher, Matt Garza, loudly enough for the ump in question—Gary Cederstrom, who was manning second base, and who during the course of dialog circled around behind Maddon—to hear. (Watch it here.)

Maddon, surrounded by his infielders, looked just like he would if he was arguing with an umpire, arms waving, finger pointing and volume high—only facing his own pitcher.

It wasn’t enough. Cederstrom quickly tossed him.

“The umpire said, ‘Are you talking to me, or are you talking to your pitcher?’ ” said second baseman Reid Brignac in the St. Petersburg Times. “Joe said, ‘I’m talking to my pitcher.’ Then Joe started again. ‘That’s the second damn day in a row, yada, yada, yada.’ It was definitely amusing.”

One of Maddon’s goals was to vent anger over what he felt was a pattern of bad calls. (Before Wednesday’s balk call on James Shields, pointed out the Times, the pitcher had faced more than 3,600 batters in his career and been called for only one balk; Garza’s last balk was more than 1,300 batters ago.)

He also wanted to give Garza a moment to get his head back in the game. It worked; Garza worked out of the jam and ended up going eight innings.

Maddon accomplished both items while sticking to the Code. He didn’t show up the umpire so much as the umpire showed up himself.

Ultimately, he proved the point that it’s not just how you say something that can get you tossed—it’s what you say, as well.

– Jason

Jason Kendall, Mike Estabrook, Umpire Relations

A Bad Week for Umpires Gets Even Worse

Jim Joyce was responsible for a horrific call, but one call does not a bad umpire make.

Mike Estabrook shouldn’t get off that easy.

Estabrook, the umpire behind the plate for the Royals-Angels game yesterday, didn’t react well when Kansas City catcher Jason Kendall questioned his strike zone.

For catchers, the unwritten rule when it comes to dealing with umpires is to avoid showing them up, to which Kendall adhered. After Estabrook called a ball on a good-looking Zack Greinke pitch, the catcher questioned the decision without turning around or indicating in any way that he was even addressing the umpire.

Sometimes when umpires feel the need to go eye-to-eye with a catcher, they’ll walk to the pitcher’s side of the plate and bend over to dust it off, in the process saying whatever it is they feel need be said.

Estabrook, however, moved into the left-handed batter’s box, and, hands on knees, bent down to get into the squatting Kendall’s face, as if he was chewing out a four-year-old. (Watch it here.)

Estabrook is a call-up ump from Triple-A. Kendall, without hyperbole, probably knows more about playing catcher than any of his big-league contemporaries.

It was a disgraceful display.

Royals manager Ned Yost came out to question just what the hell it was Estabrook thought he was doing, and promptly got tossed. (“I’ll never let an umpire show up one of my players, and that’s exactly what he was doing,” he said after the game.)

While it’s valid to question whether Kendall said something to elicit that sort of response, there are several factors to consider:

  • Kendall knows exactly what and what not to say to an umpire when questioning a call.
  • If Kendall did say something to piss of Estabrook that badly, he should have been ejected on the spot, rather than shown up.
  • Kendall followed the Code so closely when addressing Estabrook that even as the umpire continued to talk to him after tossing Yost, Kendall would not turn around to face him.

“He missed a pitch, and I was talking to him about it, and he came out in front, which I’ve never really seen,” Kendall said after the game. “I told him he’d better get out of my face. It was unprofessional what he did.”

Unprofessional is one way to put it. Disrespectful is another. One can only hope that Estabrook picks up the finer points of the Code before his next stint in the major leagues.

– Jason

Umpire Relations

How to Talk to Umpires

In the wake of two umpire-related events last week—Bob Davidson’s blowout with Joe Maddon, and Joe West ejecting Ozzie Guillen and Mark Buehrle over two disputed balk calls—former big leaguer Eduardo Perez (the son of Hall of Famer Tony Perez, who has managed in Puerto Rico and is an analyst for ESPN) offered up a brief tutorial on umpire relations, a topic with its own chapter in the unwritten rulebook.

Perez’s key points:

  • “Sometimes (as a manager) you know that the umpire made the right call, yet your player doesn’t seem to think so. In situations like that, you almost always still back your guy up because you don’t want to lose his trust.”
  • “Umpires don’t like it when players use their hands as a form of communication. They would rather have you yell at them than flail your arms because everything is on TV and it makes them look disrespected, like you’re showing them up.”
  • “If I disagreed with a strike call, I was taught to look down at the plate and be specific about what I saw: ‘Hey, I had that pitch 6 inches outside.’ Making eye contact and asking the umpire where the pitch was is the wrong move because you’re making more of a scene and questioning his judgment instead of confidently stating your own opinion.”

– Jason

Babe Ruth, George Frazier, Jose Offerman, Ron Hassey, Umpire Relations

Offerman Neither the First Guy to Want to Hit an Ump, Nor the First Guy to Actually Do It

So Jose Offerman was banned for life from the Dominican Winter Baseball League after slugging an umpire last week while serving as the manager of the Licey Tigers. Our guess: It was merely an effort to maintain his reputation as an all-hit, no-field player.

Offerman, of course, reminds us that an entire section of baseball’s Code is devoted to umpire relations. The unwritten rules, of course, while doing nothing to discourage on-field disagreements with the men in blue, generally solicit more tact than was shown by the former Dodger.

Which doesn’t mean that guys don’t occasionally attempt to inflict a little damage of their own.

Former pitcher George Frazier told us about the time in 1984, when his batterymate, Indians catcher Ron Hassey, was rung up on a dubious called strike by umpire Joe Brinkman. Hassey’s response: when he came out to catch the bottom of the frame, he gave Frazier a signal to throw a fastball away, but set up on the inside part of the plate.

“I said, all right, maybe the hitter is peeking or something,” said Frazier, describing a well-known method for deterring hitters whose eyes might wander backward (a tactic that has its own section of the Code). “I throw a fastball away, Joe’s set up right there, and it hit him square in the mask. Oh my God—Hassey got tossed and Joe’s wanting to kill me. I said, ‘Hey, I just threw what I thought he called. Why are you mad at me? Joe’s still not happy about that deal.”

Something similar happened in 1999, when Devil Rays catcher Mike DeFelice failed to put a glove on a Wilson Alvarez fastball that more or less split the plate. The pitch hit plate ump John Shulock’s mask so hard it dented the bars. Once Shulock regained his senses, he remembered that Alvarez had questioned several of his calls throughout the game, and stormed the mound, “yelling and gesturing angrily,” according to the St. Petersburg Times.

Alvarez, of course, denied any intent, and Shulock was ultimately suspended three games for his “display of temper.”

Leave it to no less an authority than Babe Ruth, though, to affirm that occasional scare tactics against umpires can be effective—and that Offerman was hardly alone in his love of the right cross.

It’s well known that as a pitcher for the Red Sox, Ruth took part in a joint no-hitter. Ruth questioned umpire Brick Owens after walking the game’s first hitter, and was subsequently tossed. Reliever Ernie Shore then came in and retired 27 men in a row (including the runner he inherited, who was thrown out on the basepaths).

What’s less known is what Ruth actually did to get ejected.

“I still insist that three of the four (balls) should have been strikes,” wrote Ruth in the autobiographical The Babe Ruth Story. “I growled at some of the early balls, but when (Owens) called the fourth one on me I just went crazy. I rushed up to the plate and I said, ‘If you’d go to bed at night, you so-and-so, you could keep your eyes open long enough in the daytime to see when a ball goes over the plate.’ ”

At which point the ump threatened to toss Ruth.

The pitcher’s response: “Throw me out of this game and I’ll punch you right on the jaw.” Not one to be intimidated, Owens immediately gave him the thumb.

“I hauled off and hit him, but good,” wrote Ruth.

Good thing Ruth never got the managerial job he so desperately wanted, or he might have ended up like Jose Offerman. Which, as we know by now, is not necessarily a good thing.

– Jason