White Sox television broadcaster Hawk Harrelson caused quite a stir last week when umpire Mark Wegner threw Jose Quintana out of the game for going too far inside to Ben Zobrist (so far inside that it went behind him). Love him or hate him, Hawk is nothing if not a passionate fan and an unwavering supporter of the South Siders. So it shouldn't have come as much of a surprise when he reacted thusly:
It's no surprise that his remarks were controversial. Harrelson is already seen as being a homer to a fault, even compared to other people whose job it is to spend six months regaling television viewers or radio listeners with the play-by-play for their favorite teams; that he portrayed a fairly ambiguous situation as completely black and white further illustrated his lack of objectivity in the booth. Worse still was the disrespectful way he spoke of an official ("What in the hell are you doing? What are you doing Wegner? ... Here's an umpire in the American League that knows nothing about the game of baseball") who, wrong or not, was just trying to do his job.
But the most significant side to this story is not the controversy of this specific incident but how it fits into an emerging consensus that seems to be growing throughout the sport: The status quo of unchecked on-field authority for the boys in blue is deeply and systematically flawed.
I don't know whether umpiring has actually gotten worse in recent years or if we're just starting to notice more, but it sure seems like the officiating in 2012 has been more error-prone than ever. It took all of two games for a blown call to cost my Cleveland Indians a game, and last month we got treated to this:
We can also thank blown calls for helping pitchers make history. It was at least questionable whether Brendan Ryan fully swung when he chased strike three to give Philip Humber a perfect game:
And even third-base umpire Adrian Johnson admitted he blew a call which would have broken Johan Santana's no-hitter on Friday:
Umpires aren't perfect. We've known that for a long time. But while the issue has been raised in the past, I think it's safe to say that it's never been seen as such a serious issue until this year. And Harrelson isn't the only influential insider who's mad. Jim Leyland, a man who has been coaching professional baseball since the 1970's, also called for umpires to be held responsible for their mistakes last week:
"You know what? We’re all accountable in this business! All of us are accountable! And when I say all of us, I mean everybody that’s involved in the game needs to be held accountable!"
But Harrelson and Leyland carry weight in this instance beyond the longevity of their baseball tenures. The debate over the use of instant replay to review calls has been framed in baseball's equivalent of party lines—in general those who embrace recent developments in statistical analysis seem to support implementing some sort of replay, while traditionalists have a higher tolerance for human error in officiating. Harrelson and Leyland fall squarely into the latter category, yet they have both now publicly and passionately expressed their displeasure with the status quo.
To be fair, neither of them specifically called for the use of instant replay, nor have they ever (to my knowledge) advocated for it. Leyland followed his rant by proclaiming himself "the most protective person in the world of umpires," while Hawk's prescription for Wegner was to "send him back to school and teach him what this game is about." But the first step towards supporting some implementation of replay is deciding that the degree of human error in calling the game is unacceptable, and in that respect I'd say Leyland and Harrelson are pretty good gets.
That people who are predisposed to oppose an opinion begin to accept it is a sign of an idea whose time has come. The silver lining of the increase in blown calls (or at least, increased awareness of them) is that the tide is clearly beginning to turn against the idea of unchallengeable and unaccountable umpires. If this pattern of undeserved losses and false history persists at a similar pace, pressure will build on the league to ensure that plays are fairly officiated—and a new consensus will spread throughout the game.