Television increases pressure on umpires
Improvements in replay technology create new tensions
"In my heart, I never missed a call." -- Bill Klem, Hall of Fame umpire
When Bill Klem was making calls, there were no games on television. There were no instant replays, no super slow-mo replays, no FoxTrax. These days, the umpires are under siege not from the players, but from television.
The first big league telecast took place on August 26, 1939. The next day, the New York Times reported, "The Dodgers and Reds battled through two games at Ebbets Field before the two prying electrical eyes of station W2XBS. ... At times it was possible to catch a fleeting glimpse of the ball as it sped from the pitcher's hand toward home plate."
TV was not a problem for umpires then.
Like ballplayers, the best umpires have more talent than their peers, and unfailing focus. Bill Klem's eyes were sharp. He focused them on every call. That's where his heart was. Bill Klem missed lots of calls, but no one could prove it. If he were umpiring these days, TV would nail him.
On Thursday afternoon, Astros second baseman Bill Hall got kicked out of the game by Tom Hallion after striking out. He took the first two strikes and then stepped out of the box for a long time -- long enough for everyone in the ballpark to notice. Three pitches later, he struck out swinging.
"[Hallion] missed the first two [pitches]. [They] weren't strikes," Hall said afterward. "I didn't really say anything to him, and once I got out of the box, he was yelling at me, cussing me out, telling me to get the [expletive] in the box.
"After I swung and missed at the third one, I cussed myself out. I didn't look toward him. I said, '[Darn] it!' going back to the dugout, and he threw me out of the game. It was just ridiculous."
I'm sure Hallion's report to the commissioner's office will have the expletive directed toward the plate, not the dugout. You had to be down there on the field to know the truth. But even if it happened exactly the way Hall described it, Hallion's action was not unprecedented.
Baseball has always had an unwritten rule about not showing the other guy up. Not the opponent, certainly not the umpire. What triggered Hallion was nonverbal. Hall didn't have to talk. His body language was eloquent. I can believe that he was cussing himself out as he went to the dugout. I can also buy Hallion thinking the expletives were meant for him.
When I thought I had thrown a strike and the umpire called it a ball, I looked at the scoreboard as if I didn't believe it. That way, the umpire knew how I felt, but the crowd didn't. I didn't show him up.
I'm not sure what Hall could have done differently, but his displeasure would have been less evident if he had stepped back into the box and said something funny like, "Man, that strike zone is as big as Eric Gregg today." Maybe Cecil Fielder would be a better example.
But the point is that the fans can see how you're acting, even though they can't hear what you're saying.
I don't blame Tom Hallion or any other umpire for being testy. Television technology proves them wrong time and again. It has to be exasperating. The other night, while I was watching a game, a close call at first was replayed about five times, slower and slower, until it was finally proven that the call was missed -- by one inch!
Though Bud Selig and his charges almost always support the umpires when there is a dispute, they also grade the umpires more stringently than they used to. It's easier to grade them with the "prying eye of television" as a visual aid.
It usually takes am umpire 10 years of enduring Minor League travel, weather and accommodations to get to the big leagues, not to mention being harassed by players and managers. Major League umpires make good money and have good benefits. Their accommodations are first class. So it's easy to understand why they don't want any failing grades.
You would think that the umpires are performing under less pressure than the players, and they should be, because they have no emotional investment in the outcome of the game. It's easy to understand players and managers becoming enraged. They have a heavy investment in the outcome and are fueled by adrenaline.
Still, caught between the abuse from players and fans and pressure from the league to perform at a high level, the arbiters often appear more fractious than the competitors. When a close call leads to a rhubarb, the umpire knows the telecast is replaying his call, even as he argues.
I wouldn't want to be an umpire today -- or even in Bill Klem's time. I'm pretty sure Tom Hallion would prefer the good old days, too, as long has he didn't have to work for Klem's salary.
Larry Dierker played 14 seasons for the Houston Colt .45s/Astros and the St. Louis Cardinals. He guided the Astros to four National League Central titles in five seasons as manager from 1997-2001. The two-time All-Star pitcher writes a weekly column for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.