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The State of Major League Umpiring - The Obvious, and the Obviously-Wrong...By Nelson Lardner

Long-time Atlanta manager Bobby Cox got tossed from the Braves/Nationals game in our nation's capitol, a week ago Monday. In and of itself, this is barely a story. Cox has always hard-ridden the boys in blue. Major-league managing's abuse poster boy has now been tossed out of 125 contests, second all- time. He's put Leo Durocher in the rear-view mirror, and now sets sail after John "Muggsy" McGraw, the reigning King of Rhubarbary.

Besides being National Leaguers in orientation and broad demeanor, none of those listed individuals ever struck us as role models of decorum. But you can bet your booties that were either Muggsy or The Lip working dugouts today, modern umpiring would be provoking both of them onto the field, cheeks flushing and jaws working, with monotonous regularity.

Yes, I know . . . the representative major-league umpire gets the vast, vast majority of his calls correct. No kidding. But what Bud and major-league baseball's suits refuse to broadly acknowledge is that ball-and-strike umpiring is largely an inconsistent mess, driving managers, players, announcers, fans and common gamblers to distraction.

We speculators who regularly assume the risks inherent in short-term options on teams and projected run volumes are aware of the extreme predilections of certain umps when they work the plate. Veteran John Hirschbeck remains the most consistent "under" umpire of recent years. His strike zone is roughly the size of Poland, and his anticipated presence behind the dish provokes considerable downward pressure on game totals. A regular Friday night market highlight takes on a life of its own when posts which series-opener (if any) Hirschbeck is working. The action on the "under" in the game in question is virtually instantaneous.

Yes, batters better be ready to come out swinging when Hirschbeck's fingers are in control of the ball/strike indicator. Jerry Crawford's (yes, he's Shag's son, for the benefit of all you old-timers out there) the other side of that coin . . . the most notorious of the modern "over" umps, at this point in time. While Hirschbeck's zone is sized similarly to a country, Crawford's would fit into a breadbox. This typically spells doom for pitchers. Batters are more inclined to work the count, knowing they have all the best of it - while hurlers are placed under undue pressure to lay it right in there.

Neither the Hirschbeck nor the Crawford influences result in wholly fair and satisfying major-league baseball games. But at least you can anticipate what you're going to get. The sustained complaint about most home-plate umpiring in the modern era is the maddening inconsistency. If an ump's almost always calling low, outside near-misses strikes, that's far from ideal, but if one does it ALL THE TIME, at least professional hitters and pitchers can adjust their mindsets. But if that pitch is a strike in the second inning, and a ball in the seventh, school's out. It's almost impossible for a pro to function calmly under those conditions, and the majority of serious player/manager blowups are due to a specific umpire's inability to call games in a manner consistent with his established persona.

Inconsistency, combined with either a snotty or defensive attitude, is the package no athlete wants to encounter - and players have never seen more of it than they're seeing in 2007. I sat in on an informal confab regarding the current state of baseball's blueboys, and the consensus among the seasoned observers participating was that the current Four Horsemen of the Apocolypse were C. B. Bucknor, Angel Hernandez, Sam Holbrook and Doug Eddings, in roughly that order. Bucknor's broadly-supercilious attitude sets him apart, and Holbrook noses out Eddings in the thin-skinned department.

But it's the inconsistency that drives so many to distraction. We haven't even mentioned Singing Joe West, a Bucknor crewmate whose ball-strike calls in the April 17 matchup between the Twins and Mariners were wholly erratic for the game's opening half. He followed that performance with another Left Coast extravagana Sunday night, driving the Dodgers' hot-tempered Brad Penny to the edge and provoking LA manager Grady Little into conduct that virtually compelled a rare early departure for the mild-mannered skipper.

It was a bad weekend for many. Bill Welke was all over the map with his ball/strike judgments in the Twin/Royal meet Saturday afternoon, and Phil Cuzzi called a foul ball a tipped strike (until another crew member saved him) during his less-than-sterling exhibition while Baltimore entertained Toronto.

Expansion hasn't only diluted the playing talent. When there were eight games a day, tops, you could count on a fairly high umpiring standard in the Show. Now, on a normal full card, there are fifteen presentations on a busy day, and a few practitioners are much, much more proficient than the majority.

Nelson Lardner

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