On the day before this year’s MLB All-Star Game, Former Major League Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent published an intriguing op-ed article in The New York Times entitled “The Umpire Strikes Back.” (NY Times will probably make you pay to read the article. Here’s a link to the NPR Report with Vincent and MLB umpire Bruce Froemming, who was discussed in the article) The premise of his op-ed piece was rather simple: Umpires in all professional sports are not recognized nearly as much as they deserve. “To some sportscasters and fans, the umps seem like the bases: necessary but not worthy of mention.” Vincent proposes that Major League Baseball should institute a “Most Valuable Official award” to recognize the most outstanding umpire at the end of every season and that the other professional sports should follow suit. This would provide recognition to a largely unrecognized but essential part of the games we all enjoy so much.
Let me begin by stating that I understand and appreciate the trials and tribulations which is officiating. I’m sure at the professional level, the pressure to be right and stay at the top of your profession is unbelievable. There are a number of members of my family who serve as officials in various levels of varying sports, most notably being a collegiate level lacrosse official. In fact, I have served as the official at many a flag football game and, in one instance, been paid for some officiating of soccer matches. I have had the pleasure of being yelled at by parents during a soccer match between six-year-olds where the score was 7-1. When I’m sleeping, they still haunt my dreams. So, I understand and appreciate the job officials do and the fortitude it must take to be an official, especially at the professional level. With that said, Mr. Vincent is wrong.
I have two points of discussion stemming from Vincent’s article. The first is that, in general, umpires do not need a Most Valuable Official award, as asserted by Vincent. There are a number of reasons for this. Umpires don’t need an award which singles out one of them, because it makes one official standout from the others. Would we start to track an ump’s MVO awards like we track player’s number of Gold Gloves? How would you feel if you happened to attend a game where the only MVO winner of the crew was working at second base while a rookie was working at home plate? Does this mean MLB thinks of this game less than the game the night before when the MVO was behind home plate?
Also, every sport already has a method of awarding its most outstanding officials (a better term than valuable, since no official should be “valuable” to a game as the best officials go unnoticed) throughout a season. The right to officiate a professional sport’s playoffs is the greatest honor that could be bestowed to an official and it is a mark of recognition for all of the hard and good work done by those officials. Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals, Stanley Cup. Each of these are officiated by the officials who have had the best years in each of their sports. Do these officials really need a $50 piece of hardware to provide them with further recognition?
My second point of discussion is this: If umpires really want this sort of recognition from the fans of the sport and such recognition is really important to them, then they need to be willing to give back to those fans that they want recognition from. The way for the umps to give back to the fans? Make themselves available to those fans. Right now, officials of all the sports get to participate, interact, and play an integral role in the sports we love, then retire after the game is over to the shadows. They get all of the joys of the game, while never having to answer for what they do on the field. The leagues protect their officials to somehow keep the sanctity of the game. These are not eight-year-olds who serve as professional officials; they are grown men and women who should have the ability to answer a couple of questions after the game.
Ever since the 2005 ALCS and the AJ Pierzynski incident, I have wanted professional officials to subject themselves to a press conference after every game. If officials want fan recognition, then they are going to have to give back to those fans by answering the officiating questions that always linger after any game. I’m not saying that they need to be open to questions every single game, but I believe MLB and all professional sports should make their officials open to interview requests. If a member of the press makes such a request after a game, any member of the officiating crew should be required to hold a press conference and answer any and all questions about the calls they made during that night’s game. They can say “no comment” if they wish, but I believe they should have to step out and answer questions regarding the rules of the game as much as possible.
How much fun would it be to hear an umpire tell the story of why they threw the manager out and what language was what crossed the line? Why shouldn’t an umpire have to explain what they saw during the game-changing play? While this may sound like a big change for the after-the-game routine of officials, I actually believe the reality would be that the press would only be interested in speaking to an official one out of ten contests. A small price to pay if professional officials are serious about getting recognition from the fans for all of their good, hard work.