It seems to be fashionable to at least acknowledge that umpires have a tough job before you slam them. Okay. Fair enough.
Compare the career path of the umpire to that of a major-league player, just for kicks. No one recruits the umpires out of high school. They don't get scholarships to umpire college. They have to pay their own way, and it's expensive. And after paying their own way, maybe, just maybe, they show enough to finish in the top of their class and get a recommendation to be considered for a low-level minor-league job. There are only 225 minor-league umpiring jobs, so they don't open up every day. And from there, they have to work long hours for little pay, year after year, hoping that someone notices. Along the way, everyone will hate them.
Eventually, if they're the best of the best, they might survive the winnowing process and reach the majors. They'll have to wait until some of the old guard retire, but they'll have finally made it. After most of a decade making poverty wages, they'll earn about $120,000 to start. And everyone will still hate them. If they really screw up, they'll receive death threats.
So, yeah, some of them have chips on their shoulders. They had to be a little gruff to put up with that much crap for that long.
Now, on to the Bryce Harper/John Hirschbeck kerfuffle:
Baseball sits in the middle of the official-respect continuum when it comes to the three biggest North American sports. In the NFL, coaches can run up and down the sidelines to scream at officials. In the NBA, coaches get slapped with a technical foul if they complain for more than a second or two. If they get two technical fouls, they're out of the game. Baseball takes a little from each philosophy. Some screaming is allowed, though the magic words will always get a manager tossed. But when it comes to balls and strikes, there's officially a zero-tolerance policy.
When it comes to that balance, baseball has a good mix. Manager/umpire arguments could be eliminated pretty easily, you know. If the manager stepped onto the field to argue with an ump, he could be suspended for a week. If he did it again, he'd be gone for a month. Draconian penalties wouldn't change, say, steroid use as much as you might expect. But they would virtually eliminate on-field manager/umpire arguments.
No one's arguing to eliminate manager/umpire arguments. They're part of the game's theater. For every 15 or 20 managers trudging onto the field because that's what he's supposed to do after a close call, there's a complete and utter manager meltdown. And they are awesome.
With balls and strikes, though, it doesn't matter if it's a good, bad, or atrocious call: Anything more than a quick vocalization will get a player, coach, or manager tossed. That rule is an absolute necessity in the game. Can you imagine if everyone and anyone could give the full Earl Weaver to an umpire after every pitch? That might add on 10 minutes to every normal game and 45 to every Angel Hernandez game. Harper questioned a strike, and after he threw his helmet, he almost deserved to get tossed.
There's a lot of talk about rogue umpires right now -- the guys who make themselves the story of any particular game. And usually that talk includes a blanket statement. Umpires are out of control. Umpires are a disgrace. Umpires need to be controlled. There's no delineation between bad umpires and good umpires. There's just a monolithic entity: umpires. And they're all awful, even if they really aren't.
That kind of talk leads to big ideas about drastic changes. Break the union. Get a relegation system going with Triple-A umpires. Accountability now. And I'm not going to suggest all of the big ideas on how to fix umpiring are without merit. Some of them are overreactions, and some of them are interesting.
But the drastic changes will never come. It's not like home-plate collisions, where eventually someone's going to be paralyzed and the rules will change. Umpiring will remain roughly the same for the next couple decades. I can't imagine what could happen that would be so crazy, it would change umpiring forever. We've seen blown perfect games. We've seen blown World Series games. They didn't spawn the umpiring analogues to Silent Spring. Baseball kept going.
Here, then, is a simple request. It might be relatively easy to enforce, and easier to use as a bargaining chip with the union than a lot of the other big ideas.
That. Get rid of that. If basketball can stop lengthy arguments between a coach and a ref, baseball can stop umpires from doing that. What sort of reprimand will Hirschbeck get for provoking Harper? No idea. Maybe a stern talking-to, maybe an attaboy behind the scenes. If a player looks at an umpire funny, the umpire can inflame the situation and advance on the player.
No one will miss that. And there's no easy way to enforce any sort of rules against it -- there aren't cameras on each participant of every argument from the beginning -- but when it happens, it should be a big deal. It should be the equivalent of a manager tossing the bat rack onto the field. It should be a freak occurrence, and it should make everyone wonder if the umpire is a good fit for his position. More so than usual, even.
Umpiring is a tough gig, and umpires don't get enough credit for the good things they do. I've umpired Little League games before, which means I've been an awful umpire. Standing out there for five innings and getting 25 things wrong gives you an appreciation for just how much most major-league umpires get right.
When it comes to umpires provoking the arguments, though, that's something that can be addressed and fixed. When an umpire yells at a player heading back to the dugout, for example, that should be a big deal. It should be the umpiring equivalent to showing up three hours late to work with peach schnapps on the breath. It would require all sorts of changes -- both to the rules and culture of the game -- for it to happen.
But it shouldn't be that hard. If you're not a penalty guy, make up some rewards for the umpires who go a season without being an antagonizing jerkface. Big rewards, the kind that make an umpire remember not to inflame the situation. There has to be a way to make an antagonistic umpire seem like an on-the-clock bus driver using a cell phone with his feet. Make it happen, and the game will improve in a way that no one can argue with.