Last Saturday night I sat watching the Giants game against the Rays with my daughter Danielle. It was a great pitching duel with two CY Young winners battling it out; and then there was home plate umpire Joe West. In baseball, and for most other sports, if you don’t notice the umpire, he’s doing a good job. I realize that umpires are human, and as such are not infallible. They reinforce the human element of the game, but only so far. What we all want from the person calling balls and strikes is consistency. The same pitch location should be called a ball or strike every time.
With Joe West, whether it was called a ball or strike was done so with some unfathomable logic. His called strike three were done with so much look at me theatrics that he appeared to be auditioning for a role in Kevin Costner’s next baseball movie. When that third called strike should have been called a ball, he would stare down the player as they sulked back to the dugout hoping for a confrontation. With a 3-2 count, he would wait for the player to run half way to first base before calling the third strike, all this to draw attention to himself.
People don’t attend baseball games based on who the umpires that day are. These professionals should be as non-descript as the bases and foul poles. There should be a grading system that evaluates how well you call balls and strikes. If you’re Joe West you shouldn’t be allowed behind the plate and just like players who routinely under perform you should be sent back to the minors. Umpires are highly paid professionals. According to a study released in 2009 by CNN they take home a salary of $84,000 to $300,000 each year and receive $340 worth of allowance for every game they officiate.
If the art of calling balls and strikes has been lost maybe it’s time for technology to take over. Watching games on TV we’ve all seen the strike zone rectangle appear on the screen and each pitch thrown is placed in its appropriate location. A dispassionate computer wouldn’t care who the players were. It would only provide a consistent strike zone for everyone.