Saturday, October 16, 2021

Quote of the Day (Zach Helfand, on the Umpire’s Strike Zone)

"For many years, an umpire’s strike zone was like an extension of his personality. Some umpires were literalists, uncompromising. Some preferred expediency; their boundaries were enormous. No matter who was working, when it rained suddenly everything was a strike. [Joe] West, the record-holding umpire, is a burly man with a Carolina drawl who moonlights as a country singer and used to pal around with Merle Haggard. He told me one umpire described the old standard for learning the strike zone as ‘You call them strikes until someone goes, “Hey!”’ Another of his friends liked to say, ‘The strike zone is like a television set, and every now and then you need [Hall of Fame Baltimore Orioles manager] Earl Weaver or Billy Martin’—the Yankees’ volatile manager in the seventies and eighties—'to come out and adjust the knob.’ Martin once sent an umpire a Christmas card that read ‘I hope you and your family have a wonderful holiday season.’ On the inside, he wrote, ‘Because you sure had a horseshit summer.’ Video evaluation has reined in some quirks, but the strike zone still changes measurably depending on the score, the team batting, and the pitcher’s race.”— Zach Helfand, “Invasion of the Robot Umpires,” The New Yorker, Aug. 30, 2021

You can be forgiven for thinking that in this offseason, San Francisco Giant manager Gabe Kapler might be sorely tempted to pull a Billy Martin and send Gabe Morales an unpleasant holiday greeting.

The first-base umpire did little to slow down—and, I’d wager, much to accelerate—the movement towards the video-evaluated decisions chronicled by Helfand in his New Yorker piece. In Thursday night’s deciding game of the Giants-L.A. Dodgers NLDS playoff series, Morales sent Wilmer Flores and the rest of the Giants to an aggravated, sorrowing postseason by calling a third, game- and series-ending strike on the first baseman.

Most of the rest of the civilized world believes that Flores checked his swing. That sentiment was not undercut in the slightest by Morales' feeble post-game explanation of his decision. ("I don’t have the benefit of multiple camera angles when I’m watching it live. When it happened live, I thought he went, so that’s why I called it a swing.")

The call certainly short-circuited any chance that Flores could have kept the rally alive long enough to tie the score, or maybe win the game. No amount of talk about how it was a game for the ages will salve the wounds of Giant fans.

Forget about masks, chest protectors, and leg guards: During a game, an umpire’s best equipment are ear plugs, so he won’t tune out insulting references by managers and fans to his ancestry. After a game, he is well advised to avoid any electronic medium that talks endlessly about the contest and his role in it.

Some years ago, an acquaintance of mine yelled out on behalf of her beloved Mets, “Hey ump, I’m blind, and even I can tell that was a ball!” Her taunt provoked much appreciative laughter and cheers at Shea Stadium back then. I suspect that from now on, more than a few Giant fans would echo her.

(The image accompanying this post, if you haven’t guessed, comes from Bull Durham, with Kevin Costner’s catcher Crash Davis being tossed from the game for arguing a call by an ump.)

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