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HWEN Case Study: Baseball Umpires

The 2021 Major League Baseball season is now underway. Which leads us to talk about one of the most verbally-abused occupations out there: the baseball umpire.

Officials in sports often have a bad reputation, usually over making bad calls (or non-calls). And while officials in football, basketball, hockey, soccer, and even tennis (hello, Serena Williams) have taken their fair share of abuse from players and coaches alike, no sports official has it as bad as the baseball umpire.

Of course, baseball umpires have a hard job, none more so than the umpire behind home plate, tasked with calling pitches as balls and strikes. Umpires see hundreds of pitches come at them per game, only a fraction of which are swung at by batters. Those not swung at are called a ball or strike based on where the ball crosses the plate (and more specifically, whether the pitch is hittable). With dozens and dozens of ball-strike calls to make in a given game, it is inevitable that a small percentage of them will be called incorrectly, especially when pitches hit the outer edges of the strike zone (the "corners"). As pitchers learn better control than ever, more pitchers deliberately try to hit these "corners" in the hopes that the batter will either swing and miss or otherwise take a pitch that is called a strike. More borderline pitches means more borderline calls and thus a higher probability of umpire error. Yet despite this, umpires at the major league level have a generally high accuracy.

Umpires also have responsibility to make calls such as safe/out and fair/foul. Most of these calls are relatively easy, but there will be very close cases (especially at first base and home plate, or in the case of fair/foul calls, a ball landing on the edge of the foul line) and umpires have only a split second to react and make the call. Again, most of these calls are correct, but a few will slip by.

There's an old adage that people are more remembered for the few mistakes they make than they are for their predominant successes, which is a hallmark of toxic work cultures. Baseball is no different. An umpire can call 99% of pitches correctly, yet can take abuse for one pitch that may or may not have been correct. This abuse can come from everywhere, from players, coaches, and managers, to fans (both at the stadium and on social media), and perhaps worst of all, broadcasters.

If you're a baseball fan, you've seen plenty of managers come out of the dugout and begin yelling at the umpire for making a potentially bad call. The advent of instant replay in baseball (a sport that long resisted it even though other sports had implemented some form of official replay review) has reduced these types of arguments, but ball/strike calls have been exempt from this (simply due to the volume of such calls in a game). It is also due to this volume that baseball has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to arguing balls and strikes, with offenders immediately ejected from the game. Yet the offenders are rarely met with further repercussions beyond that. An ejected player or manager will stay out on the field and continue to verbally abuse the umpire for minutes and yet leave the game with no further penalty. In any other workplace, an individual would be fired immediately for engaging in the type of behavior we see on the baseball field. And yet players, coaches, and managers continue to get off the hook, beyond ejections (and fines and suspensions for more egregious actions).

Now, I am not in favor of firing people after the first offense. My earlier posts about zero-tolerance culture confirm this. Yet, the number of times you see managers like Earl Weaver, Billy Martin, Lou Piniella, Bobby Cox, Ron Gardenhire, Rick Renteria, Ozzie Guillen, and even Don Mattingly constantly abuse umpires over and over again without any long-term repercussions can be frustrating. As often as Billy Martin was fired by the Yankees, he was never fired for abusing an umpire.

And worse off, broadcasters who constantly berate umpires after either a close call is made or a player or coach is ejected NEVER get held accountable. The worst they have gotten is a stern talking-to by the baseball commissioner. That was Ken Harrelson, of the White Sox, abusing Mark Wegner over a questionable ejection. Yet later that same season he turned his vitriol over to Lance Barrett over a few questionable ball/strike calls and resulting ejections (in the third-inning, no less). No response from MLB or the White Sox.

I will say this: it takes a strong individual (physically AND mentally) to be an umpire in professional baseball (and an official in other sports, too). To endure the kind of verbal and written abuse from players, coaches, fans, and broadcasters and still be able to do your job effectively is very commendable. Especially for Angel Hernandez, one of the most abused umpires out there, who at the beginning of spring training got incredible backlash over a ball call - that turned out to be correct!!!

I end this on a personal note: I spent 16 years as an umpire working primarily youth baseball and softball games. Although I have not formally "retired" from the game, I took a break in 2019 as my love for the game had become superseded by anxiety over having to deal with an increasing amount of verbal abuse from managers, coaches, and even players over bad calls. It's no secret that youth sports have become worse in this regard, so it should be no surprise that it would eventually get to me. I considered a return last year (since I was newly unemployed and could have used the extra cash), but then COVID hit. Now in 2021, with me close to being fully vaccinates and with my some of anxiety issues under control, I debate as to whether I would be able to become effective as an umpire again, and more importantly, whether I even want to put myself through this anxiety-inducing profession any longer. So I may or may not return to umpiring this year (or down the road). I will say this: one day, I'd like to become a Little League manager, and teach my coaches and players to show the umpires the kind of respect I rarely got. One day...

Be Healthy!

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