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To Err is to Umpire

Updated: Jun 4

While listening to a recent Yankees vs. Marlins game through the car radio, the Yankees broadcast team of Suzyn Waldman and John Sterling told me (and their hoard of listeners) in dumbstruck voices that the first base umpire missed the call on a routine play at 1st. The umpire ruled a Marlin player safe, although, upon replay review (the call ultimately reversed), the batter-runner was indeed out, prompting the duo to criticize the umpire verbally and sarcastically. Incidentally, they were NOT broadcasting at the game; instead, they were watching from a monitor, at Yankee Stadium, because of Covid protocols. Their first close look was on their monitor, from the telecast’s replay.

“He was clearly safe,” an astonished Waldman exclaimed. “What could he be looking at? It’s right there in front of him!”

“Yeah,” agreed Sterling, the man with perhaps the highest number of erroneous play-by-play calls in broadcast history, “I can’t imagine what he was thinking! Geez!” Hmm, interesting.

In this case, the pot calling the kettle black is not, shall I say, a reach. Do I need to remind both Sterling and Waldman that to err is human? Like when the enthusiastic duo fails to advise their listeners that a substitute has entered the game until perhaps the ball is hit to that sub. Or when one of them conveys that a pitch was called a ball, when in reality the umpire called it a strike, which prompts the mistaken one to correct themselves or be corrected. No harm, no foul. Or when a batter swings, ticks the ball, which subsequently glances off the catcher’s glove, falling harmlessly to the ground; it’s announced as a “foul tip.” NO, IT’S A FOUL BALL. That common erroneous call, by the way, is an everyday blunder throughout both leagues’ broadcast booths. Or, closer to Ma and Pa’s hearts, one of their dear Yankees makes an error. In those cases, they simply advise their listeners that the player made an error and move on—they somehow forget to add the stupefied color commentary: “What? How could he have not caught a simple pop-up? A Little Leaguer makes that play with one hand. What the heck was he thinking?”

The truth is that anyone, even Ma and Pa Pinstripes, makes mistakes. And I do like listening to their entertaining transmission very much; they’re the ultimate Yankee fans. So, why is it that the umpire has to be perfect on day one and then improve? It’s illogical to expect that the umpires will be flawless, even on plays that are open and shut cases. How many times have you heard a broadcaster offer their audience the wrong count? Or the incorrect score? Based on Waldman’s principle, ‘it’s right in front of him,’ broadcast teams should be held to the same standard, if not higher. After all, they don’t have to repeat the count or the score in a blurry instant, under intense scrutiny, and they too have the information right in front of them—a huge scoreboard! The simple and logical explanation is that, like you, Sterling and Waldman, and every moderator, we have lapses in concentration or lose momentary focus.

I’m going to go out on a long limb and say that broadcasters, for the most part, have no idea what it’s like to be on the field of play, under fire, dissecting a level of play that is faster than, well… faster than Jackie Robinson! In fact, almost everyone on the field, in the dugout, or sitting in the broadcast booth cannot be certain of any close call without slow-motion replay. Only since 2008 have the major leagues utilized replay, and back then only on a limited basis; outfield delineation-type home runs and fair or foul home runs. Now, thankfully, almost all rulings, excluding balls and strikes, are reviewable and reversible.

We all make mistakes, even gaffes. Imagine yourself at your job. Now continue to imagine if your lapses in judgment are being televised. Now envision that you are ridiculed, even belittled for your momentary oversights. Should the entire workforce boo and curse you out, like some fans do? Or should the boss televise the entire day, utilizing multiple cameras, then announce and replay said miscue to the entire corporation upon your error? Would that be OK with you? Would your wife, kids, and family be impressed with that level of scrutiny? One might say, well, that’s the umpire’s job—take it or leave it. No, that’s not the job. The job is to arbitrate a professional baseball game. Not included in the job description is to inhale ridicule and beratement.

So, what appears to be “human nature” at sporting events is not quite human nature; humans’ fundamental dispositions and characteristics. Full disclosure? I, too, grumble under my breath when a pitch is called incorrectly against the Yankees, my childhood (and adulthood) heroes. Hey, I’m a fan, too. And, as is human nature, I may want to, borrowing the legendary phrase, “Kill The Umpire.” But I don’t transmit my feelings to tens of thousands, if not millions! It seems almost, dare I say, malicious. Certainly disrespectful, no?

It is human nature to think, to eat, to be kind. Is it really human nature to be outwardly and sarcastically critical and publicly offer disparaging opinions? To ostracize? Empathetic, sympathetic, competitive, imaginative, creative, etc., those characteristics are what I call human nature. Sadly, spectator behavior, the raucous and belittling demeanor is common in nature, not, however, human nature.

Think about it. Am I wrong?


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