- Joe McDonald, Reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It's become an annual rite of spring training for representatives of Major League Baseball to meet with each team to discuss the state of the relationship between the players and umpires.
The Boston Red Sox welcomed MLB senior vice president of baseball operations Joe Garagiola Jr. and longtime umpire Larry Young on Tuesday morning. Every player is required to attend the session, and according to manger Terry Francona, the meeting went well and was productive.
"The reason these guys show up is to part talk and part listen," Francona said. "I think they're good listeners. The idea, basically, is to have the game won or lost, and let the people who pay, watch the players. They recognized that too, and I think they made some good points. It's also to get the players to understand what the umpires are thinking."
Both sides realize the lines of communication need to be open and the meeting gives players a chance to voice their concerns. The meeting also serves to let players know what the umpires and the supervisors expect.
But that doesn't mean there won't be arguments and disagreements between players and umpires during the course of the season.
"There are going to be disagreements. That's how the game goes," Francona said. "I thought it was a good meeting and I was appreciative of it."
This is the perfect time for the sides to meet because as the regular season gets under way, emotions start running high and there's no time for honest discussions.
The main topic of discussion Tuesday was the pace of game. The league is trying to make players understand its concern without disrupting the rhythm of the game. Francona said the league's case was presented well.
"Overall, I think we're just trying to get along more," infielder Kevin Youkilis said. "Both players and umpires need to realize there's a lot of emotion all the time. Emotions aren't always a bad thing, it can be a good thing, but players need to understand that they can't act a certain way, and umpires need to know players act a certain way for a reason. It's like a Republican and a Democrat; both have to come together and have more of an understanding."
The 2010 season has been referred to as the "Year of the Pitcher" because many offensive categories were down and pitching stats improved. But hitters are not buying that title. Numerous players called the strike zone "sloppy" last season and voiced frustration with what they called inconsistencies behind the plate.
According to Elias Sports Bureau, there were 8,433 called strikeouts in 4,860 games. There were 3.2 walks and 7.1 strikeouts per team per game in 2010.
There had never been a season that averaged more than 6.91 (2009) and strikeouts have gone up each of the past five seasons.
Because of fines levied by MLB, players usually voice their concerns with the strike zone privately.
"They are literally ruining the game," said one American League player, who spoke on the condition of anonymity late last season.
Numerous players complained about the number of poorly called games last season.
Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon spoke his mind in late September after he suffered his eighth blown save of the season in a 4-3 loss to the New York Yankees. That loss eliminated Boston from postseason contention.
"Just call the game. There are 27 outs, call the game," Papelbon said after that game. "Don't let the crowd influence you, don't let the hitter influence you, don't call the pitch where the catcher catches it. Stay focused for 27 outs. Call the game.
"I'm not blaming the umpire. I could have definitely battled a little bit more out of that situation. I'm not one to complain about pitches, no. I'm not one to do that at all, but when you're pitching against the umpire and that lineup, nobody can win that situation. It's impossible."
Red Sox right fielder J.D. Drew is known as a patient hitter with a keen sense of the strike zone. In 2010, he drew only 60 walks (his lowest total in four seasons with Boston) and struck out 105 times in 546 plate appearances. Time and again last season it was clear the mild-mannered Drew was getting frustrated with the umpires.
"Umpires last year knew when I didn't like a call," Drew said Tuesday. "This is a new year, so we'll see how it works out."
Drew's concerns primarily weren't on calls made when the pitch was up or down in the zone, but whether it was over or off the plate. He felt he was adjusting too much and was swinging at pitches out of the zone he would normally stay off. But he did not want to dwell on last season.
"What's in the past is in the past," he said. "We've got to move on with it and hopefully I can adjust to what I do best and some of the strike zone issues will correct themselves.
"I'm not a very vocal guy along those lines, and as players we watch a lot of video. With technology the way it is, you try to focus on a certain zone that's been there your whole career and hopefully it stays that way. I didn't necessarily agree with a lot of the calls that were made against me last year, but that was last year and we need to regroup and refocus this year."
While the players do study a ton of video, MLB does the same for the umpires. There is a grading system for umpires, but the results are not made public.
"They have a grading system and that's great," Red Sox pitcher Josh Beckett said late last season. "The way I understand the grading system it's a correct call, an acceptable call or a unacceptable call. I think the gray area [of the strike zone] is either too big or too small, because I think what's happening is [umpires] almost lock up on the gray pitches because they're not sure if it is OK or it's not OK."
Because of that mentality, Beckett believes you end up with two different strike zones.
"It's a tough job. There are a lot of eyes and there's a lot of computer-generated stuff on TV. There are a lot of things. I don't know what they could do to tighten it up. I feel like the gray area is where we're missing."
Years ago, the catcher had to receive the ball in the zone in order for it to be called a strike. Today, as long as the pitch is thrown through any portion of the zone, it's generally called a strike.
Another aspect players have questioned in the past is the positioning of the home-plate umpire, who is taught to set up in the "slot," which is the area between the batter and the inside shoulder of the catcher.
Players believe the reason the umpires are not directly behind the plate is to avoid injury. Some players have even suggested home-plate umpires return to using the handheld chest protector from the old days in order to stand directly behind the plate. The protective equipment umpires wear nowadays is like a bulletproof vest.
The biggest concern has been the lack of communication between the sides. When players and managers voice their concerns during the season, all they're told is the current grading system shows umpires as a whole have a 95 percent accuracy.
Francona explained that there used to be more give-and-take on the field between players and umpires. If there were an issue, it would be settled in a discussion between innings. Plus, umpires today work both leagues and there's less opportunity for relationships, and that trust factor, to develop.
"To me, umpires have the toughest job now calling balls and strikes. It can't be fun for those guys because there is so much scrutiny," Beckett said last September. "When I first got to the big leagues, there were a lot of missed calls, but it wasn't as scrutinized because there weren't these pitch zones and all the technology stuff. It's difficult for those guys. I wouldn't trade positions with them. There's no way. I wouldn't."
Both sides were civil during the meeting Tuesday morning, but once the season begins, it'll probably be back to normal.
Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox and Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.
The Red Sox are putting aside last season's differences with the umpires.