Commentary

Joe West right and wrong

Umpires could do something about baseball games' pace, but should they?

Updated: April 14, 2010, 3:01 AM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

Now that a few days have passed, we can say a couple of things about umpire Joe West and his remarks about the length of games as played by the Red Sox and Yankees: 1) he was right; and, 2) when he's right, he's very, very wrong.

And then we can move on from West's comments to address the bigger issue. Namely, is there a bigger issue?

This much is true: There's no question the Red Sox and Yankees take too long to play their games. They step out of the box, take pitches, call time, take another pitch and step out one more time. And then there's Jonathan Papelbon, who might as well toss a lunch into his back pocket to make sure he doesn't go all hypoglycemic before he gets three outs.

[+] EnlargeNick Swisher
Getty ImagesUmpires have the power to deny timeouts requested by players such as Nick Swisher. Actions speak louder than words.

But this much is also true: It's not Joe West's job to complain about it; it's Joe West's job to do something about it. As the ultimate arbiter -- crew chief at that -- it's the least he can do if he really thinks all the dallying is such a problem (home plate ump Angel Hernandez did deny multiple timeouts). Popping off about it -- and popping off in a manner that threatens to forever damage his credibility -- is about the last thing the umpiring fraternity needs.

That's the sticky part: being compromised professionally. After spewing such venom about the two teams ("pathetic," "embarrassing" -- really?), how can West suit up to umpire either of those team's games again? And how can Major League Baseball not fine the man? There's no chance he can retain any shred of impartiality when they're playing. Unless, of course, they're both playing, in which case it's all good because he clearly hates the lot of them. Whether you believe that places him among the vast majority of American citizens is simply a matter of geography, I suppose.

I covered baseball on a daily basis for nearly four years in the early '90s, and I've watched an unhealthy amount of baseball every year since. From the beginning, I've thought West was one of the worst umpires in baseball. His strike zone is the unholy combination of small and unpredictable, and his attitude is big and unpredictable.

When it comes to issuing an assessment of the speed of play vis-a-vis Red Sox-Yankees, I don't know who the right guy is, but I have an opinion as to who the right guy isn't: Joe West.

(However, I will say this: The next time you go to a game, watch the umpires. They're the only guys who never get to sit. They stand out there the entire game, regardless of how long it takes. That's something you don't see on television, and it's something to consider when you marvel at the vehemence of West's remarks. He'd been standing out there for more than four hours and someone asked him a question when he was compromised. That's no excuse for words like "pathetic," but he's a cranky guy in the best of times. In the worst? There's no telling.)

But on the topic of the bigger issue, we can all thank West for his assistance in bringing one question to the forefront.

Namely: Who cares?

Do you? Is time of game a consideration when you're attending/watching/listening to a game?

Here's a test. What have you done more often: 1) yelled "End this now!" from your field-level seat/couch seat/driver's seat; or, 2) openly wished for extra innings from any of those same locations?

My guess?

No. 2.

Over the course of more than 20 years in this business, I've heard baseball fans complain about the length of a game only when they've paid good money for tickets and some Greg Maddux wannabe -- or the actual Greg Maddux -- had the gall to pitch well enough to end it in under 2:30. Seriously, if this is a serious issue among fans, I'm completely out of the loop.

[+] EnlargeComerica Park Scoreboard
Andrew Weber/US PresswireDoes anybody complain about how slow the hands of the clock on the scoreboard move when they're at a ballpark?

(However, I will say this: the Red Sox and Yankees, as befitting their status as America's Only Two Teams, are on national television as often as Anderson Cooper and Roni Deutch combined. And being on national television, including the national television that sponsors this website, means more commercials [thank you, by the way] and therefore more time spent with nothing happening. An extra commercial every half inning makes a 3:15 game nearly inevitable. It's not like this is a new phenomenon: Remember how much faster NFL games used to go before the extra point/commercial/kickoff/commercial tango? Sometimes, Mr. West, it's a simple matter of mathematics.)

Decrying the problem of game length used to be the sole domain of sportswriters; namely, sportswriters on deadline. Now, however, West is welcomed into the club, and he didn't even have the decency to be creative with his words.

Beat writers -- including me, way back when -- complain because there are deadlines to make and mental decompressions to attend to. Umpires have tired feet and sore backs and mental decompressions to attend to. After all, Papelbon and Mariano Rivera aren't the only ones interested in closing time.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," which is available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.

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Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com