Four umpires are better than six

Originally Published: October 13, 2009
By Tim Keown | Page 2

The biggest and most unnecessary affectation in sports is baseball's insistence on a six-man umpiring crew for the postseason. I'm trying to think of an instance in the past 30 years when someone said, "That was a great call. Good thing they had umpires standing in the outfield or they would have missed that one." I'm still thinking … nope. None.

[+] EnlargeMelky Cabrera and Phil Cuzzi
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesA moment Phil Cuzzi would like to forget.

But I can think of one call (other than the Jeffrey Maier/Derek Jeter/Tony Tarasco fiasco) that was botched that would have been made correctly if there were only four umpires: the ball Joe Mauer hit in Game 2 of the divisional series against the Yankees. Phil Cuzzi, the unnecessary left-field ump, made the wrong call when he determined that Mauer's fly ball toward the corner landed in foul territory. It was one of those calls that was so wrong, you didn't even need to see a replay. Live, with a camera angle that did it no justice, was plenty to see immediately how wrong it was.

So how can I be sure it would have been made correctly by the third-base umpire? There's no guarantee, of course -- but I can say it would have been made correctly, because I've never seen a foul-line call that bad before in years and years of watching way too much baseball. It's a matter of sheer probability -- the third-base umpire would have taken four steps out and made the right call.

Maybe Cuzzi was too close. Maybe being positioned in the outfield for two or three games a year creates an unfamiliar situation -- by definition they're out of position. Maybe it's the weird angles, the inevitable mind-drift that happens when you don't expect to have anything to do. Whatever -- it's unnecessary, and aside from the extra pay, it's unfair to the umpire.

Mike Singletary and Dre' Bly proved there is a reason to believe in humanity. Just when it seemed darkest, just when it seemed Bly would be this week's guest of honor at the Hell in a Hand Basket luncheon, it all turned around.

Bly intercepted a pass Sunday with the 49ers trailing the Falcons 35-10. He started running, and when he got roughly 75 yards from his end zone he started celebrating. His chosen form of celebration, had it been taken to its logical conclusion, would have looked a lot like Deion Sanders'. He put his hand to his helmet ever so briefly and appeared ready to high-step -- again, 75 yards away -- when Falcons receiver Roddy White slapped the ball out of his hands and the Falcons recovered it.

Which was bad enough.

But then, afterward, Bly defended himself on the basis of … having fun, apparently. He's a guy who likes to have fun and make big plays (who among us doesn't?) and he completed it by saying, "Dre's going to be Dre'."

Now, Singletary is all for a man's being the man he is, but he had a little trouble with the context. We're not sure how he feels about the whole third-person thing, but we can venture a pretty good guess on that one, too. Anyway, this became a reason to believe in humanity when Singletary took the podium for his weekly press conference and immediately handed it over to Bly.

Suddenly, Dre' being Dre' took on a completely different meaning. Dre' said, "I [note first person] want to come to y'all and publicly apologize for yesterday." He said he should have been smarter, that he's a team guy, that it was totally inappropriate, and that he went to Singletary to apologize before Singletary could show him what "Mike's going to be Mike" is all about.

Singletary was asked if Bly was going to apologize to the team. "Dre's going to apologize to everybody in the building, practically."

Asked if he wanted his players to be able to express themselves and have fun, Singletary said, "That's not fun. That's not fun at 35-10."

The Raiders' weekly press conference is getting to be kind of sad. It has lost some of its previous entertainment value, mainly because, despite everything, it's hard not to feel sorry for Tom Cable. I know, I know -- Randy Hanson's jaw and all that.

[+] EnlargeTom Cable and JaMarcus Russell
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesYou've got to feel sorry for Tom Cable -- JaMarcus Russell is his QB.

Still. Look at the man as he tries to tell everyone he still believes in his team and his quarterback, and tell me there's not at least a minor tinge of pity inside you.

And that's why there's always Romo. The great Bill Romanowski gets more entertaining the worse the Raiders get. His weekly gig on the local Comcast station, where he dissects Sunday's game before Cable takes the podium for a while and throws it back to Romo, is inspired. Do what you have to do and pay what you have to pay -- get this channel.

Monday afternoon, Romo practically screamed that he wants somebody to hit somebody, and at one point he said he wants to be in the locker room before next Sunday's game to give the boys a good talking-to.

And then, maybe fearing it was heading out of control, they cut away from Romo to show a Twitter posting from Raiders linebacker Thomas Howard, who tweeted something profound about a man's character being judged when he is down rather than up.

To which Romo -- this is the God's honest truth -- looked into the camera and said, "I like that tweet a lot. I resonate with that tweet."

Jeff Fisher is one of the best coaches in the NFL, regardless of what his team's record is right now. (It's 0-5, which doesn't matter to me, but probably matters quite a lot to him.) But Fisher has won too many games and is liked by too many players to be deemed suddenly incompetent. Still, I don't understand why he keeps Kerry Collins in at quarterback in the second half of a lost cause. I can understand keeping a young quarterback in for the second half of a blowout -- JaMarcus Russell, even -- because you've got to play for the future, especially when the present is so dreadfully bad. But Collins is about done, and Jeff Fisher has to make a concession at some point -- the season is lost no matter who is your quarterback, but it might not be totally lost if it can be used to resurrect Vince Young.

I really wouldn't have a problem with the TBS PitchTrax thing being on the screen for nearly every single pitch of every single game if the dots representing each pitch bore some resemblance to where the ball actually goes. If umpires called strikes and balls based on what PitchTrax tells us, there would be a minimum of four walks per inning. No manager would last past the third inning. They'd throw Bobby Cox out of the game during batting practice, just to get it out of the way.

A pitch that shaves the outside corner to a left-handed hitter, according to PitchTrax, bounces into the third-base dugout. But the biggest hole in PitchTrax's game is the low pitch. More to the point, PitchTrax believes there is no such thing as a low pitch. Jorge Posada dug a ball out of the dirt the other day and PitchTrax called it a strike.

[+] EnlargeAlex Rodriguez and Nick Punto
AP Photo/Kathy WillensRunning the bases -- apparently harder than we think?

(The only thing less reliable than PitchTrax this postseason has been the baserunning. The Twins ran themselves out of two of the three games against the Yankees, and Troy Tulowitzki ended the sixth inning on Monday by getting doubled off second on a ball caught by Pedro Feliz at third base. The Twins' mistakes were inexcusable -- Carlos Gomez taking too big a turn around second and failing to get into a rundown to allow Delmon Young time to score in Game 2; Nick Punto running through a stop sign to get back-picked on an infield single in Game 3. And there was no reason for Tulowitzki to be doing anything but going back to second base on that ball, even if it had been hit on the ground.)

We don't really need PitchTrax, you know? There are too many graphics to begin with, and too many stats for the sake of stats -- I swear I thought they were going to stop the game to enshrine Carlos Gonzalez in the Hall of Fame the second he tied Dante Bichette for the all-time Rockies hit record in a divisional series. The idea of all this peripheral stuff is to provide something extra for the allegedly casual fan who is watching the postseason after sleeping through the first 162 games.

But really, how many people who are watching games in the middle of the afternoon need a computer-generated strike zone to keep them interested in the game?

This week's most vital sports accessory is the Go Plate, a plate with a hole that lets you stick your beer through it, enabling you to eat and drink simultaneously. For those of you who always wanted to throw the Frisbee but were too damned lazy to put down either your plate or your drink, the Go Plate is for you.

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 Sound off to Tim here.

Tim Keown | email

ESPN Senior Writer