Boy did Major League Baseball miss the boat by punishing Joe West.
Those are words I never thought I’d write. West had been a solid MLB umpire for more than 40 years (he umpired his 5,000th game in June, which puts him third on the all-time list). But no one has ever pretended West was a great umpire — good, maybe, but not great — and he can be extremely overbearing and, at times, obnoxious.
But West has almost always made himself available to the media — many umpires simply say no when asked to comment on a call — and has a sense of humor that most players appreciate.
If anyone should understand that, it’s MLB vice president Joe Torre, who is now in charge of baseball’s umpires. As a player and a manager, Torre had plenty of good-humored exchanged with umpires. Torre’s also had his share of run-ins with umpires through the years. He’s no Bobby Cox, who got himself ejected 161 times, but with 66, he’s ninth on the all-time list.
One thing to understand is that the managers on that list have to be very good because you have to manage for a long time to get thrown out a lot. Seven of the top nine on the ejections list are in the Hall of Fame. Enough said.
So why in the world did Torre and MLB decide to embarrass West by suspending him for three games for a couple of — if truth be told — funny comments he made in an interview about Adrian Beltre?
West sat down with USA Today in June on the occasion of his 5,000th game. One of the questions he was asked was about who was the biggest complainer he dealt with. His answer was Beltre. He then told a story about calling a pitch right down the middle a strike.
According to West, Beltre said, “That was outside.”
To which West replied, “You know you may be a great player, but you’re the worst umpire in baseball. You stink.”
Memo to Torre and MLB: That’s funny. Torre is a man blessed with a great sense of humor so you have to wonder why he misplaced it in this case.
MLB’s official explanation for the suspension is that West’s comments gave “an appearance of lack of impartiality.”
If anything, it’s pretty clear from the comment that West LIKES Beltre or he wouldn’t have given him a hard time that way and he certainly wouldn’t have repeated the line to a reporter if he thought someone — especially his bosses — were going to think it was going to be perceived as lacking impartiality. BELTRE, it should be noted, said he didn’t see any reason for West to be disciplined.
This sort of give and take between officials and players or coaches and managers has been part of sports forever. One of the more famous stories along those lines was a give-and-take between the late Jim Valvano and Hall-of-Fame referee Hank Nichols.
As Nichols was running downcourt one night he heard Valvano calling his name from the North Carolina State bench.
“What is it, Jimmy?” Nichols asked when the ball was dead.
“Hank, can you tee me up for what I’m thinking?” Valvano said, using the hoops term for a technical foul.
“No, Jim, I can’t tee you up for what you’re thinking,” Nichols said.
“Good,” Valvano said. “In that case, I think you suck.”
“It was such a good line,” Nichols said years later, “I couldn’t tee him up.”
When Gary Williams was at Maryland, he used a similar line on another very good official, Duke Edsall. With his Maryland team, the 8th seed in the ACC Tournament in 2005, trailing Clemson, the 9th seed, in the opening round, Williams waved Edsall over.
“Hey Duke, you wanna know why we’re playing in this game?” Williams said. “Because we suck. You wanna know why you’re working it? Because you suck, too.”
Edsall’s reaction to Williams’ line was only a little different than Nichols’ reaction to Valvano. He not only didn’t tee him up, he came over to the media table during the next TV time out and said to me, “You gotta hear what Gary just said to me.”
Having a sense of humor is good for both sides, especially when there is bound to be a natural tension between athletes/coaches and officials.
Home plate umpires and catchers almost always keep up a running commentary with one another and will say almost anything — as long as the catcher doesn’t turn around. Umpires consider that over-the-line because the crowd will see it and they feel as if they’re being “shown up.” Often as not, when a catcher turns around, he’ll end up getting tossed.
The best umpires — and officials — will always admit a mistake. Like the players, they make them. Nichols had a saying when he knew he’d blown a call: “I owe you one, but I’ll never pay it back.” In other words: yes, I missed it, but don’t expect me to compound the mistake with a make-up call.
Two stories sum up the difference between a good umpire and a bad one. Ten years ago, during a game in Washington, Tony Randazzo badly missed a call at first base on what should have been an inning-ending double play in a 0-0 game between the Nationals and New York Mets.
Tom Glavine, about as mild-mannered a player as there was in baseball, bolted at Randazzo when he made the safe call, partly in shock, partly because he couldn’t believe he wasn’t out of the inning. Seeing his pitcher heading for Randazzo, Mets manager Willie Randolph raced out of the dugout to get in-between umpire and player.
“Tony, just tell me you missed it and that’ll be the end of it,” Randolph said. “It happens. Just say you missed it and I’ll go back in the dugout and Tom will go back to the mound.”
Randazzo responded by ejecting Randolph.
The next morning when a reporter (me) knocked on the door to the umpire’s room, the crew-chief — I think it was Larry Vanover — came to the door. I explained I was working on a book that Glavine was involved with; that I had talked to both Tom and Willie about the incident and wanted to hear Tony’s version of events.
“Wait here,” Vanover said.
A minute later he came back. “Tony’s not talking about it,” he said.
Okay, fine. I tried. A smart umpire would have explained what happened and probably would have said, “I missed it. I’m truly sorry.”
Three years later, a journeyman pitcher for the Tigers named Armando Galarraga was one out from becoming part of history by pitching a perfect game. On a Jason Donald ground ball wide of first, Miguel Cabrera flipped the ball to Galarraga, who got there in time for the 27th out. Except that Jim Joyce — one of THE best umpires in the game — missed the call.
When Joyce saw the replay in the umpires’ room after the game, he was horrified. He went and met with the media and tearfully admitted, “I cost that kid a perfect game.”
He then went to the Tigers clubhouse and apologized in person to Galarraga. A day later when the umpires came on the field, the Detroit fans, having seen the video of Joyce and knowing of his trip to the clubhouse, gave all four umpires a standing ovation.
How different would the reaction have been if Joyce had handled the situation the way Randazzo did?
Which brings me back to the original point. It is always better for officials and players to jaw quietly with one another. It is also better for officials to be accessible to the media and the public so their side of events is heard — especially when they get something wrong.
Joe West made himself accessible and was honest when asked a question. He also showed he had a sense of humor.
And what did he get for it? A three-game suspension. As the guy says in the Kenny Rodgers chicken episode of Seinfeld: “That’s not going to be good for anyone.”
John Feinstein’s most recent book, ‘The Legends Club,’ spent eight months on The New York Times bestseller lists—hardcover and paperback. His new non-fiction book, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,”—will be published in October. His 11th kids mystery, “Backfield Boys—A Football Mystery in Black and White,” will be published later this month. Both can be ordered online now.