By no means is this an attempt to pick on Tim Welke. He suffered enough in 1998, when a Sports Illustrated cover featured his photo and an incendiary headline: “Kill the Umps! Missed calls and skewed strike zones are marring the postseason.”
I bring up Welke as Exhibit A in my case against the “human element,” though any number of his peers could be used to make the same point. But Welke is timely because he made one of the worst calls ever this month, and his younger brother Bill made a costly bad call Monday.
Both rulings would’ve been overturned instantly after just one replay if baseball allowed such reviews. But expanding the use of technology makes too much sense for commissioner Bud Selig & Co. to take seriously.
In Boston’s 7-4 victory Monday against Detroit, Bill Welke incorrectly ruled that Tigers catcher Gerald Laird didn’t catch a third strike cleanly before it hit the ground, extending the inning long enough for the Red Sox to score three runs.
At least you can understand how Bill Welke was fooled; Laird’s glove hit the dirt and stirred some dust. But it’s beyond comprehension how Tim Welke blew a call May 2 in Colorado’s 8-5 victory against the Dodgers. Jerry Hairston grounded to third and inexplicably was called out on the throw. Rockies first baseman Todd Helton was three feet from the bag.
Both umpires tossed the managers who argued the rulings. Both umpires later apologized for their bad decisions after seeing the replays. Both umpires likely will blow calls and offer regrets in the future.
That’s only natural. But officials’ errors can and should be eliminated as much as possible within reason.
I’m not talking about judgment calls, such as the hair-trigger technical fouls called against the Boston Celtics in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Or the iffy unsportsmanlike conduct penalties called on tacklers in the NFL.
Or the bang-bang plays on the base paths, when the ball and runner arrive simultaneously.
(I’m not even talking about balls and strikes, though I favor going all-in with science behind the plate. We should use laser technology, customized for each batter, to achieve a consistent, objective, by-the-book strike zone. Keep the umps involved by giving them earpieces and letting them signal the appropriate calls).
I agree with everyone who argues that the human element is an essential part of sports and mistakes are part of the game.
But we can correct most errors made by the individuals who are there to arbitrate. Fans want the outcomes decided by the humans who play and coach, not the beings who make calls and blow whistles.
Depending on the official — his activities the previous night, his phone call from the missus, his room service breakfast or his feelings toward individuals on either team — you never know what to expect. While none of us is on top of our game at all times, an official’s bad day easily can be mitigated through replays.
Failing to remove that unnecessary and unwanted portion of humanity is inhumane to the participants.
Tim Welke missed that point in his letter to the editor after the SI cover. “An essential part of the baseball drama is the human element,” he wrote. “An umpire is part of that. I perceive the play, apply the rules and make the decision, all in real time. Under these circumstances, questionable calls sometimes happen, just like rainouts and brawls.”
Questionable calls are one thing. Calls that are flat-out wrong — unmistakably, undeniably and inarguably — are another matter altogether. That’s why the NFL and the NBA are correct to incorporate replay as much as they do, as MLB remains stuck in its grainy black-and-white.
Selig instituted replay in August 2008 for boundary calls on potential home runs (over the fence and fair/foul), but there’s been no movement to expand the measure for trapped balls, balls down the lines and fan interference. “I’ve had very, very little pressure from people who want to do more,” he told the Associated Press last week.
That simply means he’s listening to the wrong human element.