- The Washington Times - Friday, September 28, 2007

The notion that officials and umpires should be seen and barely heard was ignored again when first-base ump Mike Winters baited and spouted obscenities at a player during a game Sunday, drawing a suspension from Major League Baseball for the rest of the season and the postseason.

Winters, who worked the 2006 World Series, got into a spat with temperamental outfielder Milton Bradley, who freaked out and had to be restrained by his manager and a coach. In the midst of that, Bradley, the San Diego Padres’ best hitter during the last few months, suffered a torn knee ligament. He, too, is through for the year.

While discussing the incident, Bradley brought up the altercation last spring between NBA official Joey Crawford and San Antonio Spurs star Tim Duncan as another example of an official going too far. Universally described as “easy-going,” and “level-headed,” Duncan was ejected by Crawford during the third quarter of an important game against Dallas (which the Spurs went on to lose), presumably for laughing at officials’ calls.

Duncan and others said Crawford challenged him to a fight, and Duncan said the referee had a “vendetta” against him. Crawford, who has worked more playoff games than any other active ref, was suspended indefinitely and just recently reinstated. But one official who won’t be working anytime soon is Tim Donaghy, who in August pleaded guilty to betting on games and faces a stiff prison sentence.

What’s going on? Have the arbiters of games gone wild?

Or are these merely isolated examples of unseemly behavior?

Padres first base coach Bobby Meacham, who reportedly told MLB officials exactly what Winters said, believes the latter. He said Winters simply “made a mistake” and his actions do not reflect the conduct of other umpires.

But it might not matter. If perception is reality, the integrity of those who maintain order and discipline in sports is at least being questioned by more than a few.

As baseball approaches its best time of year, the playoffs, the last thing desired by anyone connected with the game, other than major news about performance-enhancing substances, is the sense that some umpires are acting too big for their chest protectors.

“I’m hearing that concern from players,” said Baltimore Orioles broadcaster Buck Martinez, a former big league catcher and manager. “It seems as though there are more confrontational arguments between an umpire and a ballplayer. The challenge is to find out who’s the aggressor.”

Martinez and others credit (or blame) the constant presence of television cameras and other forms of invasive technology and the incessant stream of taped highlights for aiding the second-guessers, which include players, and applying pressure on umpires.

“You see everything,” he said.

It is easy for Martinez to discuss the issue; umpires don’t affect his livelihood. But it’s a touchy subject for players, most of whom show discretion.

“It happens, but it’s just a couple of guys who do it,” Washington Nationals catcher Brian Schneider said. “Not every umpire is like that. It’s just like everyday life. Some guys have shorter tempers. Some umpires, you can give them a little heat and they’ll give it right back to you. Part of being a player is to know which umpire it is. You just can’t do it to some guys.”

Other players sounded like they were reading from the same script.

“I’ve never had a problem or an encounter [with an umpire],” Orioles outfielder Corey Patterson said.

“I’m the kind of person that doesn’t have problems with umpires,” Baltimore shortstop Miguel Tejada said.

“I’ve never been thrown out of a game, so I’m probably the wrong guy to ask,” Orioles first baseman Kevin Millar said. “I don’t have a problem with them.”

Toronto designated hitter Frank Thomas, who is nearing the end of what likely is a Hall of Fame career and thus probably has little to fear, said: “It’s a high-energy game. Tempers flare. I mean, it happens. It’s part of competitive sports, not just baseball. … Ten years ago, I think it was worse.”

He might be right. Purported baiting and overaggressiveness by umpires has been an issue since at least the late 1980s. Donald Fehr, head of the players union, told the New York Times in 1990, “Players believe umpires have been arrogant and self-serving and have become emotionally involved in the game itself.”

The last umpires to be suspended before Winters were Bruce Froemming and John Hirschbeck in 2003 for making off-the-field comments about non-players (coincidentally, Froemming, who is retiring after 37 years, was Winters’ crew chief).

Hirschbeck also was involved in two examples of umpires purportedly crossing the line on the field in 1996 and 1997. The first was when baseball suspended Orioles second baseman Roberto Alomar for five games for spitting in Hirschbeck’s face. Alomar steadfastly claimed he was provoked by Hirschbeck calling him a vulgar name offensive to Puerto Ricans.

The next year, then-New York Yankees pitcher Hideki Irabu committed two balks in a game. Irabu then began kicking the mound in disgust at the umpires, prompting Hirschbeck to scream at Irabu. According to one Yankees player, Hirschbeck affixed the word “Japanese” to a common vulgarism. No one else, however, heard that, and Hirschbeck, as he did with Alomar, vehemently denied the claim.

Unlike Winters, Hirschbeck was not suspended in either case. But umpires were irking many with their attitudes. One unnamed player, speaking of ump Joe West to a reporter in 1998, said, “He’ll yell and smirk at you. He seems to want to antagonize you, which is weird because he’s a nice guy off the field.” And a pitcher was quoted as saying of West, “He could be one of the best if he didn’t have such a chip on his shoulder.”

In his 1998 book, “Red: A Baseball Life,” St. Louis Cardinals icon Red Schoendienst wrote: “Umpires today seem too confrontational to me and too willing to get in a player or manager’s face and go toe-to-toe with them.”

Former California Angels and Boston Red Sox general manager Mike Port said he “admittedly thought the same thing myself” about umpires. “You see one incident and you have the biased tendency to paint 70 people with the same brush.”

But Port said his views have changed and not just because he now holds the title of vice president of umpiring for MLB.

“Now you see things in isolation and you see things happen, and more often than not you realize the reasons why they happen,” he said.

Port said he has heard “probably for decades” the complaints about bellicose, combative umpires.

“But for those who are interested in empirical and objective information, the numbers don’t really bear that out,” he said.

According to Port, ejections of big league players and managers in 2007 were headed for a seven-year low as of Sept. 1, before pennant race-fueled outbursts of temper caused a spike in the numbers.

“The sudden spurt almost seems to correlate to the number of teams in contention,” he said.

Orioles manager Dave Trembley, who was ejected during a game earlier this month, then subsequently fined and suspended for three games, was not entirely comfortable with the question about the attitude of umpires.

“Well, you know this is my first year in the big leagues,” he said. “But they’ve got a real tough job. … They don’t like to admit when they’re wrong, because they feel like people are gonna jump ‘em and take advantage of ‘em.”

Trembley, who has spent most of his career in the minors, added, “In the big leagues, I’m kind of amazed with how the umpires’ demeanor is. … They’ll give it right back. It used to be an umpire would just turn around and walk away. I’ve said this before, the first rule of inappropriate behavior is to ignore it and hope it goes away. A lot of them don’t do that. They stand their ground. More power to them.”

Said Port: “We have the umpires, to the greatest extent, try to keep the players in the game. Admittedly, there are times when something’s heated, the umpire, all of us being competitive by nature, want to get back at somebody. … But people have asked me, are the players the game or are the umpires the game? The players are the game.”

Staff writer Mark Zuckerman contributed to this article.

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