Attention: Major League Baseball umpires are human like the rest of us, susceptible to the same flaws and failings found in folks who don’t call balls and strikes for a living.
In case we forgot, Lenny Dykstra is glad to remind us.
“Their blood’s just as red as ours,” the former New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies center fielder said Tuesday on “The Herd with Colin Cowherd” on Fox Sports Radio. “Some of them like women, some of them like men, some of them gamble, some of them do whatever.”
Sports fans — not to mention league commissioners — get nervous when “umpires” and “gambling” are used in the same sentence. No one wants to believe that calls might be swayed by the spread. If the final score is influenced by which team an official took — or which gambler got next to him — that’s worrisome.
Dykstra said he hired private investigators to dig up dirt on umpires and used the info for an advantage in the batter’s box. “It wasn’t a coincidence, do you think, that I led the league in walks the next two years, was it? Fear does a lot to a man.”
So does greed. Dykstra’s overwhelming desires in life led to his steroid use and a prison stint for bankruptcy fraud and grand theft auto charges.
Ethics isn’t his strong suit. Accuracy isn’t high on the list, either, considering he led the league in walks once, 129 in 1993, not twice. In fact, Dykstra didn’t come close to leading the league any other year. His second-best season for walks was 89 in 1990.
He probably thinks fudging the truth isn’t a big deal, especially since he’s writing a book. Juiced body and juiced stories, they’re all just part of the game.
“I said, ‘I need these umpires,’ so what do I do?” Dykstra said. “I just pulled a half-million bucks out and hired a private investigation team.” He said he shared the findings at the plate.
“[I’d ask], ‘Did you cover last night?’ They’d call a strike. ‘Oh, I don’t think you heard me. Did you cover the spread last night?’” Dykstra then gestured to show a strike zone that suddenly shrunk to Lilliputian size once he repeated the question.
Dykstra’s body grew just as dramatically after the 1989 season, convinced that he needed steroids for the strength to play every day. He added 30 pounds of chemically enhanced muscle and showed up at spring training “looking like a Greek statue,” he said. He led the league in hits and on-base percentage and finished ninth in MVP voting.
But his big payday came following the 1993 season, presumably the year he extorted umpires. Dykstra finished second in the MVP race to Barry Bonds and led the Phillies to the World Series, where he hit .438 with four home runs and eight RBI. The Phillies signed him to a $24.9 million contract that made him baseball’s highest-paid leadoff hitter.
“You think [steroids] work?” he asked Cowherd rhetorically. “Maybe.”
We know they worked, as evidenced by Dykstra’s resemblance to the Michelin Man. We just don’t know how much merit his other claims deserve.
An MLB spokesman told the New York Daily News that the commissioner’s office will look into Dykstra’s assertions. ESPN baseball analyst Curt Schilling said he believes his former teammate and intimated that Dykstra told him as much when they played.
“He doesn’t have any reason to make this up,” Schilling said during Tuesday’s pre-game show, mentioning the aspersions cast upon Jose Canseco when the former “Bash Brother” wrote his tell-all book about rampant steroid use in baseball.
The juiced stats and buff bodies made it easy to see the truth in Canseco’s allegations.
Determining whether an umpire squeezes the strike zone is much more difficult. Each arbiter seems to have his own definition of balls and strikes, some favoring hitters and others favoring pitchers.
But baseball — and all sports — must take the threat of tainted officials seriously.
The NBA learned the hard way through disgraced former referee Tim Donagy, who, in 2007, pleaded guilty and served 15 months in jail for betting on games and sharing inside information with pro gamblers. An investigation last year by The New York Times revealed how easily pro gamblers rigged international soccer matches with help from crooked game officials.
I’m skeptical of Dykstra’s claims, but they serve a purpose, reminding leagues to be vigilant and knowledgeable concerning their referees and umpires. No matter the motivation — be it concealing dirty secrets or making extra money — there’s always a change that an official can go rogue and compromise the game’s integrity.
Like Dykstra said, they’re red-blooded humans, just like the rest of us.