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Tangled Up in Blue

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Good morning, gentle denizens of Viva El Birdos. I hope everyone had an enjoyable, or at least satisfactory, Independence Day holiday.

Myself, I had a bit of a mixed day, I must admit. I attended a barbecue at a friend's house, whose birthday also just happens to fall on the fourth of July. That was wonderful; it was the good portion of my day. We shot off fireworks, ate inordinately large amounts of tasty animal flesh, threw a baseball around in the yard, and just generally had a gay old time. The not so fun portion of my day was largely the result of the fourth degree burns I sustained over most of my left arm due to a flareup on the barbecue front.

I beg your pardon?

There's no such thing as fourth degree burns, you say? Well, it was the fourth of July, so I'm classifying these as fourth degree, in honour of our great nation's independence. USA! USA! If you question the severity of my burns, you obviously hate America. You don't hate America, do you? Of course not. What kind of burns do I have? That's right. Glad we're on the same page now. 

Of course, the other unpleasant portion of my Independence Day is what I'm here today to talk to you about.

I'm not sure exactly how many people managed to see the game; judging by the site traffic, a lot of people were otherwise engaged. However, if you did manage to see the game, you saw one of the single most inept performances by an umpire that I've ever been witness to.

I'm generally not one to complain about the umpires. All in all, baseball really has some of the best officials in all of sports. Just take a look sometime at the NBA referees, if you don't believe me. Even the ones who aren't deliberately throwing games are awful. NHL refs aren't much better; no two games are ever officiated quite the same. Football? They're mostly okay, but there always seem to be one or two suspicious calls in any given contest; a phantom hold here or an odd pass interference non call there. Still, not too bad. Baseball, though, generally has very solid officiating. You rarely see massive variation from game to game, inning to inning, and that's really all you can ask for. The umps may not always get the calls exactly right, but they do their best to be consistent.

Combine the generally high level of consistency with the difficulty of calling balls and strikes, and I usually don't get too very down on the umps. I'll complain during the game, mostly out of frustration, but I maintain that, in general, the officiating in baseball is of a pretty high standard. Besides, usually, if your team loses, you can find better things to blame than the officials. If the shortstop hadn't thrown away that routine grounder in the fifth inning, those three unearned runs wouldn't have scored, and the game wouldn't have come down to a call. It's really rare that you can actually point to a given call in a game as the only reason your team lost. Along the way, there were almost surely enough opportunities missed and mistakes made that the losing team probably really didn't deserve to win anyway.

However, I just cannot let what I saw last night go.

First, let me set the scene for you. Early in last night's game, the top of the fourth inning, to be exact, with the Chicago Cubs already leading the game by the score of 1-0, Geovany Soto stood at the plate.  Braden Looper was pitching quite well, having given up only one run to the point, on a solo shot the Kosuke Fukudome in the first inning. The pitch that Fukudome deposited in the right field seats was certainly a mistake, as I'm really not sure a tee ball would have been in better position to whack, but apart from that, Looper had cruised along, supressing a very dangerous lineup.

Looper got ahead of Soto, building a one ball, two strike on the Cub catcher with two fastballs, one each a ball and a strike, and a nasty slider that was waved at and missed. Looper came with another slider, and Soto got just a piece of it, fouling it off to stay alive.

That's when Looper's problems started.

Looper's next pitch was a fastball, a 93 mph heater with nice cutting action to it that appeared to graze just the barest outside edge of the plate. The man in blue behind the plate, though, didn't see it that way, and called it a ball. All of us watching the game groaned a bit; it was a hell of a pitch. Looper just didn't get the call.

Looper fired another fastball, an even better one this time. It came in at 92 mph, cutting over the outside corner again, knee high, about an inch or two closer to the plate than the previous pitch. Fists were pumped in the air, hands were raised for the strikeout celebration, as Looper clearly painted the corner on that one. In fact, as Al Hrabosky so aptly described another pitch during last night's telecast, Looper had truly threaded the needle on that one.

Ball three.

And now the grumblings really began. He's getting squeezed, we all shouted. That's bullshit, many of us said. That's two in a row. Where in the hell were those pitches? You know the drill.

So, from a 1-2 count, it was now 3-2, on two questionable calls. Both were borderline pitches, absolutely, but at least the second one definitely should have been a strike. Still, a good pitch here, and none of that matters.

The next pitch was, unfortunately, not so good. I believe it was supposed to be a splitter, but it did precious little splitting. What it did was exit the park in a rather rapid fashion, and just like that the Cubs had an insurance run.

You know what, though? Stuff like that happens. One of those pitches should have been a strike, but they weren't called that way, and Looper hung a breaking ball to a very good hitter. He got beaten. Nothing we can do about it. The calls sucked, but as long as it's the same strike zone for everyone, that's just the game. No use in complaining about it.

Well, fast forward a little while. During the course of the evening, we had all watched the ball game intermittently in between various games of cards, a trip to procure additional fireworks, and the viewing of a very funny video that featured the animatronic characters from Showbiz Pizza performing the newest Usher single.

Carlos Zambrano, henceforth known as Public Enemy #1 'round these parts, continued to have the Cardinals' collective number. Looper had nearly matched him, pitching quite a fine game in his own right. Russ Springer came in and did his job; sadly, Bob Howry did the same. Albert did reach a nice milestone, hitting home run #300, but, like the Mang himself, individual accomplishments mean little to me when the team is suffering.

And so we came finally to the bottom of the ninth inning. The Cubs were clinging to a one run lead; the Cardinals had one last chance to rain on the Northsiders' parade. Troy Glaus was set to lead off the inning, followed by Chris Duncan and Yadier Molina. Not the most magical of bullets, but you could certainly do much, much worse.

At this point, we had all migrated out into the street to try and set ourselves on fire. I managed to add a singed thumbnail on to the- what kind of burns?- that's right, fourth degree burns I had already sustained on my arm. We all stood out in front of the house, watching all the houses around us put on their pyrotechnic displays, occasionally adding our own to the fray.

A vehicle door was opened; the baseball game was located on the radio. We listened to the reports and whistles, hoping to hear the voice of the Moon Man raised above the fray, exhorting the ball to get up, baby, get up. Instead, what we heard were groans and grumbles coming from the booth, apparently quite a bad strike call had been made.

At this point, being the baseball fan that I am, I immediately took off away from the fireworks, running back into the house to see if the call was as bad as they made it sound on the radio. I arrived back at the television just in time to see Troy Glaus stalking away from it, angrily shouting as he headed back to the dugout.

I quickly grabbed the remote and ran the game back, (oh, the wonders of the DVR) to see what the fuss was all about. Imagine my surprise, then, to see the exact same pitches that had been called balls two and three to Geovany Soto in the fourth inning called for strikes two and three to Troy Glaus in the ninth.

You know what? I could have handled one of the two. Hell, I thought they were strikes before. In fact, I wouldn't have had a problem with either of those pitches being called strikes if it weren't for the fact that we had already established that they were not, in fact, strikes earlier in the game. My biggest problem with the whole thing, though, was the umpire's reaction after Glaus expressed his frustration with the first call. The ump stared at Troy as he stepped out of the batter's box, adjusted his uniform, and took a couple of breaths to steady himself. The umpire continued to stare Troy down as he stepped back into the box and readied himself for Kerry Wood's next pitch. In fact, I'm not entirely sure the umpire wasn't still staring at Troy as he called the third strike, on the same pitch that wasn't a strike in the fourth for Looper, and shouldn't have been a strike for Wood in the ninth.

Of course, after Glaus headed back to the dugout, clearly upset and making no great secret of it, the umpire kept staring over at the Cardinal dugout. Neither Tony nor Duncan appeared to be making any sort of noise over the calls, so I have to wonder why the ump saw the need to keep stealing glances over at the Cardinal bench.

So, was this simply a case of incompetence, of an umpire who couldn't keep the strike zone consistent throughout the game? Or was it a case of an umpire who made a bad call, then decided that the player who had dared to show his frustration with what he thought was a poor call needed to be shown just exactly who was the boss? I have to wonder, which one of those guys do you want to be, blue? Bad at calling balls and strikes or trying to make the game about you? Hmm?

I said earlier that there are enough missed opportunities and mistakes made in any game that you can always make the argument that the game never should have come down to a call by an umpire. And technically, that was probably true of the game last night, but it certainly didn't feel like it. It was a magnificently played game, with quality pitching and defense on both sides. You can complain the Cardinals didn't work the count against a pitcher who was on a pitch count if you want; I certainly did so. But when it comes right down to it, last night's game was a clean, quick duel of two pitchers doing just what they needed to do to win. One was certainly a bit more efficient than the other, but they were both effective.

Unfortunately, the game was ultimately decided by an umpire. If either one of the balls he called on Soto were ruled strikes, #300 ties the game up. If either one of the strikes he called on Glaus, which were the same pitches he called balls earlier, went the other way, the Cardinals have their leadoff hitter on in the ninth inning of a one run game. How might things have gone from there? I have no idea. Unfortunately, we'll never get to find out.

I am not at all in favour of computerized ball and strike calls. I like the fact that we still have a human being behind the plate. Call me old fashioned if you must; I probably am. But MLB needs to do something about the quality of their umpires. It seems the pool of ump talent is becoming more and more diluted every season; we're seeing more  of these kinds of problems all the time. At the very least, there needs to be a concerted effort to teach the correct strike zone to these umpires. Again, all that's really required is consistency. The strike zone is laid out clearly enough in the rules that you would think it could be taught.

There also needs to be something done about the confrontational attitude many of these umpires, especially the younger, less proven ones, take toward the players. How many times in the last four or five years have we seen umpires engage in actively antagonistic behaviour toward players? The old axiom, that the best umpires are the ones you never notice, doesn't seem to have any adherents among this new crop. The arrogance, the animosity, the aggression, all are bad for the game and need to be stamped out.

I understand that an umpire has to maintain control of a game. But umpires are not in contention with anything. The players are the ones competing. They're the ones with their careers on the line if they somehow don't manage to move a runner over from second to third with no outs. The umpires need to understand this, and maintain their distance. No official should ever aggressively pursue a confrontation with a player, no matter how much the player pisses the ump off. The player says one of the magic words, he's gone. He makes physical contact with an official, he's gone, and probably fined. That's all well and good. But players shouldn't have to deal with umpires showboating and posturing, in an attempt to somehow prove they belong in the league.

MLB generally has the very best officials in all of sports. I really do mean that. But the quality has taken a hit the last couple of years, and it's bad for the sport. I don't say this as a Cardinal fan, angry that his team lost a game last night. I say it as a fan of baseball who's angry that I increasingly see poor officiating and, worse, officials making themselves part of the game, when they have no business being part of the contest.

MLB needs to get a firm handle on this. We all know what a joke NBA refs are, and it's killing the sport. It's not at all the same way in baseball yet, but the indications aren't good.

I'll be back with a game thread later. I think I'll try a haiku again; it worked last time. Need to get a game back in this series today.