Let’s try an experiment, shall we? Go to any article about umpires posted on Twitter. Scroll down. You’re going to see two things guaranteed: replies about how this – whatever the “this” may be – will mean the advance of robot umpires and that Angel Hernandez is the worst umpire in the history of baseball. If you’re lucky, you might get one person who actually read the article and has an opinion on it. But much more likely is a dig at Joe West and some veiled death threats that imply that umpires are blind morons. That today’s umpires are the worst in history and are getting worse every year. That the umpires only want to make it about them.
Putting aside that umpires as a whole are statistically getting more accurate every year and that there were 27 umpires with worse statistics than Hernandez in 2019 (including Dan Iassogna, who was recently promoted to Crew Chief), the fact that these handful of narratives are the only things fans have to say about umpires is indicative of a deeper problem.
For all the accusations of the umps grandstanding and putting on a show, we know very little about major league umpires.
Ken Rosenthal’s recent article on the dispute between the MLB and the MLBUA highlights the contention between the umpires and the folks that employ them. It also aired some dirty laundry when it comes to salaries. Yes, in a time when unemployment is soaring and most baseball fans are tight on money in an already scrimped economy, it can sting a little to read about men who make over $100k a year with $500 per diems saying they are being treated unfairly. But you have to put that number into perspective.
There are no home games for umpires, and while an umpire might live in or near a city with a major sports team and occasionally get to sleep in their own bed, they are on the road for seven months out of the year. Every series end is a getaway day. They pay for their own travel and accommodations and food. They might have a night game in Seattle then a day game in Los Angeles the very next day. Looking at the postings on @UmpCrew, a non-MLB affiliated Twitter account that announces where umpires are posted for any given game, you can see the tracks umpires follow across the country. They are thousands of miles from their family at any given time.
During the games, they never sit. They never eat. They never use the bathroom. They have water brought to them when asked for, but in the course of a normal baseball game, they never leave the field for any reason. The home plate umpire bends down for every single pitch – roughly 300 per game – with only a 2 minute rest period between innings. They are cursed and belittled by fans, players, and coaches on a daily basis. And yet most still make less than half of the minimum salary of a major league ball player.
So, in context, their salaries aren’t overblown. For all of the time they spend there, they’re among the lowest paid persons on the playing field.
Why, then, does the public have no concept of that? Why do they only know hatred for Angel Hernandez and insist that today’s umpires are the worst umpires ever, despite factual evidence that proves it isn’t true?
Part of the blame lies with the MLBUA’s social media presence – or I might say lack-thereof. When they have shown up to the party, they have made some truly astounding mistakes, from the infamous Machado tweet to the time when they posted almost the exact same tweet less than two days apart, not to mention the bungling of the drunk (I’m guessing) tweet from Rob Drake talking about buying guns for the upcoming “cival” war. The Drake situation was patched over with a well-worded apology, but it was the breaking of the Astros scandal that helped the public forget about it, a rug sweep that even Manfred couldn’t have planned better.
In researching for this article, I came across so many things that the MLBUA and its members are involved in that I had no idea even existed. They have a charity, called UMPS Care, that has done a ton of good in the baseball community and the world at large. The BLUE for Kids program has given away over 16,000 Build-A-Bears, actually bringing a smaller version of the Build-A-Bear workshop into the hospital itself so kids can get the full experience. They have a scholarship program for children adopted after the age of 13 that has given away hundreds $10k grants to help them get to college. The BLUE Crew program gives at-risk youth a chance to attend a game and get a day at the ballpark they will never forget.
And it’s not just through that charity that umpires are doing good things. Even the much-maligned Angel Hernandez holds a golf tournament every year to aid disabled children. If these acts had been done by a player or coach, we’d have seen a tweet, post, and insta about it and maybe even a 2 minute segment on ESPN. But most of the good works that umpires do – on and off the field – flies completely under the radar.
It leaves only one question: Is that fair?
It’s to the MLB’s advantage to have the public angry with umpires. It’s easy to paint silent men dressed in black as the villains, even when there’s no true bad guy in the story. When Sam Holbrook made a controversial call in Game 6 of the 2019 World Series, it was umpires that took the brunt of the fan outrage, not the MLB office that wrote the rule.
(Holbrook made the right call, by the way. As of this writing, a ham-fisted tweet about it was the last thing the MLBUA Twitter account has said since, yet again not helping their cause.)
It’s also to the MLB’s advantage to keep one of the two unions on the field under a cloak of silence and out of the public eye. The Player’s Association can change the tide of public opinion with a few outspoken stars guiding the way. Umpires have no such voices, and rarely even press releases, to plead their case.
As someone who is concerned about all of the things Manfred has done to baseball in the name of making or saving money, it’s frustrating to watch the public demean the very union members that has fought against many of those changes. Umpires are not in the game to judge the two teams against each other, they judge the game being played against the ideals of baseball itself. They play in defense of Baseball, the perfect ideal of what a game should look like, both on the field and behind the scenes, and they’re pretty good at it, too. It just that nobody knows it and even fewer people seem to care.
The MLBUA doesn’t seem to make much of an effort to actually advocate for its union members outside of the negotiation room. And let’s not get started on how aforementioned demonized Angel Hernandez has fought in the courts for racial equality within the umpire ranks without any obviously visible help from the MLBUA. If a union’s job is to lobby for their members, the MLBUA is seriously falling short in the public eye.
So what’s the solution? A full media blitz with profiles on every umpire? An all-out campaign to get try and get the public to fall in love with umpires? Not likely. There’s a reason not every Dodger is featured on social media outlets in equal measure – while all are good at their jobs, some of them are, well, downright boring. It follows that there’d be some rather dull umpires as well. And no amount of ads or documentary profiles or funny photos is going to make the public do a complete 180 on over a century of unwavering hatred. But maybe there should be an effort to move the needle a little bit.
Across the nation, there’s a severe lack of officials for youth leagues. The main culprit? Crappy parents. According to the OSIP Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to fighting the harassment of local sporting officials, 76% of sports officials quit due to poor sportsmanship from parents. On a local level, in 2018 in South Carolina, 40% of the Dixie Youth Baseball officials refused to work a second year.
A friend of mine told me stories about her mother, local commissioner of the youth softball league. She had to lock herself into the announcer’s stand to keep irate parents from screaming obscenities at her for mispronouncing their kid’s name. She would often let umpires hide up there with her between games to prevent altercations with the parents. She did the job for two years then quit, despite the fact that she enjoyed every other aspect of the job. Abuse of the officials is ingrained in a deeply troubling way in this country.
With every botched investigation and money-grabbing move that the current Commissioner’s Office makes, sometimes it feels like the very soul of baseball is at stake. Could more pushback from the nation’s most readily visible umpires help preserve a nation’s most treasured pastime? It sure as hell couldn’t hurt.
In a time when baseball fans are stuck at home, social media has proven to be more crucial than ever. The MLBUA is missing out on both an opportunity to reach out to fans and an opportunity to advocate for umpires, not just for their own members, but umpires and officials through all levels of American baseball. They have a chance to change the conversation, to be leaders to the dwindling numbers of kids who want to be an umpire when they grow up. If local baseball is going to thrive, if Little League games must be played; if the next generation of stars are going to fall in love with the sport, there has to be officials to actually run the games.
Telling the public about Angel Hernandez’s off-the-field accomplishments might not make him a better umpire, but it does paint a fairer and more accurate picture of the man. There has to be someone advocating on umpires’ behalf in the wake of the waves of hatred crashing over them. Who is better poised to do so than the MLBUA? Isn’t that their actual job?
Because if there’s one things that the public ignores the most, it’s this: Umpires love baseball, too. It’s time for the MLBUA to prove it.