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Nightengale: Manfred Says Don’t Expect Robot Umpires Anytime Soon

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Umpire Joe West and Chicago Cubs manager have words during a baseball game. Photo: AP

Just when we thought good old fashioned arguments between managers and umpires were gone forever, replaced by instant replay, baseball is going old school on us.

You can’t watch a game these days without explosive arguments or volatile comments from breaking out across the country.

In just the last few days:

Detroit Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler rips into home-plate umpire Angel Hernandez, imploring him to quit his job, accusing him of ruining the game.

Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon goes ballistic on the umpiring crew, saying their ninth-inning interpretation of a ruling that Ben Zobrist swung at a bunt when hit by a pitch was “asinine.’’

St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny screams “It’s not your show,’’ when home-plate umpire Chris Seagal called timeout, and is ejected trying to save All-Star catcher Yadier Molina from being tossed, first.

Los Angeles Dodgers veteran second baseman Chase Utley is ejected for asking second-base umpire Ramon De Jesus to move out of his sight line while in the field, saying he’s never seen anything like it.

Zobrist becomes so angry after being called out on a game-ending strike that he openly pleads for an electronic strike zone.

Yet, instead of being mad at all of the bad behavior, Commissioner Rob Manfred reminded everyone Thursday at the owners’ quarterly meetings that he’s a traditionalist at heart.

Oh sure, he still has radical ideas about speeding up the game, and plans to have a pitch clock in 2018, and was on board to have a players’ weekend in which everyone can wear nicknames on their jerseys, but scoffs at the idea of an automated zone that would eliminate the majority of manager-umpire arguments.

Maybe the automated strikeout without umpires will come one day, but Manfred sure sounds like a man who’s reluctant to have it happen under his watch.

“It would be a pretty fundamental change in the game,’’ Manfred said, “to take away a function that has been performed by our umpiring staff, really with phenomenal accuracy. The fact of the matter is they get them right well over 90% of the time.

“There is a human aspect to that, a work aspect to it, that’s always been an important part of our game.

“I don’t think you can just jump to the conclusion that if you have to technology to do it that’s the right thing for your product.’’

Besides, it’s nothing more than wasted noise now anyways, Manfred says, with baseball unequipped to become the sporting version of the driverless car.

“I don’t believe the current technology is sufficient to call balls and strikes on a real-time basis,’’ Manfred says. “If and when we get to that technology – and sooner or later we’re going to get there – there’s still a fundamental question about whether or not we want to remove that human element from the game.’’

Bravo.

Oct 23, 2013; Boston, MA, USA; Umpires huddle after Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia (not pictured) was initially ruled out on a fielder’s choice at second base during the first inning during game one of the MLB baseball World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals at Fenway Park. The play was overturned and Pedroia was ruled safe. Photo: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Come on, there’s nothing wrong with human error, and if you take the umpires off the field, who will the players and managers have to yell at during games?

It’s perfectly fine for players and managers to occasionally scream at umpires, kicking a little direct along the way, but lately, it’s gone a little extreme.

It’s rather hypocritical to let a player like Kinsler accuse Hernandez of intentionally making bad calls, saying he needs to leave, and receive nothing more than a small fine while umpires are suspended for even cracking jokes. It was just a week ago that veteran umpire Joe West was suspended three games without pay for teasing Texas Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre about his propensity for disagreeing on calls in a USA TODAY Sports story.

The umpires’ union is appealing West’s suspension.

“It is not unusual after a very competitive event,’’ Manfred said, “for a player to say something that we don’t think is helpful over the long term. We have always dealt with those by player discipline and fines. That’s the ordinary course.

“I see the umpire thing differently.

“You know, umpires have to be beyond reproach on the topic of impartiality. That’s why there are really specific rules in the Umpire Basic Agreement about public comment.’’

West served his suspension last week when he missed three games against the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks. The World Umpires Association strongly condemned the suspension in a statement.

“Joking interactions between umpires and players are a routine part of the game,” the union said. “We disagree strongly with the decision to punish Joe West simply for sharing a humorous exchange with a player.”

Major League Baseball had previously declined comment until Manfred lashed back Thursday.

“I was a bit surprised, I have to say,’’ Manfred said. “I actually sat down with Joe West after his public comments. He and I agreed that a three-day suspension was the appropriate discipline for his violation of the collective bargaining agreement.

“Unfortunately, Mr. West decided he didn’t want to live up to that agreement. We had to proceed in a different way. I did have a very specific understanding with Mr. West what was going to happen here, and he was in agreement with what was going to happen.’’

Yet, according to the World Umpires Association, West never agreed to the suspension, insisting that West was wronged, and pointed toward Beltre’s comments.

“Obviously, I know that he was kidding,’’ Beltre told reporters. “I play around with him. He plays around with me. And that was it. I didn’t think it was a big deal. I’m sad that it happened.”

In a few months, this will change. Instead of the umpires, the players likely will be the ones directing their anger toward Manfred. MLB plans to announce after the season that there will be a pitch clock in 2018, along with a reduction of permissible mound visits, in hopes to speed up the game. The average game time is 3 hours, 5 minutes, the longest in baseball history – five minutes longer than a year ago.

Manfred wants the union’s cooperation, but even if the players association continues to oppose a pitch clock, it’s going to happen. There will be a 20-second clock between pitches when no one is on base, and longer when there are runners

“We’re having ongoing conversations with the Players Association,’’ said Manfred, who met last week with union chief Tony Clark and a group of players. “The tone of those conversations was very positive. I remain confident that we will have changes for next year on pace of play that will be significant.’’

But, for now, it will be business as usual.

Managers and players will keep yelling at umpires. Players and managers will keep getting ejected by umpires. And pitchers and hitters will always complain about the strike zone.

It’s a beautiful thing, but let’s make it better.

Let’s allow the umpires have a voice, too.

It’s only fair.

By Bob Nightengale

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook

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