Umpire John Hirschbeck goes looking for trouble, finds it

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I have long believed that an umpire is best seen and not heard, a line often used to describe children. Like children, some umpires tend to think they are the center of attention and their offenses are of the utmost importance. John Hirschbeck was among them this afternoon, when he went looking for a confrontation and found it in Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper.

Harper check-swung on a 2-2 slider from Pirates starter Wandy Rodriguez, which just barely escaped the edge of the strike zone. Home plate umpire Bob Davidson appealed to third base umpire Hirschbeck, who ruled that Harper had swung at the offering. Harper, exasperated, expressed his disagreement with the call some 100 feet away. Hirschbeck immediately threw up his hands and yelled at Harper, like a drunk guy looking for trouble in a bar. He walked towards home plate, continuing to gesticulate and shout as Harper quietly talked to Davidson from the batter’s box. Third base coach Trent Jewett intercepted Hirschbeck as he stomped towards Harper, but it was no matter as Hirschbeck ejected Harper from the game shortly thereafter.

This reminds me of an altercation a few years ago between Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard and third base umpire Scott Barry. The circumstances were similar, though much later in the game. Barry, like Hirschbeck, was looking for a fight and got one. He ejected Howard in the bottom of the 14th inning, which forced the Phillies to use Roy Oswalt in left field.

I bring that up only as a secondary example to what happened this afternoon. An umpire should never be looking for a fight; rather, an umpire should always be striving to prevent one when possible. Like a customer service employee being yelled at by an unhappy customer, an umpire should stand statuesque, speaking calmly (or not at all). Hirschbeck’s behavior this afternoon is Exhibit A  when baseball fans plead for less reliance on “the human element”.

Watch the conflict:

Must-Click Link: Do the players even care about money anymore?

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Yesterday I wrote about how the union has come to find itself in the extraordinarily weak position it’s in. The upshot: their leadership and their membership, happily wealthy by virtue of gains realized in the 1970s-1990s, has chosen to focus on small, day-to-day, quality of life issues rather than big-picture financial issues. As a result, ownership has cleaned their clock in the past few Collective Bargaining Agreements. If the union is to ever get back the considerable amount of ground it has lost over the past 15 years, it’ll require a ton of hard work and perhaps drastic measures.

A few hours later, Yahoo’s Jeff Passan dropped an absolute must-read that expands on that topic. Through weeks of interviews with league officials, agents and players, he explains why the free agent market is as bad as it is for players right now and why so many of them and so many fans seem not to understand just how bad a spot the players are in, business wise.

Passan keys on the media’s credulousness regarding teams’ stated rationales for not spending in free agency. About how, with even a little bit of scrutiny, the “[Team] wants to get below the luxury tax” argument makes no sense. About how the claim that this is a weak free agent class, however true that may be, does not explain why so few players are being signed.  About how so few teams seem interested in actually competing and how fans, somehow, seem totally OK with it.

Passan makes a compelling argument, backed by multiple sources, that, even if there is a lot of money flowing around, the fundamental financial model of the game is broken. The young players are the most valuable but are paid pennies while players with 6-10 years service time are the least valuable yet are the ones, theoretically anyway, positioned to make the most money. The owners have figured it out. The union has dropped the ball as it has worried about, well, whatever the heck it is worried about. The killer passage on all of this is damning in this regard:

During the negotiations leading to the 2016 basic agreement that governs baseball, officials at MLB left bargaining stupefied almost on a daily basis. Something had changed at the MLBPA, and the league couldn’t help but beam at its good fortune: The core principle that for decades guided the union no longer seemed a priority.

“It was like they didn’t care about money anymore,” one league official said.

Personally, I don’t believe that they don’t care about money anymore. I think the union has simply dropped the ball on educating its membership about the business structure of the game and the stakes involved with any given rule in the CBA. I think that they either so not understand the financial implications of that to which they have agreed or are indifferent to them because they do not understand their scope and long term impact.

It’s a union’s job to educate its membership about the big issues that may escape any one member’s notice — like the long term effects of a decision about the luxury tax or amateur and international salary caps — and convince them that it’s worth fighting for. Does the MLBPA do that? Does it even try? If it hasn’t tried for the past couple of cycles and it suddenly starts to now, will there be a player civil war, with some not caring to jeopardize their short term well-being for the long term gain of the players who follow them?

If you care at all about the business and financial aspects of the game, Passan’s article is essential.