C.B. Bucknor’s performance in the 2009 American League Divisional Series angered retired pitcher Curt Schilling to the point he could no longer hold his tongue.
“I don’t think [Bucknor] is trying to draw attention to himself, I just don’t think he’s a very good ump, and in his tenure in the big leagues has not improved even a little,” Schilling wrote on his blog 38Pitches.com after the Boston–Los Angeles series.
In other words, Sandy Alderson’s plan didn’t work. Does anyone remember the plan, or have the promises made a decade earlier lost their way amidst Steroid allegations, investigations, instant replay and other burning concerns? Or, maybe it was another case of Schilling being, well, Schilling?
Not on this occasion.
Schilling was echoing the spirit of the entire league, who ranked Bucknor Major League Baseball’s Worst Umpire by ESPN The Magazine. According to a “Baseball Confidential” poll of 100 MLB players, Bucknor received 37% of the entire vote (42% American League, 32% National League).
“[Bucknor is] a terrible umpire,” said one anonymous American League player.
In his blog post Schilling said, I have an immense amount of respect for Sandy Alderson, but I think he’s failed horribly at implementing a system to force umpires to improve their performance in the major leagues.
That was three years ago.
Bucknor made headlines, again, last weekend for blowing calls, at first base and behind the plate, in the Mets-Braves series at Turner Field. Bucknor’s inconsistent strike zone on Sunday led to the ejection of Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen.
“I thought Santana made some good pitches [but] didn’t get the calls,” Warthen told the media. “They were strikes for the other team and they were not strikes for us … even on the [computerized plotting of balls in strikes] coming in here after the game, they both had them as strikes. We had enough. [Bucknor] asked whether or not I was questioning balls and strikes. And I never really answered him. He took it as an affirmative and so he ejected me.”
Alderson was hired by Bud Selig after the 1998 season to change both the culture and perception of umpiring in Major League Baseball. Umpires disrespected players and players, specifically Roberto Alomar, were literally spitting in umpires faces (John Hirschbeck). A year later, umpire Eric Gregg gave Florida Marlins Livan Hernandez a strike zone as wide as I-20, beating the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series.
“What he did was unspeakable,” said former MLB commissioner Faye Vincent. “Baseball has never recovered from it; the umpires never have.”
“That was the death knell,” added umpire Bill Miller. “That’s where all the trouble started.”
Alderson stepped in. He [Alderson] had long been known as an umpire critic. He was certain umpires played favorites. He abhorred both the warped strike zone that had evolved in the 1990s and the lack of uniformity with which even that was called wrote Bruce Weber in his 2009 book As They See’em: A Fan’s Travels in the Land of the Umpires.
Alderson wasted no time telling union president Jerry Crawford changes were coming. In their initial meeting Alderson promised Crawford umpires would soon be held accountable through a MLB-generated rating system.
“I didn’t believe the noting that once selected as the best, someone remained the best for the next 35 years,” Alderson told Weber in a 2006 interview.
Prior to Alderson’s assurance, accountability consisted of a handful of umpiring suspensions, starting with Bill McGowan in 1948. McGowan, the highest paid umpire in the game at the time, made history, becoming the first major league umpire to get suspended for throwing a baseball and his ball-strike indicator at a Washington Senators player. He was sidelined for 10 games without pay.
Through the years, other umpires were suspended for stepping over the line during a game, but no umpire has ever been terminated. Why? Umpires were accountable to themselves. Major League Baseball could not hire or fire them and the umpires union certainly did not have a plan to discipline themselves.
Quite a fiefdom considering a Major League Baseball umpires job description. MLB.com reports umpires make anywhere between $80,000 and $300,000 annually – or, in this case, seven months — and includes per diem and travel and vacations during the season. If you’re a really good umpire you will also get invited to work the post-season which includes additional bonuses for divisional and World Series work. Finally, the job is permanent. Umpires are not terminated, even on their worst day … or season … or career.
Alderson knew what needed to be done: Umpires needed to be educated, consistent and unbiased. The strike zone needed to be defined – or redefined – which would subsequently change the pace of the game.
Before Spring Training, Alderson set his game plan in motion, issuing a league-wide memo to umpires. In short, Alderson told umps to start calling higher strikes. Crawford felt the directive was out of line and beyond the league’s jurisdiction, which it was at the time. Cut to the chase: On July 14, 1999, Alderson met with umpires in Philadelphia. The meeting didn’t go well. In fact it ended with union rep Richie Phillips calling for all major league umpires resign their job en masse on September 2. By the end of the day 54 umpires signing their resignation letter (one week later 12 of the 54 rescinded their resignations), a decision that “changed major league umpiring forever.”
Ironically, 13 years to the day of the decision, Alderson’s Mets suffered a pair of losses to the hand of poor umpiring. Bucknor, who was a rookie MLB umpire in 1999, was defiant and snobbish in his resolve, an infamous style he’s coveted for years; the same style Alderson fought so hard to break more than a decade ago.
Despite both the fury and ejections, Bucknor plods on. Justice again denied by silence. His poor umpiring skills applauded by a league seemingly committed to inaction. The two ways to know an umpire is bad is if he is constantly in arguments with players and coaches and if both the pitchers and the hitters are complaining, Schilling wrote.
The best umpire is the one you never notice. It’s an old, simple barometer that is still used to measure the quality of a baseball umpire. If true, Bucknor has failed miserably.