New York Times Magazine By Devin Gordon is a writer based in Massachusetts. He is the author of “So Many Ways To Lose: The Amazin’ True Story of the New York Mets, the Best Worst Team in Sports.”
Remember that scene in “The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!” when Lt. Frank Drebin disguises himself as the home-plate umpire at a California Angels game to stop the future Hall of Fame slugger Reggie Jackson from assassinating the queen of England? If you haven’t seen the movie, just go with it. With every strike that Drebin calls, he gets increasingly drunk on the cheers from the home crowd. He pirouettes on Strike 2. He barks out “Steeeee-rike three” before the ball even crosses the plate, then fires his finger guns, does the moonwalk and pulls some moves like Jagger. The batter is not amused. His manager and his teammates in the dugout are not amused. Ricardo Montalban and Priscilla Presley, sitting in the front row of the stands, are not amused.
Anyone with even a passing familiarity with baseball got the joke. “The Naked Gun” came out in 1988, and in that era, umpires were part of the game’s theater. “If you asked me on a ‘Law & Order’ episode or something, could I name the umpire by the sound of the strike call? Yeah, easily,” says Ron Darling, the former New York Mets pitcher and a broadcast analyst for TBS, SNY and the MLB Network. He recalls that Dave Pallone would make a punch-out motion toward the batter’s back as he slunk back to the dugout. Batters did not appreciate that. Ron Luciano’s booming call was so operatic that the league told him to tone it down. Some umps would unilaterally decide that the word “strike” began with an “h” (Heeeee-rike three!). “The originality of each umpire was their calling card,” Darling says. “It was just like a play-by-play guy’s home-run call.”
It was also about asserting control. For an umpire, it was you against the world out there — no replay review, no high-definition cameras — and if the players and managers sensed weakness, or hesitation, they would never stop coming after you. The Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver used to whistle from the dugout to register displeasure, often a prelude to one of his epic nose-to-nose eruptions at the ump; he was once tossed from both games of a doubleheader (each time by Luciano). After being ejected from a game in 1998, the Seattle Mariners manager Lou Piniella decided to “get his money’s worth,” as broadcasters liked to say, flinging his ball cap onto the ground and kicking it, “Naked Gun”-style, across the infield.
“Part of the way they taught younger umpires was to sell the call with a big booming voice,” says the former umpire Cowboy Joe West. “You sound more authoritative than if you just use a normal tone of voice and say ‘strike.’” West, who called an M.L.B. record 5,460 regular-season games and is perhaps the archetypal umpire of baseball’s televised era — stout, girthy, borderline belligerent — was actually in that “Naked Gun” scene. Drebin winds up ejecting him and another umpire after Drebin inserts himself into a rundown between first and second. West even got a line in the movie (“You can’t throw an umpire out of the game!”), and to this day he earns a small residual every financial quarter. He’s made $250,000 and counting.
“When those guys came up, it was screaming back and forth,” says Alan Porter, 45, a 12-year veteran who was promoted to crew chief this year, becoming, along with Adrian Johnson, only the second and third Black crew chiefs in M.L.B. history. “And that’s how they got their jobs: OK, this guy’s not weak — he’ll fight back; he’s one of us. That’s kind of how those guys had to umpire.” Or as Dale Scott, another longtime former M.L.B. umpire, puts it: “He who yells loudest wins.”
Now fast-forward several decades, to the replay-review era, which began in earnest in 2013 and has woven itself into the fabric of the game. “They use the Hubble telescope to overturn you,” says Dan Iassogna, who was promoted to crew chief in 2020. You’re more apt to holster those finger guns when there’s a strong chance you might have to admit to everyone in the stadium that you just botched a call. And managers are less apt to fly screaming out of the dugout when they can simply appeal to a higher authority. Scott, who retired in 2017 and is now 63, recounts a moment during a Los Angeles Dodgers game early in the replay era when he called out a runner trying to steal, and the Dodgers manager Don Mattingly patiently walked out and told him they might want to review the call. Scott and Mattingly were just killing time near second base, chitchatting as they waited. “I said, ‘So, Donny, it’s come to this, where we just stand here and make small talk?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, pretty much, I guess.’” Scott laughs at the memory, at the newfangled cordiality. “It was just awkward, you know?”
The call ended up being overturned, and Scott, in his capacity as crew chief, had to signal his mistake to the ballpark, and then get back to commanding authority. The next batter drilled a base hit into the gap, the runner scored and the Dodgers wound up winning. “After the game,” Scott says, “I told my crew: ‘Guys, I’m not happy I missed that steal play, but guess what? At least I’m not the conversation on SportsCenter every 30 minutes.’” It didn’t take long for all the umpires to realize they weren’t just learning new rules — they were learning how to become new umpires.
The mission creep of replay review, though, may be nothing compared to what umpires now face in the 2023 season, which is shaping up to be the most transformational in M.L.B. history. Scott spent 32 years in the major leagues, and for the first 20 of them, he says, “the rules never changed. It was like an act of Congress to get something to change.” Now it’s as if baseball is packing 32 years’ worth of rule changes into a single spring, including the dooziest of them all — the addition of a pitch clock. A pitch clock! In baseball! A game legendary for taking its sweet time.
Not anymore. For all the impact that replay review has had on outcomes, the sport on the field isn’t played differently because of it. This year it’ll be a whole new ballgame from the first pitch to the last out; new rules about defensive positioning and pickoff attempts have also been introduced. At the same time, the M.L.B. umpiring ranks are in the midst of a generational turnover: Ten umps with more than two centuries of combined experience retired last winter, meaning this historic season will be stage-managed by 10 rookie umpires, out of 76 total, and seven new crew chiefs. “It truly is a changing of the guard,” Scott says.
By the end of his time as a big-league ump, says Jim Reynolds, who retired this past winter, “I felt like a rodeo clown out there.” Fans in the ballpark were watching replays on their phones. Teams were using iPads in the dugouts. Viewers at home had HDTVs with enough resolution to see into players’ souls. “Everybody else has got the right answer in real time,” he says, “and the only person that doesn’t is me.” Like Reynolds, most of the just-retired umps left primarily because a quirk in their pension plans would’ve cost them, in some cases, nearly $700,000 if they waited. Reynolds was also still recovering from at least his seventh concussion on the job. But the writing was on the wall, too: “What made me good at this job for 23, 22 years didn’t matter the last two years of my career.”
Let’s all try, just this once, to take pity upon the poor umpires of Major League Baseball. This might feel strange. Ragging on umpires — referees, chair judges, officials in any sport — is a fundamental human right. They are the physical embodiment of everyone who has ever gotten in the way of what we deserve, darn it. But if the great baseball experiment of 2023 is going to succeed, it’s the umps who will have to raise their game to the next level. Pitchers will now have 15 seconds when the bases are empty to throw their next pitch, and 20 seconds when runners are on base. The clock starts when they get the ball back from the catcher. Hitters, meanwhile, must be in the batter’s box, eyes up — “alert to the pitcher,” according to the rule book — by the eight-second mark. Failure to comply will result in an automatic ball or strike, depending on the offender, and it’ll be the home-plate umpire’s job to monitor all of this. During the very first day of spring-training games in the Grapefruit League, in late February, a game between the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves ended in a tie after the umpire called an automatic strike on a full count with the bases loaded. Game over. Welcome to baseball in 2023.
By then, everyone watching had had a taste of the other rule changes. The so-called “shift killer,” which ends the practice of defenses overloading one side of the infield by requiring two infielders on either side of second base. A strict limit on pickoff attempts that caps pitchers at two “disengagements” from the mound (stepping off the rubber, throwing over to first) per at-bat; if the pitcher fails on a third pickoff attempt, the runner advances a base. And then there are the jumbo-size, 18-square-inch bases, up from 15 inches, that inspired a thousand pizza-box memes. (Home plate, of course, remains unchanged.) This fix is primarily a safety measure to reduce collisions, but it also brings the bases 4.5 inches closer to one another, which, along with the disengagement rule, should make steals far more tempting.
The paradox at the core of M.L.B.’s sudden rush into the future, though, is that it’s all about restoring a traditionally conservative game to what it used to be: brisk, athletic, fun. Action on the field, speed on the basepaths. Rickey Henderson once stole 130 bases in a single season. (Last year’s leader stole 41.) Willie Wilson once hit 21 triples, the triple being the most exciting play in baseball. (Last year, no one made it to 10.) More of that, please. Fewer aging, lumbering right-handed designated hitters who either walk, strike out or swat a home run — the three “true outcomes” that analytics-driven front offices have come to covet, also known as boring outcomes. These new rules have been inching their way up through the minor leagues for years, tested over the course of more than 8,000 games, the equivalent of nearly four M.L.B. seasons, and the reason they’ve made it to the show is that they work. And none of them work better than the pitch clock, which is already shaving 20 to 30 minutes from games in spring training.
For the home-plate umpire, though, it’s just another turn of the screw. In the past, umps knew where to find gaps in the game — between pitches, between hitters, between innings — to catch their breath, collect their thoughts, check in with crewmates. “And guess what we’re not having anymore?” says Todd Tichenor, a veteran ump of 14 years who will be one of the new crew chiefs this season (so he’ll be learning that job too). “Our attention span just went from being really attentive to all radar, no break. At the end of every game I walk out, yes, it’s physically taxing, but I am mentally drained. I can see it, it’s gonna be 10 times worse.” Yet he says all of this with remarkable cheer, as though the upcoming crucible is a birthday present he can’t wait to unwrap.
The league did contemplate whether it was overloading the system, and there was discussion over spreading out the disruptions across a few seasons. But ultimately the feeling was that the pitch clock, the shift killer and the pickoff limit “fit together in a way that made sense,” says Morgan Sword, M.L.B.’s executive vice president of baseball operations. And because the league was already using these rules to train its minor-league umps, they would slowly replace their retiring senior counterparts. The league didn’t anticipate such a fast turnover, Sword admits, “but if we were going to pick a year to have 10 new guys, it’s actually good timing, I think.” Fifteen of the 19 crews this season will feature at least one ump with pitch-clock experience, and in most cases, it will be the youngest of the four. The traditional power dynamics of a four-person umpiring crew will be turned upside-down. The rookie umps will be the vets, and the vets will be the rookies. “Isn’t that crazy?” Alan Porter says, in that ebullient ump-y way. “It’s so weird. And it’s definitely a little humbling.”
Iassogna sounded almost star-struck when he told me about an approaching spring-training assignment where he would be working the bases while an otherwise anonymous Triple-A umpire he admired was behind the plate. “I wanna see him in action — how he actually starts the clock, stops the clock.” Iassogna is 54. He’s entering his 22nd year as a big-league umpire. He was the crew chief for the World Series last year. “I’m so excited,” he says. “I get to see Randy Rosenberg work a plate game. I can’t wait.”
The last time the umpiring ranks went through a convulsion of this magnitude was in 1999, the tail end of the “Naked Gun” era, when the league seized upon the expiration of its labor deal with the umpires’ union to mount a semi-hostile takeover and drag the profession into the coming era of HD cameras and Amazon clouds of analytical data, in which every call would be scrutinized down to the pixel. Previously the American League and National League umps operated as independent staffs, with their own mores, rules and leadership, and in both leagues, Scott recalls, “the inmates ran the asylum. And we were the inmates.” In one last fit of madness, the union fought the A.L. and N.L. merger with a mass-resignation strategy so catastrophic that Scott says it is still taught at business schools. The move fractured their ranks, and 22 umps wound up being fired, including Joe West, though M.L.B. later rehired 10 of them (including West) at the behest of an arbitrator. The league got what it wanted — a clean slate to begin transforming the art of umpiring into a rigorous science.
If this sounds crazy — that accuracy wasn’t the goal for the umpires — it makes sense when you consider the camera technology at the time. This was before regional sports networks. Small-market games were often covered with three standard-definition cameras. The slow-mo in those days was blurrier than the mo. Accuracy was unknowable, unachievable. Just be consistent — that’s all anyone could ask for. Individual umpires became known for having a “generous” strike zone or a “tight” one, or for letting pitchers nibble the edges. It didn’t matter whether you called a strike on a pitch two inches off the outside corner, as long as you kept calling that spot a strike.
All that began to change, several umpires told me, with the postmerger arrival of Sandy Alderson, the architect of the 1989 World Series-winning Oakland A’s, as M.L.B.’s first leaguewide director of umpires. This was a particularly raw moment in a tense labor history, and among Alderson’s earliest moves was the introduction of a ballpark radar system called QuesTec, the America Online of pitch-tracking technology, into the core of the training process for umpires at all levels. “I’ll give some credit to Sandy,” Reynolds says. “He understood that technology was coming. And he said to us, very frankly, ‘Hey, you can either get onboard with this or not, but I’m telling you, it’s coming.’”
Since 2020, M.L.B. has been using the 12-camera Hawk-Eye system, installed in all 30 ballparks, accurate to within 0.16 of an inch, to capture data on every official pitch and evaluate umpire performance, which helps guide the awarding of postseason assignments and crew-chief promotions. For a modern ump such as Tichenor, a critical task occurs the morning after a game behind home plate, when he’s expected to log onto M.L.B.’s virtual office and review his work. The software allows him to compare M.L.B.’s strike zone with ESPN’s K-Zone, or one of the other “boxes” used by broadcasters, which closely approximate the official zone, so he can get a sense of what viewers thought of his work. (Please, on behalf of the umpires, if you take nothing else away from this article: That box on your screen is not the real strike zone.)
The final frontier of strike-zone technology — the Automated Balls and Strikes system, which uses Hawk-Eye data to call pitches in real time and feeds it to the umpire through an earpiece — is already being tested at various levels of the minor leagues and is almost certainly bound for the majors, though Sword is noncommittal about when. Soon. A limited challenge system of some kind that allows managers to question calls feels inevitable. What we aren’t likely to see in the near future is “full A.B.S.” — robot umpires calling every pitch. But already the shift from consistency to accuracy, from calling your own strike zone to “calling the box,” as umpires put it, has changed something fundamental about the craft, and what it means to be a good umpire. “Once that box was introduced, it was about being right by the box,” Reynolds says, referring to M.L.B.’s definition of it, not what’s on your screen at home. The umps aren’t being replaced by robots so much as becoming them. “The most important thing we all do now — no matter if you’re the crew chief or the rookie on the crew — it’s how well you call the box.”
All but one of the umps I spoke with insisted that they had never, and would never, look at Umpire Scorecards, but to their dismay, it has a habit of finding them anyway. Iassogna isn’t on social media, but that doesn’t stop his neighbors from telling him that, say, his net overall consistency the previous night was 96 percent — 2 percent above average — or that he had three “impactful missed calls,” amounting to an “overall favor” of 0.4 runs to the Red Sox. The morning after Tichenor called his first game behind the plate in the World Series, in 2020, one of his own sons sent him his scorecard. (He did very well.)
Singer was delighted to hear so many big-league umps check out his work, and relieved to hear they’re not mad at him. Umps get far more worked up about K-Zone, because it’s right there on every TV screen. And in Singer’s defense, the only reason accounts like Umpire Scorecards are able to scrape the relevant data is that the league dumps all of it — dozens of metrics for pitching results alone, with names like “sz_-bot” and “plate_x” — onto Baseball Savant, its stat-junkie warehouse at MLB.com. Porter was the only ump who confessed to me that he looks at his scores. “I’ve glanced at it,” he says, laughing, but a bit sheepish. He prefers the grades he gets from M.L.B. “It’s a huge difference, really.” One reason is that M.L.B. gives umpires a two-inch buffer, because strike zones are both invisible and in constant flux based on whether the hitter is 6-foot-7, like Aaron Judge, or 5-foot-6, like Jose Altuve.
What all the metrics agree on is that M.L.B. umpires are astonishingly good at their jobs, and that the technology has made them much better. Even the grizzled, older umps whom most fans would probably guess are terrible at calling the box turned out to be quite adaptable. According to Umpire Scorecards, Joe West, who retired after the 2021 season, called a near-perfect game in his last turn behind the plate during the playoffs, correctly calling 155 of 159 pitches. Adjusting to the box itself wasn’t the hard part. What tripped up so many umps was everything about their work that changed because of it: the temperamental stuff, the long dispositional journey from projecting certainty at all times to embracing their innate fallibility. Some umps who thrived in the previous era have often seemed lost in this one.
Consider the case of Angel Hernandez, West’s protégé and former crewmate, the bane of so many baseball fans who regard him as the worst umpire in baseball, even though by nearly all available metrics he’s about league-average. He’s fine. A bit below average on balls and strikes, but no worse than his generational peers. Umpire Scorecards indicates that he accurately called 93.5 percent of the 4,449 pitches he saw in 2022. He’s in the top 100 on the planet. It turns out his actual work behind the plate in no way justifies his brutal reputation. Indeed, the fate of Angel Hernandez has less to do with any calls he’s botched than with how he makes them, the drill-sergeant demeanor he continues to project, no matter how much the game changes around him. His mistake — misfortune, really — was getting caught on the wrong side of a generation gap.
Umpires tend to make headlines for one of two reasons — because they’ve blown a call or blown a fuse — and unfortunately for Hernandez, over the course of his 30 years in the major leagues, he has acquired a reputation for doing both. The latter took years to acquire, aided by a series of high-profile tempests of all varieties — skirmishes, ejections, missed calls — culminating in a single nightmare game during the 2018 playoffs, when he had three calls overturned at first base. He was also at the center of one of M.L.B.’s earliest replay-review controversies, in 2013, which is maybe why it still lingers — he committed the original sin.
During an otherwise forgettable early-season game on May 8 that year, the Oakland A’s were down 4-3 in the top of the ninth to Cleveland when the A’s hit what appeared to be a game-tying home run. The ball ricocheted off the railing just above the left-center fence, but the umps ruled that it had struck the top of the wall, instead making it a ground-rule double. Hernandez was the interim crew chief that day, so it was his job to leave the field, retreat to a tiny closet in the bowels of the stadium and study a grainy replay. Hernandez needed “clear and convincing evidence” to overturn the ruling on the field, which was impossible on the replay closet’s 17-inch Panasonic monitor, so he didn’t overturn it. Upholding the wrong call was the right call, but he still was slaughtered for it. From then on, Hernandez was considered one of those embittered, antiquated umps who seethed at having to admit he was wrong, even when we all could see it with our own eyes, thanks to our vastly superior technology at home.
Long before this episode, though, Hernandez had become known around the league for seeming a bit too eager to mix it up with players and managers, for making nitpicky calls, for drawing attention to himself, a critique that keeps popping up in media accounts from the era and even in his performance evaluations from his bosses at M.L.B. He and West were kindred spirits, old-school hard-liners, and the older-school hard-liners who had tutored them were blunt about the rules of engagement with players: “You don’t trust any of ’em,” says Scott, who published a memoir last year called “The Umpire Is Out,” chronicling his career through this era as a mostly closeted gay umpire in the big leagues. “They’re all out to get you.” This seemed to come naturally to Hernandez. “Some of the Latin umpires and the Latin players would joke around with him,” West told me. “He didn’t do any of that, and so right away, that was a strike against him, as far as the players are concerned.” It was a strike in his favor, as far as Joe West was concerned. “There is no gray matter in Angel Hernandez. It’s either black or it’s white — period,” he told me. He meant “gray area,” of course, but that’s how things always seem to go for Hernandez — even compliments have a way of backfiring on him.
West was Hernandez’s crew chief for about five years, until July 2011, when the league took the irregular step of splitting up a crew midseason because, according to West’s account of the explanation he received from M.L.B., the duo were “too strong together.” The league declined to comment, but the evidence in the moment suggests it was because they were tossing guys out of games as if they were throwing fish in Seattle. In the eight days leading up to the All-Star break, they had five ejections, four of which were by Hernandez. “There’s a difference between handling a situation with an ejection, and having an ejection and mishandling a situation,” Reynolds says. “And if your first thing was just to take the revolver out and start shooting, or getting to that point where [players say], ‘You can’t talk to this guy,’ ‘This guy’s not listening,’ ‘This guy’s looking for a problem’ — once you develop that reputation, it’s hard to come back from it.” (Reynolds was recently rehired by M.L.B. as an umpire supervisor.)
Ron Darling spent every pitch of his 13-year career negotiating the semi-haphazard strike zones of M.L.B. umpires, but his father was a high school umpire, and he witnessed the abuse his dad absorbed, so he has a deep respect for them. The discourse around Hernandez, he says, “has gotten to a point where if he was perfect for five games, no one would give him any credit. I think he’s stuck in, like, a time warp, you know? He’s stuck being authoritarian in a game that rarely demands it anymore.”
Hernandez has been a full-time M.L.B. umpire since 1993, but unlike many of his peers with similar résumés, he has never been promoted to crew chief, despite applying countless times. Baseball fans familiar with his work might see a logical cause and effect here, but Hernandez, a Havana-born Cuban American who has long been one of M.L.B.’s few nonwhite umpires, has a different explanation for why he keeps being passed over. In July 2017, he filed a lawsuit against the league claiming that he was repeatedly denied promotion to crew chief between 2011 and 2016 because of his race. (Through his attorney, Hernandez declined to comment for this article.) In one narrow respect, his case has always been a slam dunk: At the time of its filing, the total number of Black crew chiefs in the history of baseball was still zero, and the number of Hispanic crew chiefs was one, Richie Garcia. Baseball didn’t even hire its first Black crew chief, Kerwin Danley, until February 2020.
In Hernandez’s complaint, though, he singles out one person in particular for blame: Joe Torre, the Hall of Fame former manager of the New York Yankees, who was M.L.B.’s senior executive in charge of the umpires during the period covered by the lawsuit. Torre joined the league office in 2011 with a mandate to oversee the expansion of baseball’s replay review, which means Torre was Hernandez’s boss on the night of that fateful blown call in Cleveland. In the lawsuit, Hernandez accuses Torre of putting his reputation on a path to ruin, all because of a vendetta dating back to their clashes when Torre was managing the Yankees. The steep legal challenge for Hernandez has been that he must prove that the league’s decision not to promote him was motivated specifically by racial animus, and so far he has not succeeded. After sitting on his case for nearly four years, the 2nd Circuit tossed it out in 2021, and he has been waiting since last summer for a ruling on his appeal. In the meantime, he applied for crew chief again this winter, when an unprecedented seven jobs were open, and again he was not selected.
Oh, what the heck — let’s make this even harder on the umps. Along with all the new rules, new umpires, new crew chiefs, the World Baseball Classic — the sport’s actual world series, held for the first time since 2017 in March and won by Japan in a thrilling finale over Team U.S.A. — took a multiweek bite out of spring training for dozens of the league’s best players, and for several of its most decorated umps. Just as Iassogna was getting accustomed to the pitch clock, he was on a plane to Taiwan to call W.B.C. games without it again.
It had been only a couple of weeks, just a few turns behind the plate for each ump, but the difference on the field was staggering. Even before folks scattered around the globe for the early rounds of the W.B.C., the data from spring training was confirming the league’s expectations. A game between the Mets and the Washington Nationals that featured 14 pitchers, 17 runs and 33 base runners wrapped up in 2 hours 23 minutes — which feels like about 2 hours 23 minutes less than it would’ve taken last season. The pace of play at the W.B.C. games, meanwhile, was “significantly slower,” Iassogna told me upon returning home. “Many of the players joked with us about needing the clock because the flow of the game was so much slower than what they were seeing back in the States.” They missed it already. The umps did, too, if maybe not quite as much. As predicted, Tichenor texted me, the pitch clock meant that there was “really no downtime, hardly a spot for a drink of water, but then boom” — the game’s over. “So you get that water when it’s done. Ha-ha.” They sure do love getting off the field in under four hours, though, and they’ll love it even more come late July, when temperatures start topping 100 degrees.
The one stress test these new rules haven’t faced yet is genuine high stakes: a pennant race, a playoff game, the final out of a World Series. Stakes create tension, and tension needs outlets. For now, baseball is basking in a rare moment of consensus. Players, managers and umpires seem to have a shared esprit de corps, united by a sense that something critical to the game has been fixed. Don’t get too weirded-out, though. Soon enough, they’ll be bickering over what exactly it means for the batter to be “alert to the pitcher.” Some ump somewhere will be getting crushed for something, and odds are he won’t deserve it. The natural order will be restored. Some things about baseball will never change.
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