The Ump Show
BY DEB SEYMOUR
We’ve all seen the social media memes and T-shirts and posters and cartoons saying, “Just Here for the Ump Show.”
And, in fact, from 2009-2010 two fans in Toronto (Tim Williams and Joe Farrell) started dressing up in unlicensed umpire attire and sitting directly behind home plate for many games – mimicking the actual home plate umpire making his calls. It was a riot and we all thought it was hilarious; and even the umpires thought their act, with its exaggerated gestures and expressions, was pretty funny.
Several umpires even met the two for dinner after games, and in turn the pair have raised money for MLB umpire charities.
Williams and Farrell brought back their act for a single Mets-Giants game in 2015 at CitiField; and then again in Toronto in 2021, post-empty-stadium pandemic season, while the Blue Jays were in the thick of a playoff race. In 2021, they even added an item to their repertoire – instant replay headsets.
What Williams and Farrell have brought to the game is quite literally an ump show, and it’s been entertaining, to say the least.
But when most fans and media members refer to an “ump show,” they aren’t referring to a comedy act like the one from Rogers Centre in Toronto; they’re referring to umpire behavior on the field – behavior that draws more attention to the umpire(s) than to the game itself.
Being an MLB umpire is by no means an easy job. At times you have to make calls that are unpopular with managers, players, coaches, or fans. Let alone the media. When you have the plate these days, (as we’ve written about in other BallNine stories) you even get graded on your strike zone. And you know what? That can’t be fun.
There are instances in which you make the call to throw out a manager or a coach from the game. There are instances in which you consider it appropriate to toss a pitcher or a player from the game. Or even a fan – although that usually falls to ballpark security.
You might get boo’s rained down upon you nightly. You might make an unreviewable call that changes the entire course of a game, and get it wrong. And you have to live with that for the rest of your life.
And we haven’t even yet mentioned all the travel involved, nor the need to get along with your umpiring peers, nor the responsibility, if you’re the crew chief, to sometimes overrule your own fellow umpire(s) mid-game.
In addition, as an umpire, you most likely don’t get to take your family with you as you travel from city to city, although MLB players and coaches often do. It’s a very different life from that of a player or coach.
And the salary range for all this is not in the millions, as it is for just about everyone else on the field or in the dugout. The average MLB umpire’s 2023 season salary is $235,000. The rookie umpire’s salary is $150,000, whereas an experienced umpire makes $450,000 annually.
So on the one hand, it’s not surprising that we still have the ump show from time to time. Yet on the other hand, these men are trained professionals; and thus they need to tread carefully the line between making the game about the players, and making the game about themselves.
And here is where we come to that uncomfortable little expression “umpire discretion.” There are times when umpires use that discretion and are later accused of causing an ump show, and there are times when perhaps they should be allowed to use that discretion – but they aren’t or simply don’t.
Thirteen years ago, on June 2, 2010, Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga threw what was actually a perfect game – and yet, with two outs in the ninth inning, umpire Jim Joyce missed a call on a ground ball at first base, and called (then Indians) player Jason Donald safe; although replay showed Donald was clearly out.
Many of us watching the game at home on TV could see even in real time that Donald was out – but being on the field and making the call is very different from getting the view via a camera angle on your TV at home.
Jim Leyland, Tigers manager at the time, protested the call, but Joyce’s decision was not overturned by the umpiring crew. Galarraga indeed got the final out; but he ended up pitching a 28-out game, when it should have been a 27-out game – and a perfect game, at that.
The next day, Jim Joyce admitted he’d gotten the call wrong, and was extremely contrite. But MLB refused to overturn the call even after the fact, and Galarraga was never awarded the 21st perfect game in MLB history.
Joyce’s blown call will go down in history as one of the worst ever in the game, but it was at the umpire’s discretion to make the call and stick by it. The Galarraga almost perfecto was one of the impetuses for the appeals process and instant replay that were shortly thereafter introduced into today’s game – but it’s still kind of sad a young pitcher lost his place in history because an umpire saw the play differently from how it actually happened, and refused to change his initial ruling.
And yet, that’s all part of the human element of the game. Remember, as we’ve often said at BallNine, if the so-called robot ump technology (the Automated Ball-Strike System, or ABS) is ever perfected enough to introduce it into MLB, a goodly chunk of the human element present in the game will disappear. And that has both good implications, and not-so-good implications.
Last Thursday, the Mets completed a series sweep of the Phillies with veteran starting pitcher Max Scherzer on the mound; and as anyone who’s familiar with Max Scherzer’s media relationship knows, he’s one pitcher who’s not afraid to open up and tell you exactly what he REALLY thinks.
As Scherzer was warming up on the mound for the fifth inning, he ran into a close call pitch clock violation. Rookie catcher Francisco Alvarez tried to speed up Scherzer’s warmup throwing routine, but Scherzer didn’t notice until umpire Tripp Gibson cut off the warmup tosses and told Scherzer he had to be ready to start the inning. Scherzer had already thrown seven of the eight between-inning warmup pitches a pitcher is allowed, but he was denied the eighth.
After the game, Scherzer had the following to say:
“Look, I’m doing my normal routine,” Scherzer said. “Why do we need to step through the game and have the umpire change routines when it’s not my fault, with what’s going on here? I’m talking to Tripp, and he’s sitting there saying, ‘I can’t do anything about it, because if I let you throw the pitch …’ (then MLB accuses the umpire of disobeying the rules).
“This goes back to: Why do we need a pitch clock for that situation? If I throw one more pitch, what, I’m one second slower? Why can’t the umpire have discretion, in that situation, to allow a pitcher to throw his eight normal warmup pitches? Why do we have to be so anal about this, to have the clock shoved into everybody’s face and try to stomp out every single little second that’s going through the game?”
Scherzer said the experience was “frustrating,” for both himself and the umpires. “Tripp’s handcuffed. Why is Tripp handcuffed, to not allow something normal – a normal routine, just a normal routine – why can’t Tripp make that call?… The umpires are frustrated, as we are, that the game’s not normal; that we’re just living and dying by the clock.”
Max Scherzer #21 of the New York Mets watches the game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on May 12, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)
So here we have the perfect example of an umpire NOT causing an ump show, but actually playing strictly by MLB’s new pitch clock rules, and NOT using umpire discretion, because he feels MLB will not allow him to do so; and yet the pitcher is upset anyway.
The majority of the times I’ve personally seen people refer to an occurrence on the field as an ump show, it’s been when an umpire appears to be badly missing ball-strike calls and tosses those complaining from their respective dugout(s). But there are other times umps seem to take their role just a little too seriously – and seem to overreact and insert themselves into the game in a way that many viewers deem just “over the top.”
The flip side of all this, of course, is when players or coaches seem to undermine the umpire’s authority; and one of the most egregious cases of this over the past thirty years occurred in 1996, when Orioles second baseman Roberto Alomar spat in the face of umpire John Hirschbeck – on a called third strike in a game against the Blue Jays in Toronto.
It was clear there were some very nasty insults being slung in both directions. Alomar was tossed by Hirschbeck, manager Davey Johnson then came out to defend his player, and Alomar proceeded to spit on Hirschbeck before leaving the field for the dugout runway.
There were some publicly staged apologies on both sides after the incident, which carried over to the next day; and Alomar received a five-game suspension for what he did on the field – but after the fact, both men admitted they’d never be able to live down what occurred in the heat of the moment and in its aftermath.
This season, Yankee manager Aaron Boone was thrown out of a game twice in one week; and Boone received a one-game suspension for what he termed an “accidental” spitting incident, as well.
Umpires have to maintain a tough balancing act on a daily basis during the season. But as in any other sport, no one wants the referee to become more important than the actual game. No one really wants an ump show – not even the umpires.
*Photo of Tim Williams and Joe Farrell sourced from the Daily Hive: https://dailyhive.com/vancouver/meet-fake-umpires-fans-blue-jays-games