MIKE BURKE

Allegany Radio Corporation Sports

Not long after I had seconded Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez’s taking exception to the ball-strike calling aptitude of a particular home-plate umpire last week, a friend asked me a question and offered a few comments as well.

“Mike, have you ever umpired a game behind the plate?”

I have not. Nor have I been President of the United States, but I get a vote.

“Calling balls and strikes is one of the hardest things to do,” my friend continued; and I agree with him. It’s not easy by any means, particularly at the big-league level. As Jimmy Dugan once said, “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard … is what makes it great.”

That is why Major League Baseball umpires are well-paid union members. Not only is the work hard, it is a skill — just as being a Major League Baseball player is hard work, and is a skill.

“I believe your comments about umps are not very professional,” my friend continued. “Put the gear on and try it sometime. I would love to watch.”

I informed my friend that the moment I agree to put on the gear, he will be the first to know. I’m informing him now that he shouldn’t hold his breath.

I don’t disagree with anything my friend said to me, other than his suggestion that my questioning a big-league umpire for having a very questionable strike zone is not very professional on my part.

Look, I’ve been called unprofessional before in over 40 years of doing this and, perhaps (maybe), I would even agree with the assessment on a couple of occasions in that time. But this is not one of those occasions.

After all, I’m not the one who went on to the field and did a belly-flop behind home plate to demonstrate just how shaky that particular umpire’s strike zone was. That was Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez who did that. All I did was agree with him.

Yes, umpires are well paid, as they should be, for doing a thankless job and a near impossible job. As the great umpire Nestor Chylak said, “They expect an umpire to be perfect on Opening Day and to improve as the season goes on.”

(Same with the Fort Hill football coach.)

While it is a very effective quote by Chylak, I don’t believe anyone expects perfection from umpires, then expects improvement on perfection from umpires, because nobody is perfect. Although replays do show just how close to perfect umpires truly are – other than, recently, calling balls and strikes.

I believe the only thing the players and the fans expect is for an umpire to establish his strike zone at the beginning of each game and to stay consistent with that strike zone for the entire game.

That certainly was not the case last week during the Nationals-Diamondbacks game when the otherwise calm Martinez felt compelled to leave the dugout to belly-flop at home plate to make his point. Nor was it the case this past Monday night when the Nationals lost to the Mariners with the tie run at the plate as a pitch that was very low and very outside was called strike three to end the game.

Consistency is not the case in most games, regardless of who is playing.

The home-plate umpire’s strike zone dictates the tempo of every single game. As Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer said early in the Orioles’ game on Tuesday night, “No sense in being visibly upset (with the umpire). Doesn’t do any good. The umpire is calling his strike zone.”

Agreed.

Yet in the seventh inning of the same game, Palmer was openly wondering how a batter could possibly go up there to hit when, after seven innings, he has no idea what the strike zone is.

How can the pitcher do his job when he has no idea what the strike zone is?

Simple. It’s on the umpire for every batter and for every pitcher to know what the strike zone is. Regardless of what an umpire’s strike zone is, he must establish it and stick with it so both the pitchers and the batters know what to recognize, how to prepare for it and then have a fair chance to do their jobs.

Umpiring is hard. It’s very hard. Hitting a baseball and pitching a baseball is even harder. It’s even more difficult when neither the hitter nor the pitcher knows what the strike zone is seven innings into a nine-inning game.

What’s even more difficult is when the umpires, whose job it is to establish the strike zone, don’t seem to know themselves.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT