That noise you heard late Friday morning was the sound of dozens of major league ballplayers exchanging imaginary high-fives – or “DM-ing,” as such exchanges are called in the Age of Twitter – at the news that the league had suspended umpire Bob Davidson for one game for the vague offense of “repeated violations” of baseball’s “standards for situation handling.”
As punishment goes, the suspension was barely worth mentioning. Davidson was to sit out his one game Friday night, replaced by a minor-league call-up, and no one but the uniformed personnel on the field and in the dugout would notice.
But in terms of symbolism, the league’s decision to suspend Davidson was monumental. It is believed to be the first time MLB has suspended an umpire for doing his job poorly; at the very least, it is the first time the league has announced such a thing.
The incident that ultimately got Davidson suspended was Tuesday’s expletive-laced ejection of Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel (who, it should be noted, received a one-game suspension for a separate umpire confrontation in the same game).
But around the game, Davidson (nicknamed “Balkin’ Bob” for his propensity for invoking one of the game’s most subjective and contentious rules) is notorious for his uncanny ability to take any garden-variety argument and — apparently through some combination of quick temper and thin skin — escalate it into a confrontation. Privately, many in the game have seethed at what they view as Davidson’s “grandstanding” and lack of professionalism.
Earlier this year, in a poll of players by Sports Illustrated, Davidson ranked as the fourth-worst umpire in the game.
Still, the bigger takeaway from this suspension is the notion of accountability. Obviously, umpires are constantly evaluated internally by league officials. But the players’ biggest beef with the game’s umpiring system is the lack of transparency and public accountability when it comes to the umps’ performances. After all, if a player fails to perform, it is visible to all, and there are serious consequences for his career.
Umpire-player (and umpire-manager) relations have been in the news far too often lately, most recently with the helmet-tossing episode involving Toronto’s Brett Lawrie, who wound up with a four-game suspension when his thrown helmet bounced off umpire Bill Miller.
Yes, Lawrie’s actions were inexcusable, but Miller’s strike zone during the sequence of pitches that led to the confrontation was atrocious, and while Lawrie gets rung up with a strikeout in the box score, Miller gets off scot-free.
Baseball would be better off if umpires were held to a higher degree of public accountability, and with the decision to suspend Bob Davidson — and more importantly, to announce it publicly — MLB has taken an important first step.