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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Bad Umpires vs. Good Players?

I set out this morning to write an homage to Cliff Lee, but in all honesty, words fail me. There was nothing I could say which was tantamount to the apathetic look on his face when he caught Johnny Damon's pop-up in the sixth inning or the sense of inevitability which followed his nonchalant tag of Jorge Posada in the following frame. As he patted Posada on the ass, almost as though it was a second thought (which actually secured the out), he seemed to be saying, "I'm sorry. I know I've made y'all look silly on baseball's biggest stage this evening. I can't help it. You'll get 'em next time, Tiger."

There were a couple moments in the ninth when it appeared that he used the gesture of blowing on his cold hands to disguise a yawn. He was just "getting his work in," playing catch, completely immune to the anxiety-provoking aura of the World Series and the cutthroat mentality of a sold-out Yankee Stadium crowd. In the bottom of the seventh, when it was still a very close game, many Yankees fans, each of whom endured the rain and cold, and must have paid hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, for their seats, had already departed, recognizing that a two run deficit against this guy was frankly insurmountable.

Instead, I'd like to direct your attention to a column by Bill Baer at Baseball Daily Digest, responding to some fascinating excerpts published by Deadspin yesterday, from Tim Donaghy's unpublished prison confessional (Donaghy, the former NBA ref and degenerate gambler, it must be said, is not a source which inspires confidence). Baer makes the excellent point, one which has implications upon the rash of bad calls which have sparked debate this postseason (including some suggestions that the umpires have displayed big-market biases): MLB umpires do not have nearly as much power over their game as NBA referees.

Last night, when it appeared at times that Gerry Davis's strike zone for Cliff Lee was shrinking, while that for the Yankees, especially in the eighth and ninth, was expanding, it was completely without consequence. Throughout the playoffs, there have been an unusual number of "suspicious" calls, yet in almost every case they have had little or no impact on the outcome of the game and the series. And in many games their have been bad calls going in both directions. Let's face it, if Bud Selig's office was (like David Stern's according to Donaghy) endorsing certain teams in playoff series based on a quest for higher ratings (and I wouldn't put it past them), than they would've wanted Boston to beat the Angels in the ALDS and the Dodgers to beat the Phillies in the NLCS, neither of which came close to happening. No amount of favorable umpiring could've overcome the dominance displayed by Los Angeles and Philadelphia in those series. And no amount of New York favoritism could've overcome the dominance of Cliff Lee last night. In a game which resists cheating (short of Black Sox-style conspiracy), it seems unlikely that Selig, the umpires, or anybody else would risk their reputations for a desired outcome which would still be very much in question.

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