Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Does Baseball Need Umpires

During Friday's playoff game at Yankee Stadium, Joe Mauer of the Minnesota Twins hit an 11th-inning fly ball down the left-field line that landed clearly fair, a foot inside the line. As millions looked on, umpire Phil Cuzzi, who was standing just 10 feet away, fixed his eyes on the spot and gave his signal: Foul.

This blown call wasn't the only reason the Twins lost the game. They were eventually swept by the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series. But all anyone could talk about was Mr. Cuzzi's gaffe.

Once again in baseball's postseason, a spate of bad calls has turned the focus away from the excitement of October to the competence of the umpires. And like always, the debate has turned to why the men in blue might be prone to making such big mistakes (Are they blind?) and whether there's anything that can be done.

But amid all the yelling, there's another fundamental question that is oddly absent from the debate. Why are there so many umpires in the first place? And do we really need so many of them?

If an institution is only as strong as its founding principles, then the grand tradition of umpiring would be ripe for reexamination. Umpires weren't introduced to baseball to improve the accuracy of calls—they were brought in during the 19th century to cut down on rampant cheating. Historians say players routinely pushed base runners off base, then tagged them out. Runners would occasionally run straight from first to third without touching second.

Eventually, cheating tailed off—but the umpires remained. In fact, they multiplied. In the early days, one umpire was the norm, and that person was chosen by the home team. By the 1930s baseball crews were assigned by the leagues and had three umpires each. The modern, regular-season umpire crew, which has four members, dates from the 1940s—long before television entered the game.

Oddly, in the postseason, when there are even more cameras trained on the field, the number of umpires also expands—to six. This number, too, is a bit of a relic. It came about in 1947 when then-commissioner Happy Chandler decided that the two substitute umpires who usually came to World Series games might as well take the field, too. (What could it hurt?) They were inserted in the outfield.

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