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Who needs umpires?

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  April 14, 2009 08:56 PM

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OAKLAND, Calif. -- And so now that Josh Beckett has a six-game suspension, we cannot help but wonder: Why does baseball have umpires anymore? Why bother with them at all? Why not police the game from New York, from a room with glass walls, aided by QuesTec and instant replay and the innate ability to distinguish right from wrong?

In case you missed it, Beckett was issued a six-game suspension this afternoon by Major League Baseball disciplinary dean Bob Watson in the wake of Sunday’s first-inning incident between the Sox and Los Angeles Angels. With one out and Chone Figgins on second base, Beckett came to the set and checked the runner. As his head was turned from the plate, Bobby Abreu asked for time. Beckett started his delivery and finally turned to the plate, and by the time he looked toward home, umpire Joe West was waving his arms wildly.

Beckett delivered the ball anyway, firing a fastball that whistled past Abreu’s head and caused both dugouts to empty.

Twice.

In the wake of all that, here is what home plate umpire, crew chief and 32-year umpiring veteran West did to the ace of the Red Sox: nothing. West heard the shouts between Beckett and Abreu, saw Angels reliever Justin Speier act like Tanyon Sturtze overdosed on testosterone. West didn’t seem to lose control of the game so much as Angels manager Mike Scioscia seemed to lose control of his team. While the Angels kicked and screamed like crazy men, Sox manager Terry Francona calmly urged his players to stay back, remain under control, keep their sanity.

In the end, four uniformed members of the Angels were ejected, from Scioscia to hitting coach Mickey Hatcher to Speier and Angels outfielder Torii Hunter. Beckett got to stay. So did Abreu. The Angels went on to a 5-4 victory in nine intensely contested innings of an April series that felt more like a meeting in October.

Today, two days after the fact, Watson decided that Beckett deserved a six-game suspension, ensuring he will miss one start, which doesn’t seem to make any sense at all given West’s public testimony on Sunday afternoon.

"Did he throw it up and in? Yeah,’’ West told a pool reporter. "Do we believe he threw it at Abreu? No. Would we have warned him had both benches not emptied? Probably not, but because both benches emptied, we did issue a warning.’’

And it was over.

Or so we all thought.

In the interest of fairness, let’s look at this from the Angels’ side for a moment. Like most every ace power pitcher from Bob Gibson to Pedro Martinez, Beckett stands on the mound like he owns it. His swagger is part of his act. Beckett throws hard and he throws inside. Over the course of his career, he has hit one batter roughly every four starts.

But a headhunter? No, no, no. A thousand times no. To opponents, especially, Beckett comes off as brash and cocky, reckless and nasty. It is one more reason to like him if he is on your side. On Sunday, the Angels seemed to act toward Beckett the way the New York Yankees once responded to Martinez, and you cannot help but wonder how much of a stink the Angels made with the league office on Monday.

"We were pretty shocked,’’ Beckett, who immediately appealed the decision, told reporters prior to tonight’s game between the Sox and Oakland A’s at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. "I think the appeal kind of speaks for everything that we feel.’’

In sports now, here is the problem: the human element seems to count for less and less. Armed with the necessary formulas and software, it seems just about anyone can build a team. All you have to do is plug in the numbers and wait for the printout. If the performance on the field fails to correspond, it is the result of either a statistical deviation or a defective microprocessor.

Now, has it really reached the point where umpires have no purpose whatsoever? Balls and strikes are reviewed with digital technology. Home runs are checked with instant replay. And now human disputes are dissected from thousands of miles away, after the fact, contradicting the opinions of those with the responsibility of keeping order, of officials WHO WERE THERE.

Next month, the Red Sox go back to Angel Stadium in Anaheim.

Not so long ago, if the umpires didn’t take care of such things, the players would have done it themselves.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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