The idea, from the very beginning, was for umpires, referees and all officials to serve as policemen in the competitive arena. They were there to protect and to serve, to maintain order and calm. They were to be, above all else, worthy of our trust.
But today, as the NBA Finals are set to begin and baseball enters the middle stages of another long season, we now have greater cause than ever to wonder about our boys in blue. Where have all the good men gone? From Tim Donaghy and Ed Rush to Jim Joyce, Dale Scott and Joe West, blown calls are piling up like manufactured traffic violations at the end of the latest month. Maybe the officials are all trying to meet their quota. Maybe they are merely in a slump. Or maybe there are far greater problems than most would care to acknowledge, instant replay now hurting officials more than helping them in an age when high definition can reveal every misstep in excruciating detail.
Add in some of the needless theatrics and inexcusable stubbornness, and what you have is a deterioration of public trust.
As any player, coach or manager would be the first to tell you, after all, professional sports are a results-oriented business.
"I just cost that kid a perfect game. I thought he beat the throw. I was convinced he beat the throw - until I saw the replay," a deeply regretful Jim Joyce told reporters last night in Detroit, where he simply whiffed on a call that deprived Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga of a once-in-10 lifetimes achievement, a perfect game.
Added the self-flagellating umpire: "I don't blame them a bit or anything that was said. I would've said it myself if I had been Galarraga. I would've been the first person in my face, and he never said a word to me."
Others did. More will. And the simple truth is that Joyce (almost universally described as good umpire) deserves all of it for a colossal blunder of historic proportion that may help deliver our trust in officiating to an all-time low, regardless of whether he should be held accountable for the sins of his brethren.
Remember West, the man who publicly scolded the Red Sox and Yankees for painfully slow play? Last week he was in the middle of it again, this time in Chicago, where he publicly jousted with White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen and pitcher Mark Buehrle. (Buehrle suggested, like many, that West enjoys the spotlight a little too much.)
Remember Scott, who umpired at Fenway Park in May? He so badly botched a called third strike against David Ortiz in the ninth inning of a close game – the pitch was about eight inches outside – that Dustin Pedroia openly wondered whether Scott had a plane to catch. That all came after a postseason in which umpires seemed to mangle one call after the next, leading one to wonder whether technology is making the officiating better or worse.
And then, of course, there is the NBA, where a convicted felon (Donaghy) has been making the tour of Boston sports radio stations of late to both promote his book and cast further suspicion on the NBA refereeing corps. Ask Kendrick Perkins about this. Or Rasheed Wallace. Or anyone who has watched an NBA game since, well, ever. In Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals last week between the Celtics and Orlando Magic, the Celtics lost the services of Perkins for the entire second half when he was issued a second technical foul. A day later, the NBA rescinded one of Perkins’ technicals so as to prevent him from suffering a mandatory one-game suspension, but the Celtics are still waiting to get a refund on the 24 minutes that the refs stole from them in the second half of Game 5.
Before any pitiful Boston sports follower turns this into some conspiracy theory – we wuz robbed remain the most shameful words in sports – do us all a favor and stop. The Red Sox might very well have lost to the Blue Jays despite Scott’s apparent blindness and the Celtics might very well have lost Game 5 despite the temporary insanity of Rush and Co. That is hardly the issue. The far greater point is that umpires and referees are becoming the story far too frequently during a time when their jobs should be easier than ever, which can only make us wonder about their attitudes, work ethic and, in some cases, integrity.
In the name of Ben Dreith, Larry Barnett and Andy van Hellemond, what the heck is going on here?
Galarraga, to his credit, handled last night’s gaffe with extraordinary dignity, somehow managing to shrug off Joyce’s blunder as what it ultimately was, an honest mistake. Again, that is hardly the point. Tigers manager Jim Leyland referred to Joyce as "a good umpire" following last night’s game, though his tone did little to conceal the frustration he felt for his young righthander. In that way, Leyland spoke for an entire legion of sports fans who have grown understandably skeptical and cynical with regard to the officiating, whether it has taken place on the diamond, gridiron, ice or court.
Jim Joyce might very well be a good guy and a good ump.
But in the eyes of the public, at a time when corruption has been proven to run deep, even the men in blue cannot be trusted anymore.
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