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Bad Calls

Politesse and pine tar.

Something subtle and subversive is happening in the world of sports. Tennis--once the game of the nobility (the Dauphin's gift of tennis balls to Henry V was the prelude to Agincourt)--is being progressively vulgarized. The first sign of change was the advent of clay courts as a substitute for grass, followed by ground stone, cement, and Har-Tru, which is neither hard nor true. A second sign was the gradual abandonment of classical whites and their replacement first by colored shorts, shirts, and dresses; then by outfits adorned by the crocodile of commerce; finally by garments so festooned with corporate logos that they serve merely as media of advertising. Then came the changes in court behavior and in language. The stoical acceptance of bad calls was replaced by frowns, shakes of the head, and sarcastic double-takes. Marginally obscene and clearly disrespectful hand gestures were tested by players like Ilie Nastase and Jimmy Connors. John McEnroe has changed the medium of expression from hand to mouth: he employs not only lip movements, like those of Mayor Daley at the Chicago Convention in 1968, but also audibles, and he questions not only the eyesight of various linesmen and women, referees, and other tennis officials, but also their intelligence and integrity. Misbehavior on the courts has spread to the crowds, which, through applause, cheers, and boos, manifest partisan attitudes and even national prejudices. Worse, there is applause not only for great strokes but also for disgraceful failures.

Of course, I care little about what happens to tennis, which is fundamentally a game for Australians. What bothers me is the reverse process, which has been going on contemporaneously. I refer to the progressive (or regressive) refinement of baseball--not yet in the way it is played, but in the marginalia of the game, especially the relationship of umpires to players, managers, and coaches.

What is happening was clearly demonstrated--brought to a head, one might say--in a recent confrontation between various members of the Baltimore Orioles team and an umpire.

The conflict was ignited by a third strike called on Eddie Murray, the Orioles' first baseman and cleanup hitter. After the strike was called, Eddie, who perhaps was a little edgy because he had also struck out in his previous appearance at bat, was slow in leaving the batter's box. The umpire, it seems, interpreted this dilatory behavior as a challenge to his call, and proceeded to suggest that Eddie get at least one part of his anatomy out of the batter's box so that the game might go on.

At this point, according to reports, Eddie became greatly offended, not so much at the called strike, bad as that might have been, but at the language used by the umpire. The Orioles' shortstop, Cal Ripken Jr., who had struck out just ahead of Murray, evidently also heard the bad language and came out of the dugout to join in the discussion. By this time Eddie Murray himself had been waved out of the game. Ripken was saved by his father, Cal Ripken Sr., an Oriole coach who nobly interposed himself between his son and ejection, only to be thrown out of the game himself. By this time, the manager, Joe Altobelli, apparently afraid that he was on the point of losing his whole team, including the coaching staff, joined the fray. He said something to the umpire and was directed to the dressing room. The game was subsequently rained out. None of the achievements of the players will stand in the record. Possibly the commissioner of baseball will rule that the altercation, too, is wiped out.

The lesson remains, however. Talk is dangerous in baseball, and it always has been. Today, however, mere gestures can get players, managers, umpires, and others on the baseball field into trouble. This was not always so. The sensitivity level of baseball personnel seems to have reached a new high. Feelings, it seems, are easily hurt. Psychological damage threatens.

In the Great Soo League, in which I played, we were always careful about language. One might verbally suggest that an umpire had physical limitations, partial blindness, or deafness, to the point of being unable to distinguish between the sound of the ball striking a first baseman's mitt and the sound of the runner's shoe on the bag in a close play at first; but to doubt an umpire's intelligence was a sure ticket to the dressing room. Far better simply to accuse the umpire of being in the pay of the other team. (In this respect the Great Soo League was like the British Parliament, where it is tolerated for one member to question the integrity, but not the intelligence, of another, and unlike the U.S. Congress, where precisely the reverse is true.) Umpires, in their turn, were quite unrestrained in commenting on a hitter's inability either to see or to hit a curve ball.

All this is changing. George Steinbrenner, owner of the Yankees, was fined for suggesting that National League umpires favor National League players in interleague play. Possibly they do, because it is reported that the strike zone used by umpires in that league is lower than that used in the American League.

McEnroe could smite the sacred sod of Wimbledon with his racquet, and with impunity. Yet baseball managers get thrown out for kicking dust on home plate or in the direction of an umpire. If this trend continues, Bowie Kuhn, the commissioner, may have to order players, managers, umpires, and others to carry a catalog of approved gestures.

The practices of the Great Soo League might serve as a good guide. After a called third strike, possibly after a second one, a batter might flip his bat endwise in his hands, and with the handle end draw a line in the dirt some inches from the plate, to indicate where he thought the ball had been thrown. One player known as a wit would step out of the box after a low strike had been called on him, and roll his pants down, so as to lower his knee level. (Baseball pants were more easily adjusted in the days before stretch weaves.) If called out on a third strike which he thought too low, he would leave the scene in a crouch with his knees close to the ground, or, if called out on a high pitch, walk off on tiptoe, suggesting that he was very tall. This same batter once emerged from the dugout to take his warm-up swings holding, along with his bat, a white cane, which he handed to the batboy before stepping into the batter's box. He was not ejected for any of these signs. Only the choke sign, the thumb to nose, and the raised middle finger (a gesture of Spanish origin) were forbidden.

It is curious that the trend to refinement of manners and delicacy of gesture should be accompanied by the collapse of respect for codified law, as exemplified by the action of Lee MacPhail, president of the American League, in his reversal of an umpire's decision in the George Brett pine tar bat case. George's bat was covered with pine tar for twenty-four inches from the handle end, well into the label area. The rules of baseball are not guidelines to be interpreted in the light of situational ethics. They are rules, and they are clear. Rule 110(b), for example, specifies that the bat may have up to eighteen inches of pine tar and no more. This rule makes it clear that a ball batted with an illegal bat is an illegally batted ball. A batter who bats the ball with an illegal bat is to be called out. The umpire quite rightly called George Brett out, thus nullifying his hit--as it happened, a home run with a man on base, which would have put his team, the Kansas City Royals, ahead of the Yankees by one run in the ninth inning. MacPhail restored the phantom home run, arguing that the purpose of the rule was to keep the ball clean, and that since the ball had been hit out of the park, the rule had ceased to be operative. MacPhail says that baseball games have to be won or lost on the playing field. Yet this game was lost on the field and then won in MacPhail's office.

Guided by this precedent, MacPhail may now be expected to overrule umpires who call base runners out on home runs hit out of the park when they are found not to have touched the base in making their rounds. He might rule that it is enough for the runner to break the plane of the base (as in football, in which touchdowns are scored by breaking the plane of the goal line), or that a runner who is called out for leaving a base before a fly ball is caught should not be called out on the assumption that he could have beaten the throw even if he had waited until the ball was caught. MacPhail's ruling has been made to look especially bad in contrast to the action of the authorities of this year's Canadian Open Golf tournament, who added two strokes to the score of Andy Bean because he putted (successfully) with the wrong end of his putter. (The golf ruling may have been necessary to keep golfers from lying down on the green and using their putters like pool cues.) MacPhail has offended greatly. Evidently he is unaware that one who reverses an umpire s decision in baseball comes very close to ignoring the medieval religious warning not to question the umpirage of the Holy Ghost.

I am not ready for despair. Baseball will survive. In the face of adversity, the game will be sustained by the faith and love recently expressed by that great player and poet, Ernie Banks, who said something memorable just as this year's old-timers' game (played on the afternoon of July 5, at Wrigley Field, where night games are not tolerated) was drawing to a close after the usual nine innings. "Why don't we play until it's dark?" Ernie Banks said. "We don't have anyplace else to go."

Old baseball players should neither die nor fade away, but just play on until it gets dark.

Eugene J. McCarthy writes annually, and sometimes more often, about baseball for TNR.

By Eugene J. McCarthy